Open-source software is gaining ground with governments in Europe and elsewhere, as officials look for ways to cut IT expenses and free themselves of dependence on U.S.-based vendors. This isn't a short-term phenomenon. It's a worldwide movement, and there are a lot of reasons behind it.
Governments are concerned about proprietary lock-in on things as basic as document and spreadsheet file formats, and they're leery of using software that may reach the dead end of planned obsolescence. They also aren't happy about paying costly licensing fees to foreign suppliers for products that don't meet all their needs.
The U.K.'s National Health Service, in a study last year on the feasibility of open source, warned that the market for health care IT is becoming dominated by a small number of U.S.-based vendors. These systems are expensive to buy and maintain, and since "the U.K. represents a relatively small part of the market, global suppliers are unresponsive to requests for local variations, and/or provide them at a very high cost," the report says.
"It's about money, plain old-fashioned money," says Atul Chitnis, a Linux expert at Exocore Consulting Ltd. in Bangalore, India, in an e-mail interview about that country's moves to open source. "But it's also a bit about sovereignty." Chitnis is an adviser to the government-sponsored Linux India Initiative, announced last year.
One goal of pushing open source is to foster the development of homegrown high-tech businesses and expertise. The movement is also related to feelings about Microsoft Corp.'s worldwide dominance in productivity applications and desktop operating systems. Carol Kelly, an analyst at Meta Group Inc., calls it the "Microsoft backlash." But while some local agencies are considering or have deployed Linux desktop systems, most of the governmental interest is in server deployments.
Stirring the Pot
Indeed, the European Commission is involved in multiyear studies examining open-source development for server software and its total cost of ownership. There are obvious licensing savings with open-source models, but total cost of ownership is a pot with many ingredients, including integration, training and migration.
A European Commission-backed study completed last year advocates "pooling," or sharing, of open-source software code among various countries, as well as sharing IT knowledge and development expertise. Pooling may not necessarily save money, but by working together, governments may get much more for their euros.
"Pooling of knowledge is more important than pooling of code," says Patrice-Emmanuel Schmitz, a Belgium-based Unisys Corp. consultant who co-authored the report.
Governments in Europe, Singapore, Taiwan, China and elsewhere are adopting policies that encourage IT managers to consider deploying open-source systems. In the U.S., neither the federal government nor any states have adopted anything similar, but federal officials are showing interest in open source at the midrange server level.
Tight Budgets, Lean Code
The revenue shortfalls that are forcing many states to curtail IT investments are also fostering more interest in open-source software. "What we're finding is an awful lot of good tools that are open-source-based that offer a tremendous amount of functionality," says Rock Regan, CIO for Connecticut's state government. "In some cases, we don't need the Cadillac version of software that some vendors have sold."
It's difficult to say whether any government interest in open source will influence private-sector migrations, especially when big firms like IBM are already Linux advocates.
In the U.S., it's long been recognized in IT that the private sector leads and governments follow, says Eric Raymond, a Malvern, Pa.-based developer who heads the Open Source Initiative. But in some foreign nations, businesses "view governments as the genuine leadership of the country," he says.
One thing to watch for is whether large governments establish procurement policies that require software vendors to provide open and interoperable file formats in order to get government business.
The Consumer Project on Technology (CPT) in Washington has been urging the White House to do just that, as a way to blunt Microsoft's operating system monopoly. Only a big government has the buying power to force a vendor to make changes, says CPT head James Love. "There is nobody in the private sector that is big enough to set standards by themselves," he says.
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