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Open-source software moves into public sector

Sunday, April 26, 2009
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Luis Ibanez, senior research engineer for Kitware in Clifton Park, works in his lab.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Luis Ibanez, senior research engineer for Kitware in Clifton Park, works in his lab.

— The open-source software revolution is ready to go public.

The programs that were once relegated to the niche fringes of the computer programing community and have more recently spread prolifically through the hard drives that power private business are now primed to make the jump into the public sector — and some would even argue they already have.

Increasingly, colleges and government agencies are relying on pliable and free open-source programs to fulfill needs that arise within their computer networks. Proponents argue that the software is a budget-friendly option to tailor computer systems in ways that more rigid proprietary software won’t allow.

But there’s a catch when it comes to deploying open-source programs broadly at public agencies. The process through which governmental and public education institutions seek to fill their software needs almost always favors private-license software companies.

The state procurement process often requires agencies to put out requests for proposals for software that will be broadly deployed. Because open-source software usually lacks the marketing structure of its commercial counterpart, these platforms are often overlooked when it comes to fulfilling needs within state agencies or educational facilities, even though dramatic savings and performance improvements can sometimes be realized.

“It’s difficult,” admitted Pat Masson, a Loudonville resident and chief information officer at SUNY Delhi who is urging officials within the state university system to consider a broader application of open-source software across its networks. “Open-source communities obviously don’t have sales and marketing departments, so there is no one really to respond [to requests for proposals].”

As a concept, open-source programing is about as old as computers themselves. The idea evolved from programers wanting to share transparent code that could be freely used and adapted by others.

With the growth of the Internet during the early 1990s, the concept of free and open software gained popularity among programers seeing the practicality in keeping a product’s code accessible to the user. But the concept was viewed largely as a fringe movement embraced by hackers and independent programers that would never gain an edge against behemoth mainstream software companies.

But in January 1998, the proliferation of free code gained the foothold it needed. Netscape released the code to its popular Web browser, prompting a wholesale rethinking of concepts governing commercial applications.

Less than a month after Netscape’s bombshell announcement, a group of programers created the Open Source Initiative, which launched a movement aimed at demonstrating the practical benefits of distributing free source code. The initiative gelled the open-source movement and led to the exponential growth of software projects founded on its principles.

Since that time, the open-source model has created ripples in the private sector, where businesses have been drawn to the flexibility and cost advantages of the software. By not protecting a software product’s code, a wider breadth of programers can have a hand in improving the functionality of a given software program.

“We work as teammates in an open environment,” said Will Schroeder, the president of Kitware, an open-source software development company based in Clifton Park. “It just lends itself to that collaboration.”

But the public sector — especially in New York — has lagged in its integration of open-source programs. Schroeder said only recently have public entities warmed to the notion of having transparent code deployed on a broad basis.

Kitware is among the companies now seeing the benefits of this detente between public agencies and the open-source community. It was recently awarded a $6.7 million contract with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop software that will enable computers to search images within video archives.

“There is a perception that open-source people are a bunch of yahoos,” he said. “The reality is, that could not be further from the truth.”

New York’s procurement language makes no specific mention of using open-source software. Instead, the state seeks “best value” for software when the need arises, explained Angela Liotta, a spokeswoman with the state Office for Technology.

Liotta said some open-source code is already employed around New York’s government agencies; for instance, the open-source operating system Linux is used in state data centers. However, she said a number of the state’s “mission-critical applications” require robust and timely vendor support, which is something open-source programs simply can’t provide.

“That requirement is not always available with open-source tools; therefore, we consider the use of open-source code when selecting software but only do so when there is adequate and cost-effective support available for the product,” she said.

This could change once the OFT implements the solutions presented in a joint study completed by the state last year. The multiagency study, titled “A Strategy for Openness: Enhancing E-Records Access in New York State,” outlines a strategy for the state to ensure electronic information is widely accessible by the public.

Among its findings, the study recommends broad implementation of an “open environment” by the state’s information technology work force. The study suggested including “the use of open standards and formats” in the existing procurement process and the state’s strategic IT plan.

Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, the OFT’s director and New York’s chief information officer, said the study’s findings show a wholesale shift in the state’s approach toward open-source software.

She said the new direction should take the state closer to broader acceptance of open-source programs.

“The public sector is lagging a little bit behind,” she said. “But that is our strategic direction and that is our priority.”

Some areas of state government are already beginning to use open-source software as a method to create open government. Earlier this year, the state Senate under Majority Leader Malcolm Smith hired Andrew Hoppin — a self-professed open-source aficionado and former volunteer with the Obama administration’s transition team — as the Senate’s first-ever chief information officer.

Hoppin said he plans to implement a number of widely used open-source programs to improve the transparency and efficiency of the Senate’s online functions. He said the malleability of open-source programs lends itself perfectly to his goal of transforming the Senate’s proprietary software-driven Web site into something that better serves both politicians and citizens alike.

“Open-source by its nature really puts us in the driver’s seat,” he said. “We save a lot of money and we can be taking advantage of the innovations that are being made within the [open-source] community.”

Soon, the Senate’s Web site will be powered by a package of open-source content management software that will allow broader public participation in the legislative process. The new site will feature everything from constituent input on bills to blogs for individual senators.

“For the first time, every senator will have a standard level of Web access with an ability to transmit Web content across the board,” he said.

Hoppin said such innovation wasn’t possible under the archaic proprietary software the Senate previously used. He’s now reviewing all of the licensed software used by the Senate to ensure that there’s a reason for not taking advantage of an open-source option.

“We’re doing a complete review of all of our internal applications to make sure that when we are using proprietary software, there is a compelling reason to do so,” he said.

Masson is making the same argument at SUNY Delhi, which recently hosted a conference on the open-source initiative and its broader implications for the higher education system. He wants the higher education system to at least consider open-source options when seeking contracts for new software applications.

“I’m not a zealot. There’s certainly a lot of room for commercial software,” he said. “But we don’t even include open-source in our procurement and evaluation process.”

That can mean missed opportunities for savings. Masson said his campus is among about two dozen using Moodle, an open-source course management system, instead of ANGEL Learning, a similar licensed platform used at other state colleges and universities.

Delhi switched to Moodle in 2007 after a study determined that the college could save more than $133,000 from the three-year licensing agreement it would need to enter with ANGEL. Moodle was found to have the same and even better functionality in some cases and would only cost $9,000 in remote hosting costs, according to the study.

Masson estimated that the savings across the state university system could total more than $5 million annually because ANGEL’s licensing agreement charges colleges on a per-student basis. And that’s just one program. “We’re seeing real dollar savings with the deployment of open-source, and I have the purchase orders to back that up,” he said.

Like Delhi, the University at Albany has broadly used open-source software. Derek Werthmuller, the director of UAlbany’s Center for Technology in Government, said his campus has found a good balance between open-source software and commercially licensed programs.

Even so, he said the university and other public colleges should be cognizant of areas where open-source programs can be applied. He said the open-source industry is constantly and rapidly evolving, so programs that might not have worked well in the past could have new applications today.

“Awareness is important,” he said. “The academic community needs to be fully aware of open-source and looking at it as an option when they’re doing software selection.”

 
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comments

April 26, 2009
8:41 a.m.
retired_1 says...

Open-source software is good, but it is absolutely necessary to specify standard, publicly accessible file formats. When a software company can claim control over Government court records stored in their private format it is time to insist on standard xml format support for all publicly paid for software - this goes beyond just cost savings.

April 27, 2009
11:33 a.m.
mikelieman says...

That's a very relevant observation.

Additionally, any remote hosted application should be assessed for the "And when we decide to stop using you..." issues related to "How do we get our data back?"

Open Source software makes it that much easier -- as the applications usually rely on well established interfaces and tools.

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