Open source adoption in the public sector

by Satish Irrinki (Red Hat)

Open source adoption within public sector is no longer just theoretical – agencies across federal, state, and local governments have adopted open source software for a wide variety of computing tasks. In fact, new guidelines for software selection mandate that open source software be given equal consideration while making technology decisions. This is mostly because there are intrinsic characteristics of open source software that align with the long-term IT adoption trends within the public sector. Of course, open source’s obvious cost savings and economic value are significant drivers to adoption as well.

The 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal IT, a guideline released by the White House, clearly focuses on driving IT strategy forward with an emphasis on open source’s intrinsic characteristics — interoperability and portability. Adopting open source software perfectly meets these goals, while fostering innovation, reducing redundancy, and providing immense economic benefit to society.

Interoperability and Portability
Let’s briefly highlight success factors for some of the most popular open source software technologies. After Linus Torvalds initiated the development of Linux, thousands of community contributors contributed code with the goal of making Linux compatible with other operating systems, hardware, and existing software applications. Thus, the community helped improve portability and interoperability of applications, giving a viable operating system alternative to consumers and businesses. Adopting open source software increases portability across IT vendors, leading to increased completion in the market and reduction of vendor lock-in situations.

Another successful open source software project, Apache, is centered on the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) specification, which allows developers to write code and run it behind a compliant web server as long as the developed code adheres to the specification. Thus, Apache’s implementation of CGI led to an increase in portable software that runs within a very popular web server.

Linux and Apache are great examples of open source technologies that providing innovative and viable alternatives to proprietary products, while enhancing the portability and interoperability of applications.

Innovation and Redundancy
“If the government’s money goes to cement the current technology in place, we will have a very hard time innovating….”
– Kenneth D. Mandl, and Isaac S. Kohane, “No Small Change for the Health Information Economy”

The context of this quote is quite relevant, because current technologies within the government are so fragmented that it is hard to integrate applications and distribute data. Simply put, the applications and data live in a silo, making it harder to combine information to draw insights. In other words, innovation is stifled. On the other hand, interoperable and portable open source software allows applications to co-exist and integrate, providing a comprehensive view of the data.

The community involvement in the open source development model provides many innovative and useful features for software because there are no unchecked modules in the open source code. Several people review and improve the code over time. This development model boosts the quality of the code and increases the feature set of the software.

An open source software development and distribution model (licensing) eliminates redundancy and contributes to effective use of funds and resources. Outside of commercially supported open source projects, there are groups of organizations funding open source projects to meet a common need. Instead of each organization building its own proprietary software, they each fund only a fraction of the cost, and yet, use the entire software suite for their business needs.

Let’s take the case of HHS CONNECT, which is used for exchanging health medical records. The agencies in need of the software, use a common specification – the Nationwide Health Information Network (NwHIN) – for exchanging medical records through CONNECT. The use of open source within CONNECT eliminated redundant code among the agencies and led to effective use of funds and resources due to development of centralized single solution.

Clearly when software needs to comply with a specification, duplicating the development effort is not the best use of skills and resources. Developing and distributing the software using an open source development and distribution model makes the best use of resources and reduces redundancy.

Economic Value
On the surface, cost-savings is the clincher for government agencies in choosing open source software. But, there are other intangible benefits that snowball into significant economic benefit to the public sector.

Let’s take a closer look at what it takes to start a large-scale development project. Conventionally, using proprietary software needs large initial investment (if structured to pay over a period of time, the cost should be equal in present value terms) to procure the software licenses. Instead, open source adoption lowers the up-front costs and requires lower cash flow over the lifecycle of the system. The modular nature that needs configuration reduces the development hours. These benefits lower the barriers for agencies to actually commit resources to building the low-cost system. Adopting open source software increases the likelihood of building a system that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive.

Because open source software contributes to an increase in agencies’ revenue while reducing the cost of operations, the public sector at a macro level has more funds and resources available for funding programs that generate employment and further improve the economy.

Conclusion
Adopters of open source software reap the benefits of portable and interoperable software without getting locked to any single vendor. This increases competition in the market place. The benefits to adopter compound due to higher quality software and innovation. The cost savings and increase in other economic benefits contribute towards increasing employment and improving the economy at large. Considering these benefits, it is imperative that the each agency takes a close look at its IT portfolio and fold open source adoption into its long-term IT initiatives.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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