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The US Federal Government and Open Source

How much open source software is the US government taking advantage of? Open Source for America recently put out a “report card” ranking that usage. Justin Kern at Information Management reached out with some questions on that, here’s the press pass of my full responses:

What are the general pros and cons of federal departments being better or worse with open source use/access?

At the middleware layer, many of the interesting things going in technology are open source now: the big data area, cloud computing, and even mobile. On the other hand, at the application layer, as always, pure open source software tends to lag behind closed source and SaaS (web applications). While those applications may heavily use open source, the vendors peddling them usually prefer to keep the application layer closed source to allow selling licenses.

In many cases, the cost of using open source software, even with paid support for that software, will be cheaper than closed source. This isn’t always the case as closed source vendors aren’t stupid when it comes to pricing and cutting deals for the one of the world’s biggest IT buyers, the US government.

For example, something like the open source content management system drupal in the hands of a moderately good admin/programmer can go a long way to providing a public web site without much cost or hassle. And even when open source options have expensive support and add-on products, they tend to be cheaper than incumbent, closed source products. Liferay and Alfresco are a good examples here in the content management business (compared to Documentum, for example).

Also, active open source software stacks tend to be more “alive,” or thriving, than closed source stacks. There tends to be more releases (though, maybe with fewer features in each release), more publicly accessible chatter and “community,” and an otherwise easier to use and get involved in ecosystem around the software. If government IT wants this kind of thing, open source can often be better.

What is the impact of expanding open source use by the U.S. federal government? Or are they just playing catch up?

The impact in the government would probably be slightly lower budgets for IT. Anytime you go into a large organization that hasn’t been using a lot of open source, you find old software that they’re paying too much for that could be replaced with new software, closed or open. That’s just how IT is. The services you pay for and time you spend to swap it out might be more costly than keeping the old IT installed, and it’s important to keep training and other transition costs in mind. The shocking problems in the case of the City of LA switching from Novell GroupWare to Google Apps is a reminder of this. While most of them seemed to be around the need to train users, in looking at new-fangled technologies, it’s easy to forget that many employees need training and hand-holding to convert to something new, even if millions of other people are already using it and it seems straight-forward.

Any other general thoughts from this executive summary/report?

It’s important to keep in mind that open source doesn’t always ensure good software or software that you want. You don’t want a blanket policy of using only open source or mandating some percentage of open source. You’ll end up with stuff that may not always be the best option: just like if you had a blanket policy of using only closed source.

The important thing is to consider open source software on the same footing as closed source software. Increasingly too, with the rise of SaaS (cloud-hosted applications like Salesforce, Google Apps, Microsoft’s hosted services, Lotus Live, etc.) the distinction between open and closed source is a moot point. There, you want the APIs and services (the points of integration to those hosted services) to be as open and free to use as possible so you can customize and integrate with the SaaSes with as little hassle as possible. We covered more tips in our 2007 paper, “Working with Open Source

See the full story from Justin here.

Disclosure: Alfresco is a client, as are Microsoft,, and IBM.

Categories: Open Source, Press Pass.

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