Government IT's quiet open source evolution

The GOSCON conference shows that open source is making headway in DC.

GOSCON logoAttendees of the recent Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) were privy to some of the most thoughtful conversations about open source in government I’ve heard this year. A packed room for a panel on cost savings in Washington, D.C., confirmed that strong interest in saving taxpayer dollars through open source exists in the federal IT community.

“What I saw in this panel was a real change in the government attitude toward open source: it’s not new, it’s not revolutionary,” wrote Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat. “It’s just an extremely effective tool that agencies are learning how to put to its best and highest use.”

Even if cost savings are only part of the open-source story, in the context of the budgetary pressures that governments are feeling, there is rising interest in how to achieve them. Making city government cost less is part of the mission of Civic Commons and is a pillar of the economic rationale for open government.

There’s no shortage of open-source case studies for policy makers and IT buyers to review. From the State Department to NASA to the FCC to the White House, the federal government is publicly embracing open-source software and platforms. More quietly, open-source software is used throughout research-based agencies, the intelligence community and the military, as a newly released government open-source handbook from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence makes clear.

Roadblocks to acquisition

Despite increasing adoption since Linux first made its way into federal government in the 1990s, significant challenges around the acquisition process and lingering concerns about security surround open source in government. Nearly two years after former U.S. chief information officer Vivek Kundra advocated open source in federal IT acquisition, Kundra, Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, and Victoria Espinel, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, still had to co-author a memo that emphasized technology-neutral IT procurement decisions. The memo reminded the people in charge of spending nearly $80 billion dollars annually “to select IT based on appropriate criteria while analyzing available alternatives, including proprietary, open source and mixed source technologies.”

A substantial part of the acquisition issue is grounded in a continuing misconception about open-source software’s status as commercial software, explained David Wheeler, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses. Open-source software is included in the category of commercial off-the-shelf software (COTS), said Wheeler. Under the Federal Acquisitions Regulation (FAR), government is required by law to consider COTS software. If IT procurement officials ignore open source in procurement, so Wheeler’s reasoning goes, they’re breaking the law. (By way of contrast, open source appears to be illegal in the Slovak Republic.)

Wheeler, whose paper, “More than a Gigabuck: Estimating GNU/Linux’s Size,” has been called “the seminal work on the costs savings inherent in the use of open-source software by government,” does not advocate for government to always adopt open source. “Open source isn’t always cheaper, but it’s often a bargain,” Wheeler said. “You must consider open-source software options.”

Despite that reality, the traditional procurement infrastructure still presents huge challenges to open source adoption. Wheeler, in what was probably the understatement of the day at GOSCON, observed that “unless you’re used to dealing with the government, it’s really hard to get in.”

Greg Elin, chief data officer at the FCC, suggested that startups, developers, and small business get together and learn how to interface with government. The procurement structure around government is an infrastructure, he said. The open-source community needs to figure out how to interface with it, Elin advised, much in the same way that point-to-point protocol lets people connect to the Internet.

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Cost savings in the cloud and greenfields

“What fascinated me about open source as a model was that it reduced the cost of bringing software into an organization,” said Elin. There are three areas that Elin identified where open source enhances an agency’s bottom line: commoditized network services, scaling in the cloud, and “greenfield” scenarios.

Open source is cost effective “in the cloud where scaling is important but active user demand is low,” said Elin. That’s a lesson that the FCC applied in rebooting as an open-government platform and launching the National Broadband Map. Elin said the Broadband Map started with proprietary software and then moved to open source when the FCC needed to do unsupported data translations.

For instance, “NASA has a situation where they have petabytes of data,” said Elin. “That isn’t something you go out and buy products for — it’s a greenfield scenario.” That need was part of what drove one of NASA’s flagship open-government initiatives, NASA Nebula.

“Ultimately, it’s the right tool for the right job,” Elin said. “We live in a labyrinthian licensing landscape.” Estimating costs is very hard, given how licenses are all mixed together.

For more perspective on open source beyond cost cutting, read the rest of Hellekson’s post.

Open code as a public good

Open source is part of the culture of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPB), Washington’s first startup agency.
Matthew Burton, a former CIA technologist who now works in the office of the CIO at the CFPB, said the CFPB includes open-source culture and code sharing. “A lot of the things we’re creating have a much bigger potential audience,” noted Burton during a GOSCON panel.

For example, the CFPB made a jQuery tool to help redesign the mortgage disclosure form. By sharing the code for the tool, the agency hopes the open-source community will help keep it up to date.

That approach is targeted at the “instant legacy” issue in government IT. Once government contractors develop code, they’re done. A collaborative open-source approach can help mitigate that finality, said Burton. “If you’re developing software with the public’s dollars, that code should be shared with the public.”

There’s some prospect for that actually happening in an important place: the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Douglas Maughan, branch chief in Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency (HSARPA) within the Science and Technology (S&T) Directorate of the DHS, floated an interesting idea at GOSCON: make code open source by default if a government contractor doesn’t commercialize it. That would represent a change in the cyber research and development at S&T, and the shift would have to make it through a squadron of lawyers. That said, given the way that the DHS is using open source and exploring “open security methods,” what happens next could be an important inflection point to watch.


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