What is the future of open source in government?

While the pace of the move to open source in the public sector has been slow so far, a number of factors are converging to determine the blueprint for its future use in government IT.

While the pace of the move to open source in the public sector has been slow so far, a number of factors are converging to determine the blueprint for its future use in government IT.

One crucial area of change is the government’s ongoing consultation to define the use of open standards in government. But there are concerns that the interests of open source vendors could be drowned out by the proprietary monopoly. Phil Scott-Lewis, head of UK public sector at Red Hat, says the consultation will be key in determining the future of open source in government.

“On the supplier side there is still more resources in the proprietary software arena than open source, because it is still relatively new. There is a worry the response will be biased toward proprietary vendors and that’s something the government needs to be careful about. Open source suppliers need to get their responses in,” says Scott-Lewis.

“Open standards could mean different things to different people, but it must support open source. If standards are biased to proprietary vendors, the worst case is that open source could be locked out, and the best case is that there will be a limit to the use of open source.”

Liam Maxwell, newly appointed deputy government CIO, is a vocal proponent of open source and intends to promote its use in government as a means to reduce IT expenditure. He told a conference earlier this year that open government based on open source is the future model to deliver IT.

“We took Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude to the US and showed him Hadoop, NoSQL, and PayPal. Big data will be open source, the future is to either buy as one common government or go open source,” said Maxwell.

His words follow Whitehall’s intention to use open source, outlined in its ICT strategy to “create a level playing field for open source and proprietary software.”

The government’s ICT security arm CESG recently stated there was no more risk in using open source than proprietary software.

The central open source team is seeing higher levels of demand in [Whitehall] departments for advice

Robin Pape, interim CIO for the Home Office

While these moves are helping to shift perceptions about open source, key challenges remain, including: large departments changing their current buying practices; system integrators adapting to new models; and the absence of open source skills in government itself.

Robin Pape, interim CIO for the Home Office and senior responsible owner for the use of open source in government, says awareness in government is improving.

“The central open source team is seeing higher levels of demand in departments for advice on open source options, attendance at awareness events and the number of external seminar and conference events which have been organised with government involvement or centred around the government market in particular,” says Pape.

Software investment decisions are now subject to wider accountability against the aims of the government’s ICT strategy, including alignment with the open source level playing field policy, he says.

“Spending control processes are already having an effect by requiring projects to clearly articulate their approach towards the policy and particularly the consideration given to the use of open source solutions in options analysis,” says Pape.

“We intend to collect data on the number of software procurements, the proportion that align with the policy and the number of open source solutions implemented. We have developed an Open Source Policy Maturity Model, which is now being completed by all central departments.”

Cost savings

Although open source uptake in central government remains slow progress is being made in certain areas of the public sector – with the cost benefits acting and a major imperative for cash-strapped councils.

Anne Kearsley, ICT deployment manager at Oxfordshire County Council, recently opted for an open source content management system (CMS) over proprietary software for this reason.

“Initially we were on an IBM platform for web content management, there were benefits of being on a portal but it wasn’t changing as quickly as other CMSs,” says Kearsley.

“We looked at the open source equivalent so we wouldn’t have to incur large licence purchase costs.”

The council eventually opted for Drupal’s CMS product.

“The community support that comes with the platform was an entirely different way from working with vendors,” she says.

The move involved an investment in staff training in web development on Java, with the council releasing its new site in September in 2011. Following the roll-out, the site maintained its three star website rating from the Society of Information Technology Managers (Socitm).

The equivalent cost of a proprietary CMS product would be up to £80,000 with an additional 25% yearly licence cost, she says. Under Drupal’s model, the council only pays for its support in training staff. She says the council has been working with Drupal’s module co-ordinators to enable the next release to work off its Microsoft directory back end.

The council has also invested in Talend’s Data Integration Suite, which involves open source platforms for developers to use. All the code is open source but some of the scheduling features are licensable, she says. The tool connects with the council's SAP software, and comes with application programming interface (APIs).

“Formerly we had another product which had a licencing model twice the price of Talend’s. We now run 65 data jobs on that, including our obligations to publish all expenditure over £500,” says Kearsley.

“We will be looking to open source as each opportunity arises, and we will look at the whole market place. Price will be one of our requirements and that may be an advantage for open source products. We will soon be looking for an EDRMS [electronic document and records management system] platform and we’ll look at the whole of the marketplace to provide that solution.

“Initially open source was met with caution, but having done evaluation and seeing the broad user base, and strong community support for development of key modules, we would look for a similar solution if we were looking for another product.

“But we wouldn’t just go down that road simply because it seems like a good idea – if we didn’t see a strong open source solution, then we’d go with a vendor.”

No real change

But Mark Taylor, CEO of small open source company Sirius, who has worked closely with the public sector, says progress has been woeful.

“The overview in my experience is there is no real change. After two years of the coalition government, I’m disappointed with the progress. It is still being led by individuals and we do work with some terrific people in the public sector," he says.

“If there is any positive change, it’s that people trying to promote open source are finding it slightly easier, but I’ve seen no evidence in a centrally led shift.”

Taylor believes the government can’t afford to wait for civil servants to come round to open source.

“When I look at the private sector environment, we work with some really large companies that are using open source. Individuals and organisations change when the perceived benefits outweigh the pain in moving to open source,” says Taylor.

“For whatever reason, the incentives appear to remain with old ways of working in the public sector.”

Vendor lock in

“Without naming names, a lot has been made of renegotiations with existing providers. Clearly the perception is that staying with the incumbents and getting a discount is of more benefit than a sea change,” says Taylor.

“That’s something I saw in the previous government, which used open source as a negotiating tool with existing vendors. They’re not really taking seriously the idea of a sea change. Comparatively we are seeing massive shifts in private sector organisations.”

Taylor says Sirius is doing open source work with system integrators, which means it will happen in the public sector via an indirect route.

“They are going to get the trickle-down effects, but not the full undiluted benefits. And that is a huge shame,” says Taylor.

He believes just a couple of departments account for most of the government’s moves to open source to date, including the Ministry of Defence. The Met Office is progressing toward an open source model, having recently installed hundreds of Linux servers, he says.

But Red Hat’s Scott-Lewis, believes things are moving in the right direction: “There is evidence that it is getting traction but there is a still a lot of work to be done.

“More people understand what open source is, and that it is able to support enterprises and mission-critical systems. The perception that it is somehow not up to the task is changing. Cabinet Office and open source leads in the Home Office are doing a lot to dispel that myth.”

The procurement department needs a better understanding of how to purchase open source and what it means in commercial terms: that the immediate cost is much less expensive and there is no licence fee.

But the most important thing is that savings are achieved through avoiding vendor lock-in, says Scott-Lewis. Government has suffered badly from being locked into proprietary software when something in the user profile changes. With open source you don’t get hit by those problems, you don’t get hit by additional licence fees.

Where there are greenfield requirements are the most obvious times to move to open source, he says: “Around 80% of government IT is about keeping the lights on and 75% of that is based on proprietary software. So those vendors are going to be around for a long time, because government can’t throw production systems out and are locked in."

The other opportunity for government to move to open source is through hardware refreshes, which negate the disruption of moving from proprietary systems to open source.

“Where there is a case, government should consider open source. There are opportunities – but we need to look out for them,” says Scott-Lewis

“Our government business is significant, it’s at a greater rate than the overall Red Hat growth, which is indicative of the fact there is serious take-up. We’d like to think this is an area of exponential growth. I think austerity is really causing people to look at open source seriously.”

Open source is already present in central government, with Apache and Red Hat in use in machine rooms and NoSQL databases in the security community, say government sources.

As departments buy more cloud products, open source economies of scale will increase in datacentres. At present, desktop offerings remain limited to the Libreoffice package used by the Government Digital Service. But government stands to save the most by procuring open source products directly where it can, rather than through third-party suppliers.

Even a pragmatic approach of piecemeal open source migration will require departments to focus on a vision of open source, the right skills and understanding from procurement teams.

Once the government has collected and published its open source data, its intentions can be objectively measured. In the meantime, the open standards consultation period – which ends in May – will be crucial to laying out the groundwork for departmental use of open source in the future.

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