February 6, 2002

Advocating Open Source the 'good old boy' way

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
We hear it over and over: That someone ought to be talking Open Source and Linux to government honchos, using the schmoozing techniques and social contacts that companies like Microsoft use so effectively. That "someone" is John Weathersby, founder and chairman of the Open-Source Software Institute [OSSI].John is from Mississippi. You can hear it in his voice. He has the sweet smoothness that flows so readily from the lips of politicians in this part of the country, the sort of voice that you expect to hear down at the Stennis Space Center and the attached Naval Oceanographic Office. There's a surprising amount of high-tech research happening down there on that part of the Gulf Coast, right in the middle of what is otherwise one of the poorest parts of the United States, a tribute to the power of some of its politicians, and their ability to bring home that old federal bacon.

The highest-ranking Republican in the entire U.S. Senate, Trent Lott, is from Mississippi, so the pork is likely to keep coming for years. And why shouldn't some of that pork translate into funds for Open Source software development and support? Why should all the federal computer research gravy go to places like California and Washington state? Shouldn't some of it fall into the hands of Linux-loving folks down here in the Old South, where a few extra dollars coming in is going to be appreciated lots more than it would be in Seattle or San Jose?

Tapping into that stream of research money isn't about technology. All the tech-types can be gung-ho as hell for Linux, and they can put Apache on every server in sight, and that's cool, but that's not the same as actual, official recognition from the people who put on tuxes and go to political functions and hang out with the colonels and generals and admirals and ex-colonels and ex-generals and ex-admirals who control all the heavy dough. To get to these guys you need someone who speaks bidness as his native tongue, and I mean bidness as a language spoken at an Ole Miss football game while you're hanging out, maybe sipping a little bourbon, with Senator Trent, Col. Florian H. Yoste (Ret.) -- "Flo" to his friends -- and the rest of the boys.

That's John's schtick. He was one of the founders of SAIR, the Linux and GNU software training and certification company, then he went on to start a training company of his own called The Open Source Development Group with an eye to teaching government and military people how to use Linux and Open Source Software. But John found out, as he put it, that he was "way ahead of the curve" with that one.

There's plenty of Linux and Open Source in the government, back in the server rooms at places like NASA, NSA, and the other science-type agencies. "Lots of use," John says, "but the hierarchy doesn't always acknowledge Open Source as an official solution."

You can't get any training budget for something that's not an official solution. But John has been around these circles before, as journalist, as PR guy, as marketing and bidness dude, see, and one thing he noticed is that maybe you can't get in that government door to sell something, but it's pretty easy if you're a non-profit group, so John put together the non-profit Open-Source Software Institute as a way to get Open Source in the government's front door and up into the plush suites where the real power lives. He says he's going to get them hot to trot on Open Source because it's a good thing, you know, for the taxpayers and everyone else, and in the process, just maybe he'll create what he calls a market vacuum for services like Linux and Open Source training, and Open Source Development Group might just get a contract or two out of the deal.

Working hard for Open Source
That's the crass part of it. John Weathersby doesn't try to fool anyone into thinking that he isn't at least partly looking out for himself. He's got a family to support and a lifestyle to maintain, but that doesn't mean he he isn't willing to work hard for the cause in general because, you see, John is a true Open Source Convert, the kind who says, "a rising tide lifts all boats," and means it, who wants to see all the people he meets, when he goes to LinuxWorld and other get-togethers full of Open Source people, succeed and prosper.

John is no programmer, "not a bit of one," he says. He is a bidness guy and not ashamed of it. He says, "I've built some non-profits before, I know how it works," and can say something like, "I believe Open Source will find its true strength in public service," a thought lots of people have had, with such sweet and simple sincerity that it comes across as a totally new concept. Public Service! Yes! That is what Open Source and Free Software are about in many ways. Perhaps that's the name everyone has been groping for instead of Free-as-in-freedom but not necessarily Free-as-in-beer Software: Public Service Software. Quite a ring to that one. "Free" creates confusion, but "Public Service" is something no Public Servant could possibly argue against, even while toting a whole briefcase full of campaign donations from the Business Software Alliance, no sir.

Linux International concentrates on spreading Linux in the commercial arena. John says he's not competing with them, that he's staked out an area they're not covering, and that he is sticking to his niche. And he's not purely selling Linux or Open Source. Rather, he says he's "going to the people in charge, saying 'Here's the facts, you make the decisions ...'"

This all started 18 months ago. John was working alone then, out of his own pocket. "Now," he says, "we've got several major corporate partners, and we get a little attention from political operatives, from people highly placed on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle, from the military, from staffers who make the decisions." Oracle and Intel are big players now, and John is talking to others. With IBM, at this point, he says, it's "a matter of getting them to let go of the dollars."

There are plenty of industry-boosting, non-profit associations hanging around the government pushing everything from Oklahoma hog farmers to import controls on steel, sugar, and other commodities. The commercial software industry finances so many trade groups, think tanks and "institutes" that you can't keep track of them all, they spring up so fast. These are separate from lobbying groups that push specific legislation. A non-profit group isn't allowed to do that. It is limited to putting out information in a general sense, telling why increased farm commodity price supports help all Americans. Or, in this case, why Open Source software can save taxpayers money while delivering more reliability and flexibility than commercial competitors. It's all about Public Service!

Go ahead and say this all sounds cynical. It is. This is the way government works in the real world. When it comes to allocating funds, 200 studies showing how Linux scales better than Windows don't make as much of a political splash as the promise of an Open Source research center in a powerful senator's state or a powerful congressman's district that'll bring in 50 high-paying, permanent jobs and 1,000 or 2,000 expense-account visitors every year. Look at all the bases the military wants closed, but Congress keeps open because those bases represent jobs for constituents. This has nothing to do with political parties. The Senate Republican leader is from Mississippi, and that's where John is from, so John is going to talk about how Open Source can bring jobs to Mississippi. But Senate Democratic leader -- and current Senate majority leader -- Tom Daschle is from South Dakota, another state that can use some new jobs and has hotel rooms to fill, so you might someday also see an Open Source training center in Pierre, South Dakota, "... Where the the people are friendly and the recreation is something you'll never forget!"

This kind of mutual back-scratching is why NASA has facilities in so many states. It is the way government programs get started, take on lives of their own, grow, and become almost impossible to kill. It is a tactic that successful defense contractors use, spreading subcontracts all over the map so that any cutback in the budget for whatever program they run would hurt companies in 50 or 100 Congressional districts, not just one or two.

More than just talk
Schmoozing is nice, but you need substance behind it. On October 10, 2001, OSSI formally launched a study to see just exactly how much Open Source software is being used at the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO). The goal "... is to produce a technical study and report concerning NAVOCEANO's current use of open-source software and to offer recommendations on additional open-source software solutions that can be incorporated into the Navy's system." And on Jan 28, 2002, OSSI issued a press release that said Olliance Consulting Group "has been selected by the Open-Source Software Institute (OSSI) to lead a coalition of industry vendors in a study of open-source technology's feasibility for the Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO)." So this is a real study, with real money behind it, performed by a real consultant, and sooner or later a real report will be issued. And because it cost real money, people in high positions (or at least their staff members) will pay attention to it.

Apparently NAVOCEANO is in a typical situation regarding Open Source. The bosses know their techies are running Linux and other Open Source software here and there, but not exactly where or for what. John says that when they first started talking about doing this study, they knew for sure that "three out of nine divisions were already using Linux in mission-critical apps," but beyond that they weren't sure. And obviously, if there's a Windows solution running over here that costs licensing money and takes up lots of sysadmin time, and a Linux solution running over there that costs zero dollars in licenses and takes little or no sysdamin time to maintain, and the two systems are performing similar functions, the Windows solution should be tossed in favor of the Linux solution.

Then, with those figures in hand, John says, the trick is "going to the top of the command structure." In the case of NAVOCEANO, he's already there. The contract for the study was signed not by some back room techies or a purchasing functionary sitting at a metal desk, but by Rear Admiral Thomas Q. Donaldson V, NAVOCEANO's boss commander, in a public ceremony.

Note that Linux and Open Source use within NAVOCEANO started with the techies, as usual. But now it's not secret or hidden. John is in the front door, at the top, getting official recognition and support for Open Source in a 1,000-person military facility, and hopes that once this study is complete, OSSI can move on and do the same thing in other agencies, both military and civilian.

This is the next stage in Open Source advocacy, the one where a DoD chief sysadmin goes to the installation commander and talks about Linux, and instead of saying, "What's a Linux?" or "We can't use Linux, that's an upstart hacker operating system, not all-American like Windows," the commander recalls hearing how an old Annapolis or West Point classmate got a promotion by saving blah-blah millions in his command and getting "outstanding" marks on a readiness test because he bought into Linux and Open Source, and tells the sysadmin, "I've been hearing a lot about Linux. Map out a plan showing how we can use it in more of our mission-critical areas."

Once a few get the Open Source message, others will get it and pass it on -- in the military, in the civilian agencies, and within the political power structure that sits on top of the entire government and controls the money. John believes this progression is inevitable, and all he's really doing is helping it to happen a little faster. "The genie's out of the bottle," he says. "Our job now is to put the message in the right hands and help fan flames."

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