October 18, 2005

GOSCON debates open source RFPs

Author: Jay Lyman

Attendees of the first ever Government Open Source Conference (GOSCON) in Portland, Ore., last week heard about how the thinking and approach of government agencies must change to gain the cost-savings and other advantages of open source software. The event, which drew more than 200 open source business people, government officials, and consultants, also featured debate on whether open source software communities and businesses, too, must change their thinking and approach to gain the benefits of government business.

In his lunch keynote, MedsSphere CEO and open source industry veteran Larry Augustin highlighted how, according to Goldman Sachs, 70 percent of new software licensing revenue goes to sales and marketing in the traditional, commercial software vendor model. "We're effectively charging customers to sell them software," he joked. "There's something wrong with this."

Outlining the ways in which open source software is changing the model, Augustin said the lack of need for sales and marketing and focus on software development and improvement in open source was an advantage for government agencies, but only if they could find and implement the right solutions.

"As a consumer, you have to go about buying a little different," he said in front of a slide that read, "Open source applications are bought, not sold."

Responding to a question from the packed conference room, Augustin said there is ample opportunity for open source advisers to find the right solutions for agencies, but their thinking would have to change as well. "If the Gartners of the world don't do it, somebody will," he said.

A later panel -- which included Compiere founder Jorg Janke, Assembla President Andy Singleton, and GNOME Foundation Executive Director Timothy Ney -- tackled the other side of the equation, debating whether open source projects should be prepared to submit request for proposal (RFP) queries, which are common in government and institutional systems and software purchasing.

Answering a question on how Compiere would respond to an RFP on a significant contract from a state agency, Janke referred to a "conference room pilot" -- two or three days to see if the software works. Janke said his company does receive RFPs but does not answer them, but added the company will help an organization try out the software with the multi-day pilot.

Panel moderator and EasyStreet President and CEO Rich Bader highlighted how "procurement gets turned on its head," gaining some appreciative laughter from the government crowd when he said, "Turn down an RFP? You must be crazy."

Counterclaim CTO Jim Beard pointed out that RFPs, which his organization has been involved with, can take hundreds of man hours and tens of thousands of dollars, which is not typically an option for open source operations.

"We're happy to talk to people," Beard said. "We're not trying to cram sales down your throat while we're there. Being able to try before you buy is really something the proprietary companies aren't doing."

However, audience member and Open Source Software Institute (OSSI) Executive Director John Weathersby argued open source projects and companies needed to be "getting into the batter's box and playing with the big boys."

"If you're going to get into government, you've gotta play by their rules," he said.

There was agreement that an RFP from an agency or department that includes anything about C++, .Net, or something along those lines would not interest an open source project. However, Salem-Keizer Public Schools Technology and Information Services Director John Cuddy stressed that government and other institutional purchasing processes are typically mandated, and require things such as RFPs.

"To spend money, you have a requirement to have a competitive process," he said. "If you're not prepared to respond to RFPs, you're out of government contracts."

Attendees of the conference were generally familiar with open source, with many already using open source applications in their agencies, but looking to stay on top of the latest and best in software and its support.

Larry Niswender attended for the CIO of the Oregon State Lottery, which already uses Apache, MySQL, PHP, Putty, Linux, FileZilla, and other open source software.

"My IT people told me they've had really good success with it and want to keep looking at it," he said. "The challenge with a lottery is it has to run a lot like a business. We have to be ready to move. But we have to do it with minimal risk. We're making sure we get the best information we can."

Oregon Department of Revenue CIO Stan McClain said he attended GOSCON to help in his organization's strategy to provide services for employees and customers over the Web. McClain, who will chair a "shared services environment" state CIO council beginning next year, said he believes open source software may facilitate state-wide benefit from the solutions.

"There's a potential to partner with the open source foundation we have already in Oregon," he said, referring to Open Source Development Labs and Oregon State University. "There's great potential we need to be able to tap into. We should take the lead."

For Dan Wojcik, a former Washington, D.C., consultant for government agencies including the Census Bureau, GOSCON was evidence of how far open source software has come. "I, myself, didn't take open source too seriously until recently," he said. "Coming here, I'm surprised how far it's gone. It's amazing."

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