April 4, 2006

Government Day at LinuxWorld

Author: Tina Gasperson

X.org founder Leon Shiman headed up Government Day at LinuxWorld. The subconference, sponsored by Novell, Red Hat, Trusted Computer Solutions, and Microsoft, was directed at a by-invitation-only group of government movers and shakers, and designed to provide a forum to discuss issues surrounding the adoption of open source and open standards in government, including the problem of vendor lock-in. We were the only press allowed into the event.

The first panel discussion featured Massachusetts local and state officials, who talked about their experiences with IT procurement. Myra Berloff, the director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability, called herself the "overarching conscience" of accessibility and stressed that when it comes to government software procurement, 100% accessibility is more important than open standards, and government entities must not settle for anything less. Some attendees questioned this all-or-nothing approach, saying that progress is stymied unless we are willing to start with less accessibility and move toward 100%. But Joe Lazarro of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind said the paradigm is that developers try to "bolt on accessibility" after the fact, incurring great expense and the ire of constituents. "If you build in accessibility from the beginning, and make the vendor sign off so they are aware, you'll get accessibility virtually for free," Lazarro said.

Shiman didn't take long to raise the stakes with his comments regarding accessibility. "Why isn't there full accessibility [in open source software]? Why isn't it easy?" he asked. "It may have something to do with the monopoly desktop that's in place. There has to be an incentive for people to do this work, but with a monopoly in place the financial incentive is removed." Shiman's platform is the implementation of open standards in the public sector so that true competition is possible. "I want to create in your minds an idea of what you can do in order to best evaluate and take advantage of what these technologies offer," he told the 75 government workers in attendance. "This is not going to be a listing of successes. It's an attempt to look, in a realistic fashion, at just what the problems are that we are very familiar with."

Mary Tzambazakis, CFO of the City of Springfield, Mass., shared some of the challenges she faced after being called in to get her financially embattled municipality back on track. Springfield went into a state of receivership, and Tzambazakis was appointed to her current position as the head financial officer. "I've worked in IT in the private sector and I knew the way to turn this around was to start with IT," Tzambazakis said. "I have a duty to make sure the money is well-spent." When it comes to implementing open standards and open source software, she's "not one to jump on a trend. I believe open source does provide opportunities but that has to be tempered with good common sense."

Panelist Kevin Stokes, CIO of Brookline, Mass., talked about what he called "process lock-in" as opposed to vendor lock-in. When it comes to evaluating open source software and open standards, "you don't want to go out and make an investment in something just for the sake of doing it," he said. "As much as I'd like to go, guns blazing, to find out where we can use open source, I have to deal with the limitations I have." Stokes said his most pressing issues are streamlining the functions of the IT department so that staff members are not wasting their time answering trivial questions from other departments and from the general public -- an issue that he said is not likely to find a solution in open source or open standards.

One of Shiman's goals in organizing the Government Day was to bring disparate entities together in hopes of discussing open competition. He believes that requiring open standards will foster true competition and eliminate the tendency toward monopolization of the operating system and desktop markets. Microsoft, one of the sponsors of Government Day, sent its National Technology Officer Colin Nurse to speak briefly, first joking about the irony of a Microsoft person talking at a LinuxWorld conference, and then sharing in general terms with the audience that the company is moving toward interoperability in all new development. "If you've heard stuff about Microsoft not supporting standards, well, we've invested in a huge interoperability program to help customers work in a more heterogeneous environment. We can't work in a stovepipe environment. We have to work cross-platform. Right from the starting point our products are now designed to be interoperable."

Next, David Wheeler of the Institute for Defense Analysis picked up the competition thread again with his talk about open standards and security in the public sector. "This is magic food," he said, holding up a wrapped cookie. "With this food, you won't have to eat again for a week. And we're going to sell you this food for one dollar. The fine print says, however, that when you eat this food, you won't be able to eat any other kind of food -- they'll all become poisonous to you. Now, who thinks that the price of this food is going to go up next year? Dependency is a very serious security problem." Wheeler went on to share more analogies: a story about incompatible fire hose couplers in 1904 that led to the destruction of 1,500 buildings in Baltimore; and one about standard railroad gauges that the North had during the Civil War and the South did not, making it impossible for the Rebels to ship needed supplies and arguably costing them a victory. "Standards free up your time and money to do things that are more important. The railroad gauge is the original 'plug and play' standard. When the diesel engine came out, they said, hey, I can just plop this new innovation right down here on this standard railway."

"There's a connection between open standards and security," Wheeler reiterated. "We need suppliers and vendors, but what we need to avoid is dependency. If you are so dependent that you cannot reasonably switch vendors you have a security problem already and you need to start addressing it." Echoing Shiman's earlier comments, he said "Open standards create economic conditions that are necessary for creating secure components."

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