December 30, 2003

Government open source deployments you don't hear about

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

I know of at least a dozen goverment open source deployments I have been begged not to write about, not in the spy movie, "If I tell you I'll have to kill you!" sense, but because the people responsible for them worry that excess publicity might kill their efforts to run their agencies' computers with the most reliable and cost-effective software they can find.One city IT manager whose efforts to gradually move toward open source recently got mentioned on NewsForge was almost immediately swamped with calls from reporters -- and not just from the tech media, either. This person is not the in PR business. His job is to make his city's computers and network run efficiently. Time he spends talking to reporters is time taken away from his job, and he isn't an elected official so he doesn't need media attention, even when that attention is almost purely positive.

Attention brings politics into the picture

Imagine yourself in a government IT management position. You have quietly tested Linux on a couple of small servers. It worked fine. You and your people have bought a couple of books and asked some questions on Linux forums like this one, and you have learned enough about basic Linux administration to feel comfortable with your new operating system and software. You are calmly replacing your old NT installations with Linux, a few at a time, and experimenting with OpenOffice and a few other open source desktop programs. Suddenly a nosy reporter discovers what you're up to, and Bang! You have Microsoft people calling your (elected) bosses and reminding them what a substantial contributor Microsoft is to your local economy, and telling them how many local jobs are dependent on Microsoft.

Those elected officials will get calls from Microsoft resellers, too. Reporters will get calls about how use of open source is destroying the software industry, and how there is no nice solid company behind Linux, just a bunch of virus-writing marijuana smokers who shouldn't be trusted with the public's vital information.

The Microsoft crowd isn't the only potential problem. Free software zealots often pop out of the metalwork too, with loud castigations of anyone who dares to suggest anything less than ripping every line of proprietary code out of every machine in the place, not to mention sending nasty email to the well-meaning IT manager who said "Linux" instead of "GNU/Linux" to someone.

The reality is, in most goverment agencies -- and big companies -- there is no way to completely dispense with proprietary software, while at the same time there are almost always many servers and desktops that could be best run on Linux... excuse me, I meant to type "GNU/Linux" ...and ought to be loaded with nothing but open source software. An intelligent IT manager is going to carefully balance licensing costs, ease of use, hardware requirements, and other cost and utility factors for each application or set of applications, and will want to choose the best application and operating system for each situation on technical and financial merit, not because someone managed to talk a politician into using a particular product.

Open source gets plenty of "wins" without any help

We love to read about another "win" for open source, and it's nice to see legislation that asks IT people whose work is supported by our taxes to choose low-cost or free software over expensive proprietary software whenever they can. And yes, there are IT managers in government (and elsewhere) who won't consider using anything other than the most popular (and most promoted) proprietary software available.

But in the long run, even without open source legislation or open source lobbying, we can expect a gradual swing away from proprietary software in government operations at all levels, from the smallest municipalities to the largest federal agencies.

While there are times when exposing the financial waste often associated with proprietary software purchases is good, there are times when it's better to simply let the conversions happen quietly.

I even wonder at times if, despite the warm fuzzies we all feel when we hear about another open source "victory," there would not be more open source in government if we shined less light on its use. Remember SELinux, the NSA-sponsored secure Linux distribution that looked like it was going to lose support after it got widely known, and proprietary software lobbyists worked to shut down the project?

SELinux hasn't issued a press release since 2001. The furor has died down. But updates are still being released, steadily and quietly.

All we can do now is hope some big-mouthed reporter doesn't come along and tell everyone the SELinux project is still active. Or is public knowledge that the U.S. government is still working on a major piece of useful GPL software worth the risk that additional publicity might bring?

This is a tough question with no clear-cut answer.

Meanwhile, NewsForge will try hard to respect the privacy of the many government IT workers we know who have specifically asked us not to write about their open source initiatives, even as we look for worthwhile ones -- run by people who feel secure enough in their jobs and abilities not to worry about political pressure from proprietary software companies and their trade associations -- that we can freely tell you about, not only because we like to report postive news whenever we can, but because a story about Linux or open source success in one agency often spurs another one into taking the same path.


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