July 20, 2004

Government watchdog group warns of open source expense

Author: Jay Lyman

You might not think that Citizens Against Government Waste would be playing up the cost benefits of proprietary software for use by government, but the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization did just that with a recent press release.

Praising the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for its memorandum urging agencies to consider the total cost of ownership including lifecycle maintenance, risk, and ensuring security when acquiring software, CAGW indicated that open source can cost more. CAGW President Tom Schatz said people mistakenly refer to open source as free software because it can be freely altered and distributed, yet while the software itself might be free or cheaper than licensed software to purchase, the cost to maintain and upgrade open source can make it more expensive.

"Like all procurement decisions, the best policy on the use of software is to place all products on equal footing so that taxpayers receive the best quality programs at the least cost," said Schatz's statement in the press release. However, Schatz went on to claim that "most studies conclude that acquisition costs represent 5 to 10 percent of total cost of ownership. Maintenance, training, and support are far more expensive with open source than proprietary software."

When asked about the apparent endorsement of supposedly less expensive proprietary software, Schatz said the press release and OMB memo were issued to counter a sort of "open source fever" that seems to have swept over budget-crunched G men and women working as federal public servants.

"The point is that OMB would not have had to issue this if agencies weren't prioritizing or tending toward open source," Schatz told NewsForge.

The watchdog group head explained that some who tout the cost advantages of open source are not looking beyond the current year and considering lifetime and liability costs.

"A lot of other countries say open source is less expensive, but it isn't always less expensive," Schatz said. "The GPL in particular raises more issues than a traditional, proprietary license."

Schatz echoed a July 1 OMB memo, which noted that open source software has more complex licensing requirements, forcing review by agency general counsel and adding to expense.

"There should be some cautions and explanation to individuals to be careful when putting an entire system together," Schatz said. "The government has just been technologically challenged over the years. They need these reminders about the formation of systems, the protection of information and the cost. We're trying to keep things simple and make sure they don't waste billions as they have in the past by looking for a single answer in open source."

Schatz said government had actually become more cautious about not picking open source or proprietary over one another and finding what actually works best, regardless of its license or lack of license.

Yankee Group analyst Andy Efstathiou said open source software is unlikely to need any more review than proprietary software, pointing instead to the particular use and environment in question.

"It entirely depends on what it's being used for and what the legacy environment is," Efstathiou said. "For a well-developed solution that is not open source, such as complex processing in a complex environment, proprietary may be less expensive," Efstathiou said. "[For] software requiring low levels of services, open source is likely to be less expensive. In relatively simple environments, many enterprises are going toward open source and Linux."

The analyst added that with indemnification of some kind from most major vendors, checking out the legal concerns and actual liability may not be any more for of a concern with open source.

Efstathiou also said with movement towards interoperability and standardization, the question of whether software is open source or proprietary may not be relevant 10 years from now.


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