July 28, 2004

Open source winning in federal government, slowly

Author: Jay Lyman

Different interpretations of a memo from Office of Management and Budget IT and E-Government administrator Karen Evans make this software purchasing directive look both bad and good for open source.

While Citizens Against Government Waste cited the memo in its complaint that open source can be more expensive than proprietary software, the OMB memo itself simply advises an adequate review of all software, regardless of whether it is open source or not. A CAGW press release states, "The OMB memo noted that open source software has more complex licensing requirements, requiring review by agency general counsel, which also adds to its costs."

But the memo itself states, "This reminder applies to acquisitions of all software, whether it is proprietary or open source software," then goes on to say, "Because software licensing requirements can be legally complex and can directly impact agency operations, procurement executives and program managers should consult with their general counsel's office to ensure the requirements are understood before procuring and using the software."

There is no mention of open source in that paragraph. And elswhere, Evans' memo says, "These policies are intentionally technology and vendor neutral, and to the maximum extent practicable, agency implementation should be similarly neutral."

That kind of wording was a victory to the Open Source And Industry Alliance (OSAIA), its member companies, and Will Rodger, the open source group's director of public policy. Here's what Rodger had to say about discussions with U.S. officials and the prospects for open source in government:

Q: Do you feel the U.S. government is adequately and fairly considering Linux and open source in its software and system purchasing?

A: We've found Karen Evans' office highly receptive, and that willingness to listen shone through in her most recent memo on open source procurement. We wish every administrator had her attitude. At the same time, let's face it -- there's not a whole lot of
open source software actually deployed in most agencies. Notable exceptions like
FEMA and the Defense Department suggest there's a future for open source. The
challenge is penetrating departments who may be just too scared to take the first steps.

Q: Please list the open source companies you represent and briefly discuss your goals and accomplishments thus far.

A: We represent Red Hat and Oracle, Novell, eGovOS, Sleepycat Software,
DevIS, MySQL, the Foresight Institute, AdaCore and the Gnome Foundation.
There are others on the way, but we need to dot the i's and cross the t's
before we can say who they are.

We've done a lot of lobbying, we talked to folks in the agencies in
Washington, as well as people at the European Commission. We had
discussions with various state legislatures, and talked to a good
number of CIOs in the government. Policy being the beast it is, it's a bit much for us to say we've "caused" government to do anything all on our own. Still, I'm certain we had an impact on the OMB process. OMB has been receptive in ways other
government officials haven't always.

Q: How significant is Novell's deal for the federal SmartBuy program in your opinion?

A: It's highly significant, we think -- not because it's such a big dollar
amount, but because it gives the green light to administrators who were
considering open source but were afraid they would be criticized by their
superiors for daring to choose it. At least one school district in Oregon
was threatened with a license audit when it decided to go open source.

The list of attacks against open source is getting rather lengthy: The
SCO suit, Microsoft calling it a "cancer," then "destroyer of intellectual
property," later an "untested licensing methodology," bogus patent
threats that come across the transom at a lot of developers -- the list gets
longer and the claims more deceptive. Open source is thriving, but how
long will it be before one of these attacks consumes a lot of time and
energy? That question keeps active here in Washington.

Government employees see these unfair tactics, and many understandably
want to avoid controversy. That's why statements like Evans' are so
important. They tell public servants that they do their jobs without worrying about bully-boy tactics from the outside.

Q: Why do you say CAGW 'lost the battle?'

A: Here's a quote from CAGW President Tom Schatz on open source: "Needless
to say, any commercial company that wants to stay in business would never
allow its software to be integrated with GPL software."

I hope CAGW talks to Novell soon, because last I checked, they have been
doing just that for some time. Tom Finnigan, also of CAGW, made this exaggerated claim about Massachusetts' open source policy: "The 'Freeware Initiative' would have required all IT expenditures in fiscal 2004 and 2005 to be made on an open source/Linux format."

Look up Massachusetts' policy yourself. It's just not so. If you read the OMB policy, you can see echoes of FUD from groups like CAGW in it. There's a lot about security and TCO and the like: "Frequently, the licenses require users who distribute open source
software, whether in its original form or as modified, to make the source code widely available. Subsequent licenses usually include the terms of the original license, thereby requiring wide availability. These differences in licensing may affect the use, the security, and the total cost of ownership of the software and must be considered when an agency is planning a software acquisition."

Evans here is making clear that, yes, you do have to know what you're
doing to use OSS. But it isn't as though there's been a huge rush to
open source as CAGW is claiming. We talk to people at OSDL, at Red Hat,
Novell, and other places, and they all want to know what they can do to crack
the federal market. We talk to CIOs, and most are just getting their heads
around the idea. The fact that our members met with Karen [Evans] in the spring
and that she only now is issuing this memo suggests to us she had to
move slowly and deliberately to get it done.

We're happy, no make that thrilled, to see the latest letter from
Karen. Unfortunately, there's still a lot more to do.

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