- By Jack Bryar -
It was one thing when small, undeveloped countries began to promote
Linux use. However, this week the governments of several key allies of the
United States have begun to promote Linux and even place it at the heart of
their most sensitive applications. The motives driving these governmental
announcements are complex, to say the least, but they represent an accelerating
trend by government institutions to embrace an Open Source alternative.
Will the United States join its allies?
Over the last year or two, my NewsForge colleagues and I have
documented the surge in popularity Linux has enjoyed among many developing nations. Cash-strapped government agencies in New Delhi, Bangalore, Kuala Lumpur, Brasilia, Lima, and Mexico City have flirted with the idea of sponsoring Linux as an alternative to proprietary software. In some cases, this was because the
government in question was broke. It really didn't have any choice except to try
Open Source. Others flirted with adoption of Linux as a way of declaring at
least some level of independence from the West and its corporations.
This week, three wealthy U.S. allies began to adopt Open Source
to a greater or lesser extent. Motives were mixed. In some cases
governments were trying to maintain some level of technical independence from the
United States. In other cases, popular concerns about Microsoft's monopoly and
marketing tactics have forced government agencies to consider Linux and Open
Source as an alternative. In still other cases, security was the main issue.
One U.S. ally concerned with both security and independence is Taiwan. The current Taiwanese government of President Chen Shui-bian is interested in consolidating its de-facto independence from China, even while growing its economic relations with the mainland. It is also committed to resisting Western pressures to integrate with the mainland except on its own terms.
It is that complexity which is driving the Taiwanese administration's
recent commitment to Linux. This week, Taiwan's government announced it
would sponsor a series of Open Source development and training projects
in the next couple of years. By 2005, the government hopes to train as many
as 120,000 users on Open Source systems. The project will involve
the Taiwanese National Science Council and the island's Ministries of
Education and Economic Affairs, as well as several government-affiliated research
and development organizations. The first projects will be focused on
developing office applications, educational software, and custom programs for the
Within Taiwan, the only criticism of the initiative in parliament or in
the press was that it was too late and, with a first-year budget of only
NT$60 million, far too small to achieve its objectives.
The official reason for the initiative had to do with cost. According
to government estimates, the island collectively pays as much as NT$10
billion to Microsoft for software. There's also a more intriguing unofficial
reason. The mainland's sponsorship of its own national brand of Red Flag Linux
has set off yet another arena for the two governments to contest for
influence within the larger Chinese community. By adopting a Linux program
of its own, the Taiwanese leadership looks to compete more effectively
with its rival across the Straits of Taiwan. It also serves the
complementary purpose of ensuring technical interoperability between systems on both
sides of the Straits. In the complex calculus of the Taiwanese government, a
viable Linux program also ensures that the island can maintain a measure of
technical independence, all the better to resist any pressure by Western
governments to accommodate its neighbor if it chooses not to.
In Germany, a different sort of calculus was behind a government
announcement concerning Linux. The Interior Ministry announced
that Germany had signed an agreement with IBM to dramatically increase
use of Open Source software. Sources claimed that the federal government
had quietly conducted its own cost of ownership analysis and concluded that
the government would save money and better secure the government's IT
resources against intrusion or disaster. Spokespeople for Interior Minister Otto
Schily also admitted that the agreement gave the German government a way to
help out SuSE, the German Linux developer.
What else did it mean? That depends on who you spoke to. Minister
Schily, once a committed member of Germany's Green Party, who is frequently
pictured wearing a gardener's hat, has defended Linux in almost agricultural
terms. He once spoke of Linux and all its non-standard iterations as a force
for ensuring a "more diverse and vibrant IT environment." Others have
suggested that Schily has had a long history of making dramatic and highly
controversial announcements without necessarily consulting the rest of the
government. They suggest that the agreement was unlikely to carry much weight
outside of Schily's ministry.
Others have suggested that Germany is concerned about Microsoft's
evolving software license strategy. Although Redmond has been at great pains to
emphasize the immediate benefits of its new "Software Assurance" licensing
program, the tradeoff (a long-term commitment to Microsoft for very
little in return) has been hard for many government and non-government organizations to swallow. Critics point out that, although the Software Assurance program allegedly guarantees users the rights to the latest and best version of its software
products, the company has inserted language in the contract that says, "Microsoft does not guarantee that a new version of any particular product will be released within any specific period of time. While Microsoft always widely publicizes upgrades, it does not proactively notify all users of a product of an upgrade for a particular product."
In other words, a client may buy a contract guaranteeing his government
unit or institution will have the right to the newest version of a
software package without any assurance that there will be any new
versions during the period of his contract, or that he will be able to find out
about it. Apparently it also doesn't commit Microsoft to tell users
other programs they may be qualified for. For example, the South African Educational License
site makes no mention of the company's program to provide free
software to South African schools. The one thing the Software Assurance program
does do is close down Microsoft's long standing policy of
providing steep price discounts for existing clients who choose to upgrade their systems.
The result of these tactics has been stiff resistance by corporate and government buyers. Two thirds of corporate IT buyers recently surveyed by Gartner Group have yet to commit to the new program. This, despite the fact that early adopters are being awarded significant price discounts and despite the fact that the discount program will only run another month. Government agencies have been even more reluctant. Given a choice between a long-term commitment to a program with few or no guarantees for the customer, many government agencies such as the German Interior Ministry are setting up
Linux programs, if only as a lever to get a better deal.
Flexibility and security are important to government officials.
Governments want to ensure they can rely on the technologies they use. They
also have to watch their expenditures. For IT, most
governments want to use both standard and customized system platforms. Whenever
possible, they would like to be able to port applications across platform
These were among the reasons given by the Danish Royal Navy when
it selected LynuxWorks this week. LynuxWorks will supply a Linux-based
real-time operating platform as the heart of the Navy's Command and Control
Center. The contract is significant in a couple of ways. It is one of a growing set
of cases in military circles where specific, binary-level interoperability
with Linux applications was written into a set of military requirements. In this case, the Linux application was a battlefield simulation environment
developed by MAK
The requisition was also significant for a couple of other reasons. One
is that Denmark is a NATO country. Interoperability between systems is an
absolute requirement. This is particularly true of any of the allies' Command,
Control and Communication Informatics (C3I) systems. LynuxWorks' LynxOS
4.0 met tough performance specifications and is reportedly being
evaluated by military contractors and their customers elsewhere in Europe. In
addition, the company is working with a number of military contractors and
defense related institutions in the United States. These include Boeing, Lockheed Martin,
Raytheon, TRW, and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Does this mean that the U.S. military may be ready to look more closely
at Open Source? It might. As I mentioned in
last week's column, the Department of Defense sponsored a MITRE Study that recommended Linux for a variety of cost and security reasons. John Stenbit, the DoD's chief information officer, has advocated a decentralized 'Net-centric structure that would be hard to create without Linux. Reportedly, he was less than amused by a
campaign, which may have been sponsored by Microsoft, suggesting Linux would compromise national security. Other departments in the government are reportedly suggesting that Linux clusters might be the fastest and most cost effective way to do much of the number crunching and data mining that U.S. security agencies need to do if the War Against Terrorism is to be more than a PR campaign.
So it is conceivable the U.S. government could join its allies
and become a force that helps promote Open Source solutions.