February 14, 2014

Why Linux Works for Government

Editor's note: Linux.com has a new voice - we're pleased to welcome Bryan Lunduke, SUSE Social Media Marketing Manager, author, Network World columnist, podcast host, international man of mystery and all-around Linux pragmatist/fan/enthusiast. Look for Bryan's insights as part of a monthly series looking at Linux in the real world.

Governments around the world – from USA to North Korea – are moving to open source software and Linux. And for good reason.

Bryan LundukeOpen Source and government are a perfect pairing, really. It makes almost too much sense that an organization that consists of people, for the purpose of representing people, should use software that the people themselves have control over.

A “government of the people, by the people, for the people” should be running software... by the people. Seems obvious when said that way, right?

Now, this is not some political stance by yours truly. That statement above may strike some folks as “socialist” or “communist” in nature. Well, I'm not here to declare the benefits of one form of government over another. In fact, I am a staunch Capitalist. But I'm also a Pragmatist. And there are some very practical reasons why Open Source and, by extension, Linux simply makes a great deal of sense for Governments to utilize.

Cost savings – which (in theory) could lead to lower taxes.

Open data formats – which make data sharing between organizations, departments and people (including the public) much easier.

Source code availability – which allows for a far higher level of flexibility in customizing solutions to meet an organization's needs.

Governments Adopting Open Source

I'm not the only person who thinks the marriage between Open Source and Government makes sense. All around the world, governments big and small are adopting Linux and Open Source in order to take advantage of those three major benefits.

Here in the United States, the Open Data Policy has been enacted – with the goal of standardizing vast amounts of data (say, census information, weather data, education information, etc.) in order to achieve two big goals. First, it aims to make it easier for different organizations, within the government, to share data with each other. This is really akin to standardizing on one specific office suite within a company... it just makes everyone’s lives easier. Second, the licensing for much of that data is being designed to be as open as possible... and publicly accessible.

What this means is that a government that is organized, and funded, by its populace can better benefit from the data that it collects. Individuals, non-profits and businesses alike can take advantage of open, standardized data for... just about everything.

Over in Germany, the city of Munich has just migrated nearly 15,000 government PC's over to Linux. Specifically they have migrated to a custom-built distribution of Linux that they call “LiMux” and have standardized on LibreOffice for their office suite.

Why? Aside from benefits like flexibility and improved security... they have saved a whole lot of money. At last estimate they have saved nearly 12 million Euros (roughly $16 million US dollars). Not chump change here.

Jump across the channel to the United Kingdom and we find something similar happening. There is a plan in place to migrate away from proprietary data formats – such as Microsoft Word and Excel – and standardize on open formats. This is having the immediate benefit of allowing the U.K. government to begin using something like LibreOffice. Which eliminates (or, certainly, nearly eliminates) the need to buy new and upgrade copies of Microsoft Office.

This is bad news for Microsoft, but great news for the people. It was estimated that roughly 200 million Pounds (over $320 million US dollars) were spent on office suites alone in the last 4 years.

The love for Open Source doesn't simply apply to the free world, either. Even North Korea seems to be focusing on Open Source, Linux-based solutions. Both for their web servers (which seem to be running Red Hat) and their desktops (where they have, recently, settled on a MacOS X inspired look and feel applied to a Linux desktop... much to the amusement of the Internet).

This makes sense for North Korea. They want as much control over their computers as possible but, for obvious practical reasons, would probably prefer to not build a complete OS from scratch. An Open Source, well-tested, secure platform that they can modify to meet their particular needs... Linux was the clear choice.

Does Open Source Hinder Tech Growth?

With all the money being saved by Open Source, Free Software you'd think this would be a potentially major negative hit to the technology companies of the world. Buying less proprietary software means less money going into the technology field, right? That was, for many years, my assumption. Turns out... that assumption was dead wrong.

Let's look at two examples: Amazon and SUSE.

Amazon provides something they call the AWS GovCloud. This is, essentially, Amazon Web Services tailored to the needs of government computing – governments, after all, usually have far more stringent (and specific) requirements and regulations than private businesses. This is a business providing a (rather massive), technology service to government agencies looking to deploy computing workloads (often based on Open Source platforms and technologies).

Software vendors are involved too. SUSE has built a successful business around Linux and Open Source for years. That's right. SUSE works, directly, on Open Source software and earns a profit doing so. Crazy, right? And, like Amazon (sometimes actually with Amazon), SUSE offers its services to governments. Or Red Hat. They've been making a profit selling services around their enterprise Linux distro, including to government agencies, for quite some time now.

These are just a few examples of for-profit technology companies that governments are utilizing to save money with Open Source. I could fill up several articles with other examples. And that doesn't even get into the realm of the smaller IT shops and consulting firms that directly benefit from governments (large and small) moving their infrastructure over to Linux and related technologies.

I suppose the reality is this: You and I don't need to be convinced of the viability of Open Source and Linux in government at this point. Nobody does. The track record is proven. The question now is... how fast can the remaining government organizations of the world, that have not yet made the move to Open Source, jump on the bandwagon and start reaping the benefits?

[I would hate to be the last government using mainly proprietary software. Imagine how much all the other governments would tease us? They'd call us names like “Proprietary Parliament” or “Closed Source... Constitution”... Okay. So those are terrible examples. But I'm sure the governments of the world could come up with some really wicked burns.]