Open Source: Why Are You Still Waiting?

Open source technology has pervaded government IT. The private sector must follow, because of cloud, agility, mobility, and the wild card: teenagers.
An overworked staff and a long winter of budget cuts may be keeping you from tapping into a goldmine of cost recovery. Ironically, government is leading the way. Let me explain.

A few months ago I gave a tour of our city's IT facilities to a group of exchange students from Brazil. I told them about certain use cases we have for using open-source software. They expressed surprise, but not for the reason I expected. "What--you're not using open source software everywhere? Your budget must be huge!"

You see, since 2003 open source has been intertwined with Brazil's government, which claims to have realized hundreds of millions of dollars in cost savings. Critics with something to lose--notably Microsoft--claim that government workers immediately load up their Linux workstations with Windows, making the open-source desktop an illusion. Besides, Microsoft says, its software offers "better value" when the benefits are weighed against the costs.

[ Learn how NASA plans to use open source in its new Web architecture. Read NASA's New Web Plans Stress Open Source, Cloud. ]

Despite that vaunted better value, now Canadians are getting into the act, saying they too can save hundreds of millions by using open-source software. Think of this as a tradeoff: "If I need to spend $100,000 on training to save $1 million in licensing, I'm down with that."

The private sector needs to be thinking this way, too. Open-source software, used in the right cases, can save serious money with little sacrifice.

But here's the challenge: For many years, even though open-source infrastructure software was solid, the interfaces were complex and user-hostile. End-user gear was even worse: I laughed at every proclamation of "The Year of the Linux Desktop." In a world where it was difficult to find IT expertise, Microsoft provided training wheels and a Fisher-Price GUI.

So a crust of conventional wisdom hardened into place: open source was hard to use. Even in 2007, when renowned healthcare CIO John Halamka confidently declared the arrival of "Linux your grandmother could use", this message didn't penetrate most IT organizations.

How come? Judging by the findings of our 2012 IT Spending Priorities Survey, your staffs are overworked and under-resourced to the point that they're forgetting to focus on business technology innovation. But that crusty old paradigm is starting to crack--not just because of cost, but because of cloud, agility, mobility, and your teenagers.

Die-hard fans still get emotional about getting rid of Microsoft Office Professional, even at a hefty $200 per seat retail, but Google Docs has done a pretty darned good job of loosening that stranglehold. Even the Office faithful now see that it's possible to transition to this lower-powered cloud application suite without going out of business or losing employees. It's just like the transition away from WordPerfect 20 years ago.

The next step would be for companies to consider the free open-source Libre Office, even if it's not quite up to snuff with Google Docs and certainly not with Office. Only you can do the math and figure out whether, for basic word processing, spreadsheets, and drawing, $50 a year for X hundred or thousand seats is a better plan than free software requiring an internal support plan or external training.

Open-source development, because of its collaborative nature, moves faster. One dude writes it, another improves upon it. ESRI, a vendor of proprietary geographic information systems, and Microsoft, our database vendor, don't offer some of the advanced features my staff has created for a location-based business app using open-source tools PostgreSQL and PostGIS.

Because of the speed of innovation and advanced features of open-source products, we were able to create an app with a far faster end user response time than if we had relied on the two proprietary vendors. I'll take the agility any day, even though the skeptics have warned me of the dire consequences of using an open-source database.

But agility isn't limited to application options. I visited the Dell website the other day and noted this somber warning about the hardware I was preparing to buy: "Please note that this Microsoft software product may use technological measures for copy protection. In such event, you will not be able to use the product if you do not comply with the product activation or reactivation procedures..."

Unfortunately, my staff has to spend time deploying license management servers (clearly a value-added business activity!) so that we don't have to activate each and every license individually. Conventional software licensing simply adds to our administrative nonsense. We could do without it.

I look around my organization and see how executives and field users are quickly transitioning to mobile platforms. Even today some users don't want a laptop, and I predict fewer will want one tomorrow. Useful open-source software is available for mobile devices, too, including a barcode scanner, password manager, and data migration tool.

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If cost, cloud, agility, and mobility don't do enough to shatter the proprietary Fisher-Price model of enterprise IT, consider this: Your teenagers don't care what they use. Tomorrow's workforce just wants something that looks like what they see on Facebook or Google Docs. They're storing their stuff in the cloud; they don't need expensive training. These technology natives just grab it and go. And those teens and 20-somethings who are becoming developers don't particularly care about Windows vs. Linux. When I talk with young tech entrepreneurs, they don't express much loyalty. They're all about whatever's easy--in many cases Rails or Django, the Ruby and Python visual frameworks that abstract the end-user experience from the back-end code.

The haters will continue to diss open source, even as the Internet backbone continues to run on open-source software. Fearmongering is common: "Think of the cyber-security implications of critical elements of IT infrastructure being made public!" goes the tired old argument, as if there's never been a security vulnerability in proprietary software.

While they're out there hating and mongering, you can, in a strange twist of events, follow innovation in government and take advantage of open source in your organization.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at [email protected] or at @_jfeldman.

In our InformationWeek Government virtual event, Next Steps In Cybersecurity, experts will assess the state of cybersecurity in government and present strategies for creating a more secure IT infrastructure. It happens May 24.