Australian government banks on Linux apps

In the boldest manifestation of public sector insourcing in Australia to date, federal government agencies are developing their own open source-based applications and will make them available for re-use across the whole of government in the form of generic software application held in code banks.

Known as “white-branding”, the push by agencies to develop their own applications has the backing of the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) in conjunction with agency representatives sitting on the government’s Chief Information Officer Committee and Information Management Strategy Committee.

Acting Australian government CIO John Grant confirmed to Computerworld that a number of government-commissioned, White-branded open source solutions are under development, but declined to nominate which agencies were considering or pursuing White-branding projects.

Grant stressed that White-branding initiatives had come about purely because they represented the best interoperable solution at the best price rather than any rejection of proprietary software models from vendors.

“Re-use of (code) is important. We don’t want to keep reinventing the wheel, we want agencies to focus on continual improvement. Interoperability is a key issue in the government now. We wanted to create the ability to share and re-use data, albeit within the privacy and security frameworks that must exist.”

“I think there is an increasing consideration of what is already available when agencies are looking at replacing or putting in new systems — rather than developing from scratch. That’s what you are seeing,” Grant said.

While loathe to say vendors were failing mandated government interoperability expectations, Grant conceded commercial interoperable product (fit for purpose) probably would have been used if available.

AGIMO acting general manager for sourcing and security Tony Judge also confirmed more White-branding initiatives are in the government pipeline.

Judge said the government had already gone public with White-branding at the 2003 Linux.conf user group conference in Adelaide, citing a Linux-based content management system (CMS) developed at the request of AGIMO precursor, NOIE in conjunction with Canberra-based open source developer Squiz.

“This is one of the very early OS solutions where we have gone through a re-use model. That in itself is interesting, and I think it will be the forerunner for a couple of others. There is potential to extend on that model,” Judge said.

AGIMO is also citing a long-held government habit of hanging onto and exporting systems that work well, usually based in administration and management rather than IT per se.

“There’s been quite a history of government sharing these (systems). They have ranged from ministerial correspondence management systems through to grants systems and a whole range of other things,” Grant said, adding that when the private sector does deliver genuine, common-usage potential “agencies may pick that up”.

Meta Group vice president for technology research, Michael Barnes, said the White-branding initiative could succeed, provided agencies can agree on what they want and initiatives were driven by users rather than IT.

“The fundamental reason why code re-use has failed (so far) is not technology, it’s all the different issues that have prevented collaboration in the past: organization, compensation and politics. (But) where there’s a common agreement, and (re-usable code) can be a common, shared and consistent service, it is viable,” Barnes said.

Not content with beavering away at re-usable code initiatives, AGIMO is also preparing an Open Source Procurement Guide to assist federal agencies evaluating their software purchasing options.

Similar to AGIMO’s recent best practice guide on public sector ICT procurement, the open source guide will set benchmarks so agencies can gauge if open source presents the best solution for the best price. According to Grant, the guide is expected to be completed sometime over the next three months and is being compiled because of genuine, federal ICT user interest.

“There is an increased interest in open source. That interest is leading to requests (from government ICT users and CIOs) for better information about the aspects that affect open source. For example there is a view that it is cheaper and often free to buy OS product. I think the case probably is that often OS isn’t free and doesn’t mean (to be) free,” Grant said.

However, AGIMO’s latest guide is not, Grant insists, any sort of mandate to use or favour open source over proprietary software.

“What we are trying to do is continue to provide information so that people make informed decisions and not get caught up in innuendo, myth and legend. The bottom line is that our expectation is that if open source software makes good common sense and business sense, and it fits in with what you need to do, then use open source. If proprietary software makes good common sense and business sense, use proprietary software,” Grant said.

Grant also conceded that feelings can run hot in the ongoing debate over proprietary and open source models, especially once word gets out.

“Already we have had people coming in and saying “great to see you pressing for the adoption of open source” and you have to say, well hang on, you have to be balanced in this — you can’t just be open sourced. We get both sides of it…” Grant said.

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