Keeping an open mind on Open Source

“Keep an open mind on open source,” is a dictum that captures the Canadian government’s position on Open Source software (OSS).

“Our policy on Open Source is clear: we are free to use it, but that’s a business decision the project lead has to take,” said Helen Jelich, director general, public works and government services Canada. Jelich was the federal government spokesperson in a panel discussion on OSS at the recently concluded GTEC 2004 in Ottawa.

The three other panelists represented the vendor community and included Jack Pellicci, group vice-president of business development at Oracle, Nancy Faigen, vice-president and general manager of Linux at Novell, North America, and Alec Taylor, director of platform strategy for Microsoft Canada.

Jelich said the government’s position on OSS is in line with its “full spectrum” approach to IT projects. “This simply means we consider all options, including OSS, and adopt what’s best.”

All panelists agreed Open Source should be assessed on its merits, and by the same criteria and standards used to evaluate proprietary, closed source or gated technologies.

“No preferential treatment should be given to any type of software,” said Pellicci. He said Open Source adoption should be based on free and informed choice. “And free choice is not like free beer. Nor does it mean free software.”

The evaluation criteria, he said, are essentially the same for government and the private sector. “You need to look at the overall performance, support, and the life-cycle costs – not just the license costs. Security and privacy issues also have to be addressed. Finally, you must consider whether you have the skills in house to handle (an Open Source implementation).”

Pellicci said any decision on OSS adoption – whether in government or industry – should be preceded by a clear definition of technical and business requirements. “As part of this, you need to benchmark, look at best practices and educate employees about Open Source – what it is, what the license agreements are, and the implications of associated intellectual property rights.”

Faigen agreed and said adherence to these criteria takes on a new importance today with widespread adoption of OSS technologies across the public and private sector in North America.

“OS and Linux are no longer just for the blackshirts and backoffice geeks,” said Faigen. “It has become commercial…mainstream.”

In the U.S., she said, government agencies across the board – military departments, the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as service agencies like the post office – have all deployed Open Source.

She said OSS adoption in the public and private sector is so pervasive that it led Novell to change its software strategy.

After nearly 20-years of providing primarily vendor-written software and services, she said, Novell discovered there is much to gain by harnessing OSS technologies within its product suite. “So we have now become a provider of those technologies. We are changing our business strategy to embrace Open Source as part of the total solution we deliver to government agencies and companies.”

Taylor offered a significantly different perspective.

He emphasized that there is a “big difference between open standards and open source.”

The International Organization for Standards, he said, has clarified that an open standard is unrelated to the development model used for the implementation of that standard.

“This means you can implement open standards in a proprietary software solution as well as an open source solution,” he said citing the work done on the development XML and Web services by companies like IBM.

Taylor said open standards foster interoperability, which in turn enables government and public sector organizations to integrate backoffice and information services across departments.

He cited the example of how police departments could benefit from open standards. “Typically, police departments have huge backend management systems. One department may use Windows and SQL, another Unix and Oracle and so on. Open standards would allow information to be shared across departments.”

He said for large public sector enterprises considering OSS, the development model is far less important to their decision than the software’s ability to meet their business needs effectively.

For software products to pass muster, he said, they need to meet criteria such as interoperability (working across multiple hardware platforms and other technology assets), support (an ecosystem to ensure support services are obtained in timely and cost-effective way), indemnification (protection against potential issues and challenges) and backward compatibility.

“When these criteria come into play, commercialization becomes the key to success – and there has to be an ROI the enterprise can realize.”

Taylor said Microsoft has “no interest” in competing with the OSS development model. “The open source and commercial development model have co-existed for decades and both have made amazing contributions to software development.”

But he said Microsoft is competing with the commercial derivatives from the OSS model – such as Linux, MySQL, SendMail, and Apache.

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