Open Source: Looking for an opening

“Unbreakable Linux,” says the full-page ad on the back cover of the Economist. It goes on to say, in case you didn’t already know, that “everyone knows Linux costs less. Now it’s faster and more reliable too.”

That’s IT giant Oracle, peddling open-source products to the world. But Oracle is not the only giant in the forest. Since the late 1990s, IBM has had its own major commitment to research and development in open source. In 2001, the industry biggie sealed its promise with a $1.3 billion investment in the development of Linux-based products.

Plus: IBM is taking the supply-side lead in bringing Linux, the UNIX-like operating system developed in Finland by Linus Torvalds, to the world’s public sector.

IBM’s worldwide Public Sector Business Area actually has a dedicated Linux program director – Mary Ann Fisher, who works out of Somers, N.Y. – responsible for driving Linux “go-to-market initiatives in the public sector” around the globe.

Pushing a prime time player

Mary Ann Fisher is IBM’s Linux program director, responsible for driving Linux “go-to-market initiatives in the public sector” around the globe. Fisher spoke on the future of open source in government at a recent Technology in Government Week session in Ottawa. Her deceptively laid back delivery belies the fact that “driving” IBM’s public sector business is exactly what she does. According to Fisher, “Linux is ready for prime time.”

Fisher began her career with IBM as a systems engineer and at one time managed the company’s procurement and contract management operations with the U.S. federal government’s civilian agencies, so she presumably knows her way around public sector IT needs.

She has developed IBM’s investment and product strategies for the government, higher education and health care sectors, and points to an impressive number of IBM successes in delivering Linux-based applications.

Cases in point:

    The U.S Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Lab is using IBM 300 x330’s to drive up capacity and improve computational fluid dynamics and other numerically intensive applications.Australia’s Northern Territory Department of Education is deploying 200 x220’s and 4000 Net Vista PC’s to improve student IT education and teacher professional development in the northern, more remote parts of the country.China Postal is implementing xSeries systems to automate manual postal processes. These systems are also integral to e-mail management.Mexico’s Instituto Federal Electoral uses IBM 330 xSeries 3000’s to host an intranet used for voter registration and election monitoring.The U.S. Department of Commerce National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Weather Service is replacing Hewlett-Packard systems with IBM Intellistations for weather forecasting and analysis applications on the Advanced Weather Information Processing System at centers located around the country.Canada’s Genome Sequence Centre is using 40 x330’s and the Ultrium Scalable Tape Library to find innovative means to automate gene sequencing and fingerprinting processes.

Globally, private and public sector penetration by Linux is gaining ground at an astonishing rate. IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm that forecasts worldwide markets and trends for the use of IT clients, reported in February that (a) Linux is the fastest growing server operating system worldwide, (b) Linux-based server licence shipments are second only to Windows NT, and (c) Linux server shipments are expected to increase by 37 per cent in 2002, compared to 7 per cent projected growth for Windows NT server shipments.

From data gathered in its March 2002 Linux Developer Survey, Evans Data Corporation predicts a growth in North American developer adoption of Linux from 22 per cent in 2002 to 40 per cent in 2003.

Most of this growth, to be sure, is probably still in the private sector. According to Sam Williams, a Brooklyn, N.Y. writer on software development, usage of open-source software by government, at least in the U.S., “seems to be trailing business usage by about 12 to 18 months.”

Still, there is little question that governments elsewhere in the world are taking to open-source systems such as Linux like, well, like penguins to water. (The penguin has become the cute and cuddly symbol for Linux, no doubt to promote it as user friendly. IBM has recently put the penguin in a dark blue suit.)

Wired News reported in September that “over the past year or so, more than two dozen governments have passed or proposed nearly 70 laws or policy changes that stipulate or strongly encourage governmental use of open-source software.”

Surveys by Wired News and the IDG News Service catalogue a host of government forays into open source. To name just a few:

    In October 1999, two French senators introduce a bill that would require all French government agencies to use software with accessible source code. The following February, the Ministry of Culture and Communications announces a plan to replace proprietary software on hundreds of its mail, file and Web servers with a mix of open source-based servers. Heightened security concerns are said to be the reason.In 2000, reports out of China suggest that the government is getting ready to name a Linux-based system as its official operating system. By 2001, the government announces its investment in Red Flag Linux, citing the risk of China’s software market becoming dominated by foreign vendors.In 2001 in Peru, Congressman Edgar Villanueva introduces a bill that would require the government to use open source instead of proprietary software. He cites a huge debt load related to proprietary licensing, and refers to similar legislative efforts in Argentina and Brazil.In 2002, the migration to Linux has picked up steam. The Korean government has bought 120,000 copies of a Linux-based office suite, while a government-subsidized technology development group in Thailand announces the launch of open source-based desktop software for use on government computers. In Germany, the government has announced a deal with IBM to promote hardware and software products supporting Linux for public sector use.


Not surprisingly, Microsoft, the world’s largest supplier of proprietary software, has been forced to give ground in order to retain important government clients. Britain, for example, has negotiated tough new terms with Microsoft to lower the cost of desktop software used by its 500,000 government employees, a move that will save a reported $150 million over three years.

But Microsoft has succeeded with a more aggressive approach on some fronts. According to IDG News, Austria’s Ministry of the Interior recently bought into Microsoft’s Shared Source Initiative. The initiative affords access to the Windows XP source code, which among other things allows for a user to create custom applications and to better protect itself from security threats.

In Mexico, Microsoft has been able to avert the migration to open source of a huge government project to put 100 million Mexican citizens online. In return for a $100 million investment in the project by Microsoft, the government of Vincente Fox agreed to go with Microsoft software.


A big part of the impetus driving governments and increasing numbers of private sector operations to open source is Microsoft’s new Licensing 6.0 program. The new volume-licensing program, introduced in August, raises maintenance and upgrade prices as well as new product prices. Those who don’t keep products up to date will pay more to upgrade down the line.

According to a survey done by the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology research company, more than 40 per cent of respondents were “outraged” by Microsoft’s new licensing scheme The author of the report’s, Laura DiDio, told PC that while the licensing scheme was the biggest irritant, respondents also cited a number of other reasons for considering alternatives to the Windows operating system. These included security flaws, perceived monopolistic practices on the part of Microsoft, delays in the delivery of products, and confusion about Web services and practices.


Most of these concerns affect public sector users as well. But several other factors that make governments ripe for increasing adoption of open source-based applications, according to IBM’s Fisher.

One of the most critical is that governments, in North America at least, are facing a huge exodus of trained IT personnel over the next five years, as baby boomers start to retire. Fisher says Linux is so accessible that a whole new generation of technical personnel is already fluent in it. “I see kids all the time at McDonald’s with Linux books.”

Another factor is the focus on improving service to citizens while cutting costs, a trend that manifests itself in major e-government initiatives around the world. E-government poses a host of security, budgetary and infrastructure consolidation issues that Linux-based systems are particularly suited to addressing, according to Fisher.

IBM’s Linux-based systems are currently being sold to government for such applications as collaborative computing, e-mail infrastructure, Web serving, intranet communications and distributed database management. And solutions are on the horizon in such government-relevant areas as e-procurement, e-learning and customer relationship management.

And in Canada? Nancy Desormeau says the federal government “has been producing and using open source for 20 years.

“So I have to ask what all the flap is about all of a sudden.”

Desormeau is director-general of e-government services at Government Telecommunications and Informatics Services (GTIS) in Public Works and Government Services Canada. She is also director-general for architecture and infrastructure at the Chief Information Officer Branch in Treasury Board Secretariat, the other lead department on information technology and management issues.

So she’s well positioned to ask the question.

Given Desormeau’s apparent puzzlement, it’s not surprising that the government has yet to make any kind of public policy commitment to increased use of open source-based systems. Still, it’s “being proactive in supporting open, vendor neutral standards, accessibility, innovation and opportunity,” says Joseph Potvin, an enterprise architecture manager at GTIS.


Richard Lamothe, an Ottawa-based supplier of media monitoring services who uses an open source-based technology, is inclined to think that the government’s support for vendor neutral standards is less than uniform.

When Lamothe ran up against what he considered to be an unfair RFP requesting media monitoring services – one that discriminated against his technology – he took the RFP issuer, the Library of Parliament, to the Canadian International Trade Tribunal (CITT). The CITT is the bid challenge authority under NAFTA, the Agreement on Internal Trade and the World Trade Organization Agreement on Government Procurement. It is also Canada’s bid challenge authority with respect to federal government procurement.

More than $40,000 later, in legal fees incurred by Lamothe to mount the challenge, the CITT found that requirements in the Library’s RFP indeed “discriminate[d] in favour of bidders offering Microsoft-based solutions to the detriment of those that do not.”

The tribunal said that “the Library, in setting out the requirements of the RFP, relied extensively on trade names as a proxy for performance specifications, when recognized open standards exist, and introduced unallowable and/or unsupported and non-documented extra support costs for bidders offering non-Microsoft-based solutions, thereby structuring an RFP that favours one class of bidders, those offering Microsoft-based solutions, over the other bidders. In the tribunal’s opinion, this amounts to discrimination.”

As much as he dislikes discrimination against his technology, Lamothe loves open source. He is connected to an informal group of open-source users dubbed by Potvin as the GOSLINGs, or the Getting Open Source and Linux Into Governments group.

GOSLING activist Russell McOrmand says the GOSLINGs are well on their way to becoming a GOOSE, or Government Official Open Source Engagement group, which would oversee the creation of a new IT portal. The portal, says McOrmand, “will be a central place to discuss Linux and open source in the public sector. The focus will be on the Canadian federal situation, but there will also be information we have found about initiatives in other countries, as well as other levels of government in Canada.”

Meanwhile, when Lamothe is asked the question posed by Desormeau – “why all the flap about Linux all of a sudden?” – he responds with a blunt endorsement: “It’s superior technology, at a lower cost.”

You’d think he’d seen the Oracle ad on the back of the Economist.

Catherine Morrison ( is a freelance writer based in Chelsea, Que. A former reporter and writer with the CBC, she specializes in information technology.