RFI for open source software aimed at wrong target

Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) is barking up the wrong tree in its latest initiative to gain a better understanding of open source software, according to open source insiders.

Last month, the PWSGC issued a request for Information (RFI) for what it called no-charge licensed software so that the department could eventually develop “transparent guidelines” on the planning, acquisition, use and disposal of such software products. The call was put out through Merx, the government’s online public tender system. The RFI provides an opportunity for those interested to provide information they feel Canada should be aware of when developing these guidelines, the department said.

The deadline for submissions is on Thursday, Feb. 19.

Canadian technology industry analysts viewed the RFI as an encouraging move towards greater acceptance of open source software in the government, but at least one open source expert said the request missed the mark.

Channeling the RFI through Merx places a heavy emphasis on vendors and the narrow focus marginalizes a larger open source audience, said Russell McOrmond, an Internet technical consultant and policy coordinator for CLUE Canada (The Canadian Association for Open Source) , an organization promoting the use and development of free open source software.

For example OpenConcept hosted a survey and John Nash, a retired professor of management at the University of Ottawa hosted a Wiki to collect information from the open source community as part of their submissions, McOrmond said these were not considered as submission by the department.

He also said there are many people in government who are already involved in open source projects. He mentioned organizations such as GOSLING (Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments) and Canada GOOSE (Canada Government Official Open Source Engagement) volunteer and informal learning communities of civil servants involved in open source research.

McOrmond, who is currently working on contract for Agriculture Canada on a geographic information system project, said he recently made his own submission to the PWGSC.

“The department is going about it as though they were out to buy a truck. But open source software is not like most items you purchase from a vendor. Open source software is a human resource issue as much as it is a product,” McOrmond said.

McOrmond fears that by going through normal government procurement processes the department is more likely to reach vendors of proprietary software products who are more likely to argue against open source tools.

For instance he said, among the questions posed by the department was: What are the general financial, technical and security risk associated with acquiring and using No-Charge Licensed Software?

“This question presupposes that if you acquire open source software, then there is a higher security risk associated with it. If you ask that question to a proprietary software vendor, they’re likely to provide answers that will bolster that assumption,” he said.

McOrmond also sees the term no-chare license software as a “marketing change” since covers “pretty much all software.”

“Vendors such as Microsoft already have per-seat support contracts which simply bundle the software at no additional charge, meaning that Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office easily qualify as no-charge licensed software,” he said.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) for instance, allow users to copy or install as many instances of the product as they wish without additional payment.

One Toronto-based analyst said it is necessary for the PWGSC to go through the Merx process because it needs vendor input.

“I imagine the department is going through a multiple streams but they also need Merx vendor feedback on issues such as, security, support and maintenance,” said David Senf, director of security and software research for analyst form IDC Canada.

For example, administrators would like to know more about how to handle MySQL attacks, he said.

But Senf said there also is a large number of people in government agencies who are already familiar with open source software because strong adoption in the government space.

“Open source adoption in the government spiked around 2002 to 2005 and sort of leveled off from 2006 to 2008. But we expect to see a lot of tire kicking again because of the economic situation,” he said.

Among the popular open source platforms in government agencies are Apache Web server,Linux,MySQL and FireFox.

Another analyst favours the approach taken by the PWGSC.

“In terms of practicality, going through Merx is the perfect approach,” said Darin Stahl, lead analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

He said government agencies have to answer to a lot of stakeholders and they need a process that will take into account various issues that might come up after a product is installed.

“I think it is a good move. They are seeking information so that they can intelligently evaluate open source software when they consider it,” he said.

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