In September 2003, a modern version of the shot heard 'round the world was fired from Massachusetts' Executive Office for Administration and Finance.

All Eric Kriss, secretary of administration and finance, did was issue a memo to state agency CIOs summarizing a plan to move toward open standards in state government IT systems, but astonished stories in the media made it seem as if Kriss told CIOs the state was going back to punch cards for its computing needs.

Commonwealth officials hope the move toward open standards will not only save the state money in the long run, but also increase efficiency. Though using open source software in government is still somewhat controversial, the state has included it in its pursuit of open standards because it is easily adaptable to specific needs; it can be built, used and improved upon by many agencies; and it often costs less than proprietary software.

While some took the memo to mean Massachusetts was tossing proprietary software and installing Linux on all state desktop PCs, Massachusetts simply wants technology that is as adaptive and appliance-driven as possible to reduce the patchwork nature of the state's information systems, said Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn. Both proprietary and open source software will be used as long as they are not built on proprietary standards.

Three Simple Reasons

The first draft of Massachusetts' Enterprise Open Standards and Open Source Policy was released on Nov. 24, 2003, to articulate the state's rationale behind adopting the policy. The state isn't looking to shake up its entire enterprise infrastructure, but to approach IT more logically.

While some theorized that the state's new tack is connected to its dogged pursuit of an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft (the state is the only one that hasn't accepted the long-finalized DOJ settlement with Microsoft), the document lists several straightforward reasons for adopting the policy. First, system integration and data sharing make it simpler to efficiently deliver government services. Second, in today's tough budget climate, IT investments must be based on total ownership costs, and component-based software that uses open standards allows programs to be built once and used by many different agencies or groups. Third, open systems and specifications are often cheaper to acquire, develop and maintain, and do not result in vendor lock-in.

The document, approximately two months in the making, also states that all future IT investments will comply with the open standards Massachusetts set forth, and existing systems will be reviewed and enhanced to comply with new policy as needed. It also states that both open source software and proprietary software will be considered in a "best value evaluation" of potential open standard solutions.

"A best value evaluation should consider, at a minimum, total cost of ownership, fit with identified business requirements, reliability, performance, scalability, security, maintenance requirements, legal risks, and ease of customization," according to the document.

The policy places responsibility for compliance enforcement on the Information Technology Division. The ITD -- as part of its ongoing project review and oversight processes -- will review agency IT project plans and service requests before granting approvals. This will ensure they comply with policy, and that agencies evaluate open source alternatives. The ITD also is directing agencies to integrate language in all IT bids and solicitations that require open standards compliance.

In addition, the ITD released the companion Enterprise Technical Reference Model -- Version 1.0, drafted to help agencies identify standards, specifications and technologies that support Massachusetts' computing environment. And an Open Source License Legal Toolkit is under development.

Unknown Territory

Open source tools are already heavily used in some federal agencies, by many European governments, and in the private sector, which is also discovering their usefulness. It's clear this software genre has

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor