They’re constantly competing for government dollars, scrambling for political appeal and battling it out for executive interest. But this isn’t your typical no-holds-barred lobby war. Rather, the sparring partners in question are two of today’s hottest technologies: cloud computing and open source software.

Saddled with an annual $75 billion price tag for IT infrastructure and related resources, the U.S. federal government is eager to find new ways to slash its IT expenditures. With promises of cutting IT infrastructure costs, diminishing vendor dependence and reducing licensing fees, both cloud computing and open source software fit the bill.

But as the U.S. government readily embraces open source software and the feds increasingly adopt cloud computing, many are questioning how these two trends are destined to intersect in government IT. No wonder government agencies are starting to think long and hard about the policies, practices and preconceived notions surrounding these buzzworthy solutions.

Technology Bedfellows

At first glance, cloud computing and open source software more closely resemble kissing cousins than warring factions. Both technologies serve as cost-effective alternatives to proprietary infrastructures: cloud computing as a flexible way to procure server capacity and computing power, often through remotely located, widely distributed data networks; and open source software as a flexible means for sharing, viewing and modifying computer code with the help of an ever-widening network of organizations.

In fact, cloud computing and open source software are often part and parcel of the same solution. Linux servers are at the heart of many cloud infrastructures, and many cloud-based applications contain open source components.

So too is the push for cloud computing and open source software adoption equally as strong among government agencies. In June, the National Institute of Standards and Technology was designated by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra to accelerate the federal government’s adoption of cloud computing by spearheading efforts to develop standards and guidelines.

And then there’s Apps.gov, a site that serves as a virtual one-stop shop for approved cloud computing applications. Launched in September 2009 by the federal government, the site peddles cloud-based software that’s housed centrally and available via various devices.

As for open source software, several agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, have long relied on open source solutions like the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server. In June 2009, a coalition of about 70 open source companies, academic institutions, communities, groups and individuals joined forces to promote open source software to the public sector. The group, Open Source for America — which includes Google, the Linux Foundation and Oracle — acts as a central advocate for using open source and aims to raise awareness within government.

“Every agency in the D.C. government that wants to undertake a software implementation is required to look at open source alternatives before they make a commercial selection,” said Washington, D.C., CTO Bryan Sivak. Similarly, in January, San Francisco adopted a policy mandating that city agencies always consider open source options when buying new software.

Where the Commonalities End

That’s not to suggest, however, that cloud computing and open source software are interchangeable technologies. For many, cloud computing is an innovative, cost-effective delivery model, whereas open source software is a revolutionary licensing framework. And despite their shared ability to drive down the cost of government IT operations and spur innovation, these two technologies lay claim to some opposing pros and cons — variables that underscore the delicate interplay between cloud computing and open source software.

Just ask Mark Weatherford, the vice president and chief security officer of North American Electric Reliability Corp., and California’s former chief information security officer. “The beauty of cloud computing is that you don’t have to own or buy anything,” he said. “You don’t have to manage anything. I just write a check every month and somebody else does everything for me.”

But while he says that “certain functions are well suited to cloud computing,” Weatherford believes that government agencies should think twice before placing sensitive data in the cloud.

For starters, unlike open source software, cloud computing raises serious questions about how to safeguard government data and protect citizens’ information. Vulnerability to cyber-attacks, compliance with privacy policies, access to information through audits and transparency into a vendor’s internal infrastructure are concerns facing government agencies — and are convincing some to stick with on-premises open source software.

“[With cloud computing] you’re always going to have somebody who’s not one of your employees looking at your data,” Sivak said. “On the other hand, because open source code is completely open and vetted by the community as a whole, any security concerns or holes in the software would be found and filled by people who are evaluating the product.”

Even the much-touted cost savings of cloud computing are being heavily scrutinized by government authorities. “The community that feels that moving to cloud computing is cheaper hasn’t fully explored what the costs of cloud computing are and what the challenges of cloud computing are,” warned former California CIO Teri Takai.

In fact, moving to or replacing legacy applications in the cloud, heavy bandwidth usage and unanticipated architectural changes are only a handful of hidden expenses that can offset a cloud computing arrangement’s favorable pricing.

Push and Pull

So are cloud computing’s shortcomings enough to chase government agencies into the arms of open source software providers?

For many, the open source community’s collaborative spirit is a huge incentive to turn one’s back on anything proprietary, be it cloud-based or on-premises.

“[Using open source software], you can drop a question into a blog or user group and 10 minutes later, have a very detailed answer,” Weatherford said, “which is considerably different than calling [a vendor’s] tech support department and waiting for somebody to get on the phone.”

But buyer beware. Sivak warned that the evils of commercial software can also lurk in open source solutions. “Open source is not necessarily the cost panacea that everybody thinks it is,” he said. “A lot of people have this conception that open source is free software, therefore it’s zero cost. But in reality, a lot of effort needs to go into any open source implementation, especially with an ERP-level type software.”

Often offsetting open source’s cost savings is the need to bring in outside expertise, such as a third-party consultant or an additional staff member, Sivak said.

Takai agrees. “Open source is a very important trend for government, because there are opportunities and will continue to be opportunities around open source solutions,” she said. “However, open source is not the answer to all our prayers. I need to have the technical expertise to ensure that I can keep open source running and maintained.”

That’s especially true for government agencies that don’t have much faith in the reliability of open source software. “We have a lot of requirements that demand a level of uptime that require us to have vendor support,” said Bob McDonough, lead enterprise architect for cloud computing at the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget. “So even if we were to use an open source tool, we would still have to purchase vendor support in case a critical system were to become disabled.”

A Future Hybrid

But an increased need for IT expertise and application development isn’t likely to force government agencies to choose between cloud computing and open source software. In fact, selecting the right technology need not be an either/or proposition.

Sivak said the best of both worlds may come from open source software provided in the cloud. “You’re not actually paying a license fee,” he said. “You’re just paying an outsourced provider to host, maintain or implement that software for you.”

And most proprietary software contains open source components, McDonough said. “The idea of a monolithic, proprietary application is going to go away.” Instead, he envisions a future in which government agencies “will certainly have significant open source and proprietary software both running in the cloud.”

Skeptics need look no further than NASA. The space agency’s open source cloud computing platform, the federal government’s first, is dubbed Nebula and provides NASA with computing, storage and network services for its research community.

One small step for man; one giant leap for merging cloud computing and open source software.

Cindy Waxer is a journalist whose articles have appeared in publications including The Economist, Fortune Small Business, CNNMoney.com, CIO and Computerworld.

Cindy Waxer  |  Contributing Writer

Cindy Waxer is a journalist whose articles have appeared in publications including The Economist, Fortune Small Business, CNNMoney.com, CIO and Computerworld.