It's an anniversary of sorts for Linux. The penguin-toting operating system (OS), with roots in Finland and the United States, turns 15 this year.

Much like any teenager, Linux has been eager to find its place, and with governments increasingly turning to it to run heavy-duty projects involving thousands of users, Linux looks to have done reasonably well for itself.

Linux and its worldwide community of supporters are constantly seeking further efficiencies and increasing security measures, leaving only one question for governments who haven't at least tried it yet: What are you waiting for?

Back at the Tiller

Bill Welty, CIO of California's Air Resources Board (ARB), started using open source in 1994, and hasn't looked back since.

In a well documented case, the ARB turned to Linux for a wide-scale project involving more than 700 users and the creation of an interactive Web site. By using open source code, the ARB reduced the project's cost from $27,000 to $59, and over the years, examples of such savings have become commonplace for the ARB.

Today the ARB has more than 80 applications running on Linux -- nearly 65 percent of its total applications -- and hopes to keep adding to its open source platform.

For Welty, however, a key benefit to implementing Linux -- beyond cost advantages -- is that it puts the government back in control of IT spending.

"Taxpayers should almost demand it," he said, adding that when California was going through budget crises, license fees and software upgrades often put agencies in uncomfortable situations. "They had issues trying to afford the ongoing licensing for products they were using. And in some cases, they were going to lay people off to cover the cost."

In addition to renewing license fees, some software upgrades also put unexpected burdens on agencies' finances. "Oftentimes you don't know why they're upgrading their product," Welty said of proprietary software vendors, "but it forces you to change your hardware, in which case you have to buy new hardware, just to deal with the new upgrade."

With Linux, however, agencies not only can install software applications on multiple servers -- for instance on a primary server and on its backup -- but they can also share these applications with other agencies without having to pay licensing fees.

"If I build an application for air monitoring, and I use open source for that, I could theoretically give that application to any air pollution control district in the state," Welty said, adding that as long as the other agency had the staff necessary to run the application, there would be no cost-prohibiting restrictions to interagency sharing.

Moreover, Linux lets agencies control procurement issues.

Because open source software is written to open standards, and is therefore more flexible, if an agency decides to update its computers, it doesn't have to be concerned with hardware-software compatibility, as it would with proprietary software. For instance, as Ed Hammersla, chief operating officer of Virginia-based Trusted Computer Solutions (TCS), pointed out, the IBM AIX operating system cannot run on a Sun piece of hardware, and vice versa.

"But with Linux, whether it's the Red Hat distribution or the Novell distribution -- or whether it's any of them -- you really can run those on all the popular hardware platforms," Hammersla said. "Some are tuned better, and perhaps perform better, but generally you can run them on all hardware."

Flexibility is also an important aspect of Linux as it lets agencies customize software to department needs.

"If you've got an organization that's got 200,000 people, do they all need all the bells and all the whistles all the time?" Welty said. "To some degree, you can stratify your procurements based on what people really do for a

Corine Stofle  |  Staff Writer