Open source software thrives in government and is in some ways a technical expression of democracy: engineers building common ground and forging a more open and free future for all.
But it’s also often misunderstood in parts of the public sector, seen as a time-consuming and unsupported solution. So if you’re on the fence about open source, keep reading to learn about benefits, evaluation methods, support tools and a few packages to consider right away.
Let's start with the benefits of open source software — why should agencies even consider it?
Agencies can tailor open source products, adding to or modifying the code to fit their specific needs. These modifications can include security patching for critical vulnerabilities measured in hours. Similar vendor products don’t offer this flexibility.
2. Matches competitors
Having many sets of eyes on the code means open source tools’ capabilities and functionality compete exceptionally well with commercial software.
Open source software usually is available at a much lower price point than buying a commercial product. In all cases, it is free, and valuable support options are available for popular packages.
4. Proven track record
Many open source products are proven by having accumulated strong communities of developers over a long period of time. An example is Linux, where a large group of people, including employees of established companies, watch over security and can work with government agencies to ensure the software’s safe use.
5. High quality
Government can be assured of high quality — defined by good testing and code review — if the open source technology is supported by a solid developer community.
6. Access to skilled labor
Using open source software may unlock a wider base of prospective IT talent to government agencies. The number of Linux specialists, for example, gives open source users greater access to skilled technology labor.
Open source software has so many potential benefits that in many cases, agencies should at least consider it when technology is a factor in solving problems or expanding services. And because open source software is so pervasive, all major products are graded just as commercial products are. To find open source software reviews, government agencies can access information technology research conducted by organizations such as Forrester and Gartner. These independent firms do deep dives to analyze technology products, including open source software.
Agencies also can connect easily to open source software communities online. It will be obvious which communities are developing robust products, because participants in the better communities will be actively and consistently engaged. Frequency of commits, releases and mailing list traffic are all excellent indicators of community health in the open source world. Also consider the size and diversity of companies that support a product directly through financial contribution or support and indirectly through employee involvement.
Five open source software products that can aid government
For agencies that want to consider open source software, five tools in particular offer significant potential advantages to government:
- OpenStack is a set of tools that allows users to create, automate and manage both public and private clouds at minimal expense. This technology, originally developed by NASA, is a good example of government developing open source software to meet a particular agency need, and then putting the software back into the open source community so others can add to and benefit from it. With OpenStack, government can set up its own cloud to hold data it doesn’t want in a public cloud.
- Jenkins is a continuous delivery tool that builds and tests software after every change. Once development and testing are complete, Jenkins can deploy new code to production with the push of a button, so there’s no down time in making the upgraded product available to constituents.
- Docker 1.0 was released in mid-2014, and the buzz around it has yet to die down. This tool “containerizes” applications with everything they need to run, allowing them to be moved around the cloud and ensuring they will run as well in one technology environment as in another. Like putting cargo into a container makes it easier to move from place to place, Docker streamlines the process of moving from a legacy server to the cloud or moving from one cloud server to another. This reduces government costs by preventing agencies from being held captive by an existing cloud provider’s prices.
- Spacewalk automates hardware and software inventorying, and software installations and updates for Linux server environments. By using Spacewalk and Linux together, an agency can maintain a low-risk security posture by deploying monthly patches at the touch of a button.
- Drupal, an open source content management system, is used to build websites and author content. Used by 37 percent of .gov websites, Drupal was the CMS technology of choice for the state of Colorado, whose proprietary tool had become inflexible and unstable after reaching more than 100 customers on the platform. The legacy solution also had been purchased by a large company, and its price was expected to increase significantly. After the state conducted an analysis of alternatives, Drupal stood out. With more than 1 million users worldwide, it offers ample online resources and contractors available for support, provides a relatively simple interface, is adequately flexible to support growth without significant investment and reduces the required implementation time by nearly 15 times. The effort has been wildly successful, and the state government portal has launched three distributions of Drupal to 174 state agencies in Colorado in the past two years.
Like any technology product, open source software isn’t right for every application in every government agency. But its capability for transforming the delivery of digital government services means there’s a best-use place for open source software in every government technology portfolio.
Jeff Shaw is vice president of IT for NIC Inc. (NASDAQ: EGOV), the nation’s premier provider of official government Web portals, online services and secure payment processing solutions for more than 3,500 local, state and federal agencies across the United States. You may reach him at email@example.com. More information about NIC is available at www.egov.com.