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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For agencies that want to consider open source software, five tools in particular offer significant potential advantages to government:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about NIC is available at www.egov.com.