Open Source Could Cut Costs for Federal, State and Local Government (Opinion)

Despite few U.S. public-sector success stories, open source offers significant cost savings.

by / June 22, 2009

The public sector, especially the federal government, has been slow to embrace what may be the single most important innovation sweeping the technology world -- open source software. It holds the "keys to the kingdom" in making government more efficient in conducting its business, serving citizens securely and better managing tax dollars spent on technology.

Open source technology enables both equal access and the freedom to distribute a technology's source code -- in essence the "language" on which it's built. It includes an accepted set of standards that allow a business or government the freedom to move its critical data and IT services on, off and in-between products from different companies, whenever it chooses.

Think about your car. In the U.S. we've agreed to drive on the right-hand side of the road. We've agreed on traffic rules and signals. The gas pedal goes on the right and the brake goes on the left. These are our "open standards" for driving. Still, we're free to purchase any car from any car company we wish. And if we're not happy with the car we bought, or we don't think the price is fair, we're free to shop around. We don't need a new driver's license or to invest time and money learning to drive a different type of car.

It's the same with the global commercial open source movement. And the first major benefit the government can realize from this freedom and openness is reduced costs. Commercial open source technologies cost less than closed, proprietary technologies. Open source software can typically be downloaded for free. And open source technology and open standards allow multiple vendors to compete fairly for the government's business. Such competition brings more choices, better products and lower prices.

The cost savings are astounding. In the UK, where the government recently announced it will accelerate the use of commercial open source software, it's estimated that the move away from proprietary technologies could save £600 million a year. Here in the U.S., a recent report from MeriTalk estimates federal IT savings could reach "$3.7 billion from open source." These cost savings can't be ignored, especially when taxpayer dollars are footing the bill.

Think, if you will, about government procurement scandals of the past involving unexamined purchases that led to disclosures of $10,000 toilet seats and wastebaskets and other irresponsible spending. Proprietary software is this decade's procurement scandal waiting to happen with government agencies wasting millions on proprietary technologies when equivalent open source technologies are available for just thousands of dollars, or in some cases, free. Creating a formal policy around open source use and procurement brings more transparency and a level playing field to the government technology bidding process.

The second major consideration is security. Ensuring the security and integrity of our government's sensitive data and critical IT systems is crucial. Commercial open source technologies provide more security than their proprietary counterparts because open development means hidden breaches aren't buried in the code. They are ferreted out more quickly and efficiently, and rigorous testing ensures three-letter agency security levels.

Finally, open technologies enable every citizen to better communicate with our government, do business with government agencies, receive government services and access public data. This happens when all government and "citizen-owned" content share common standards and don't require the use of proprietary technologies (word processors and spreadsheets, Web browsers or e-mail clients) to access it.

By no means is open source a new idea. Open source technologies and solutions such as Java, Linux, Solaris, MySQL, Apache and OpenOffice are well established and well proven the world over -- literally billions of people are using them. Some of the world's most successful companies -- like Google and Facebook -- run

their businesses on them.

There are a few success stories in the U.S government as well, yet we still lag behind the rest of the world in making use open source. Governments in the UK, Brazil, Denmark, the Netherlands, China and Germany -- just to name a few -- have all engaged in formal, wide-scale deployments of open source technology, with many having articulated specific policy on open source. Without its own open source policy in place, the United States risks widening economic and technological competitive gaps between itself and the rest of the world.

In the end the best performing, most cost-effective technology is always the right technology for the job -- whether it's open source or proprietary. But I do believe our government needs to embrace open source technologies and develop a formal policy for their use. Open source supports many of the new federal administration's stated goals; better security, faster deployment, open government, and more responsible spending.

The time is now for the United States to capitalize on open source technology.


Bill Vass Contributing Writer
Bill Vass is the president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems Federal Inc. and the chief technology officer of Sun's Global Accounts and Industry organization. Vass focuses on providing the U.S. government and elite global accounts with open, secure and efficient solutions to solve unique IT challenges for large-scale organizations.