Having done yeoman's work on the infrastructure side of enterprise networks over the last few years, open source software now merits consideration for mission-critical applications.

Computer aficionados have long written their own clever little applications to solve problems they've run into on own their personal machines. Linus Torvalds developed the most famous piece of open source software -- the Linux kernel -- in 1991 because he wanted an operating system that used computer hardware resources more efficiently. After some tinkering, he devised a program he felt comfortable sharing with other people, and he published it on the Internet -- inviting comments and refinements.

But open source software isn't just about clever little applications anymore. In recent years, open source software has gained respect in mainstream computing. The February 2005 Netcraft Web Server Survey discovered, for example, that more than 68 percent of Web sites use Apache Web server software. That's a lot of traffic being handled by open source software.

Part of open source software's success comes from the community of people behind an application -- an army of gardeners quite willing to spend countless hours pruning, tending and nurturing the code. In contrast to commercial software, no one "owns" open source software. Everybody can use it and make refinements or improvements to any piece of it. Often, communities of programmers collaborate remotely to create an ad-hoc group or foundation to work on advancements to the application.

For many, there's no profit motive. Participants know full well the applications are freely available to anyone wishing to download them. But today, big boys like Novell, IBM, HP and Red Hat have found a way to profit from selling enterprise-level support to private-sector and government customers.

Open source software is catching on in government because it can cost-effectively integrate incompatible systems, free agencies from onerous software licensing requirements and create more flexibility through adherence to open standards.

Still, open source software's relative newness in the public sector has people uncertain of how to approach issues tied to using it, such as sacrificing their right to ownership, securing reliable support, and perhaps profiting by selling applications developed in-house.

And it hasn't completely won the trust of most public-sector CIOs or IT managers when it comes to mission-critical applications. It's one thing if a Web server goes down. It's quite another if, say, a county application that processes human services benefits locks up and refuses to do what it's supposed to do.

Proving Ground

The rap on open source is that it can't be trusted, and relying on it for important back-office functionality is premature. Mississippi, however, made Linux the core of a new mobile data infrastructure, the Automated System Project (ASP), which will link police, fire and emergency medical personnel from three counties. The ASP will launch in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, but the hope is that the ASP will go statewide and perhaps serve as a model for a national program.

The ASP got a lot of press in mid-2004 on Web sites covering open source and Linux, with the general consensus being that the project is a significant milestone for Linux in government.

"Linux is poised to prove itself as a stable platform for government use," said Chris Alley, ASP chief architect. "Typically government IT managers are risk averse and would choose to go with a commercial operating system, rather than an open source platform. The commercial sector has embraced it over the last 10 years, and now it's poised to move into the government market."

Alley said he's received inquiries from several states about the ASP with the common theme of how Mississippi got agencies at federal, state and local levels to share information.

"It's such a huge problem to solve that it would be

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor