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Does the Launch Make the Case for Open Source?

5 benefits government could be reaping from open source.

by / November 14, 2013

The IT troubles of have baffled the public. After all, the U.S. government has had access to industry experts from the start and, as of Oct. 30, has spent more than $174 million on the site, according to testimony from Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

As that figure grows, many may find themselves questioning why and how a site with so much support could have faltered so profoundly. New reports from The Washington Post indicate that the site is still unlikely to be fully operational by the end of November, the White House’s second self-imposed deadline for the site.

Among experts offering potential remedies is Scott Chacon, co-founder and CIO of Github, an open source code-hosting site supporting developer collaboration.

In a Venture Beat article, Chacon speculated that open source code could have saved — and could do the same for many other government IT headaches.

“I would personally like to see the government default be open source,” he said.

The statement is notable, in that “default,” as the word implies, would mean the federal government wouldn’t just dabble in open source as it has done in the past, but fully embrace open source solutions as its first choice for all IT projects.

Bolstering his argument for open source, Chacon cited a variety of advantages, but pointed to security and collaboration as top arguments for change. Below are some reasons, from Chacon and others, why open source code could be the next big policy upgrade in government IT.

1. Interagency Collaboration

Few large IT projects can be done in a vacuum. In most cases, they require many sets of hands and eyes to ensure solid results and stable end products.

When government agencies use closed platforms and software, it's more complicated for each to communicate and collaborate on IT projects, Chacon said.

“Government agencies can learn from each other -- and from the world’s most brilliant developers,” said Chacon. “Everyone is on the same team.”

2. “Open” Does Not Equal Unsecured

Tech experts say open source code is safe -- more so, in fact, than closed coding. Oftentimes, the word “open” is confused with open access to the programs, platforms and websites using the code.

In a January interview with Government Technology, Gunnar Hellekson, public sector chief of Red Hat, described the two most popular misconceptions about open source code.

“The first (misconception) is that when it's open source, anyone can change it or anyone can alter it, like Wikipedia. In fact, open source communities have really robust mechanisms in place to ensure things like peer review before code is entered into the project.” Hellekson said.

The second misconception Hellekson identified is the assumption that a single organization, government or otherwise, has resources to identify all of a system's potential flaws.

“With an open source project, anyone can come in and audit it and look for flaws, and more often than not, they'll find it and then provide a patch,” he said.

One example of a federal organization successfully using open source code, according to Hellekson, is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which runs a program to audit major pieces of open source software to ensure security.

3. Momentum

It would be one thing if government agencies had never set foot in the open source arena. But they have and they’ve done so successfully.

San Francisco is one municipality on the forefront of open source usage.

“Open source software is created by the people for the people, and as such, is ideal for government,” said Gavin Newsom to Mashable, when as San Francisco mayor in 2010, he supported an open source software policy requiring city departments to consider open source products equally alongside their proprietary counterparts.

Benefits Newsom listed included lower costs, greater agility, better reliability, improved security and increased innovation.

Since then, other cities have followed suit. Chicago, for example, joined GitHub in February.

At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security started a program called HOST, Homeland Open Security Technology, to investigate the use of open source code for the agency.

According to the HOST Web site, the program has conducted interviews with state and local governments to collect information about their experience with open source solutions. The agency hopes to create a set of best practices for future federal research and development projects.

4. Freedom

Closed code often translates to closed doors when it comes to both IT support and the ability to select a different vendor in the future.

In a PC Mag editorial, the magazine said open source has a unique ability to liberate businesses and organizations from “vendor lock-in,” where a client is beholden to a software vendor’s proprietary development and support packages.

“Customers of such vendors are at the mercy of the vendor's vision, requirements, dictates, prices, priorities and timetable, and that limits what they can do with the products they're paying for,” the editorial reads.

5. Cost

If performance and efficiency improvements are big draws of open source, cost savings are at least equally as appealing.

Many jurisdictions across the country have seen significant cost savings due to open source, freeing up cash to reduce debt or for other projects. In August, Government Technology reported on the state of Georgia's 2012 adoption of Drupal’s OpenPublic and Acquia’s cloud storage, which eliminated server and maintenance costs, a savings of $4.7 million over five years.

In his Mashable editorial, Newsom didn’t offer an exact figure but said he also anticipated the city saving significantly with open source.

“Moving forward, there is an opportunity to save millions of dollars in software costs by using open source software. We are only scratching the surface,” Newsom said.

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Jason Shueh former staff writer

Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.

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