Real World Government Open Source

"Departments should take an inventory of software purchases and software renewals in the Fiscal Year 2004-2005 and implement open source alternatives where feasible"

by / October 12, 2006

Bill Welty, CIO of the California Air Resources Board, is well-known as an open source evangelist. Today, in Portland, Ore., he spoke at GOSCON 06 -- the Government Open Source Conference -- to a gathering of the faithful.

Bill Welty

The first day's agenda covered a full range of topics, from the philosophical bedrock of the open source movement down to the hard realities of government procurement. Welty is no novice to the order, as he was a Berkeley student in the 60s and has been using open source in government since 1994.

He asked the audience -- ranging from students at Oregon State University's Open Source Lab, to state and local government IT staff and vendors -- to consider that in 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote BASIC, and Gates complained that people were stealing his product and asked them to pay up. Linus Torvalds, on the other hand, created Linux, published the first draft on the Internet and gave the OK to others to use it and/or change it. In a conference notably free of Microsoft bashing, Welty said this highlights the schism between proprietary and open-source business models.

Welty gave a rapid-fire look at the realities of open source in government. "The doors have been blown open in California," he said. "In 2004 when Governor Schwarzenegger signed the California Performance Review a section called State Operations #10 specifically authorized the use of open source."

Operations #10 says: "Departments should take an inventory of software purchases and software renewals in the Fiscal Year 2004-2005 and implement open source alternatives where feasible."

In addition, Schwarzenegger recently signed AB 32 which mandated a ratcheting down of CO2 emissions. The technology underlying that, said Welty, will be open source. When you collaborate on such a global issue, it's helpful if you use open standards so everyone can communicate and interoperate, he explained.

Welty estimates that since 1994, the Air Resources Board has saved over $500,000 in products and licenses by shifting to open source products.

Getting and keeping extraordinary staff is easier when you are an open source shop, said Welty. "When you advertise 'we do open source'" he said, "you attract innovative people. And staff morale is better. They feel like they are a part of something big and they are the owners of what we do."

The bottom line is that open source produces good software, and development and distribution models seem to be working, he said. "And it also keeps the IT marketplace competitive -- we like that."

Currently, said Welty, 65 percent of the Board's applications run on Linux, 89 percent of their Web applications run on Apache, and 67 percent of the applications requiring a database use an open source product such as MySQL.

And the Board is not alone. Welty said a recent survey of 128 departments resulted in 50 responses of which 30 said they were using open source. "These are not just backwater applications," said Welty, they include the Department of Finance, the Franchise Tax Board, Department of Justice and the Governor's Office.

Also, said Welty, the State Archives is interested in open standards. "How do you guarantee that what you are doing today will be able to be read 100 years from now?" He said the answer is to adopt standards for archiving using non-proprietary products.

"Who should set the tech roadmap for the organization," asked Welty. "Who controls our IT budget? Is it controlled by the licenses we inherited? Who controls the

destiny of our data? Off-the-shelf software may be easier to install," he said, but it imposes proprietary file formats, and limits access to data by product upgrades. With open source, he said, data is not buried in proprietary black boxes. "We really do own our own data."

Welty said that California CIO Clark Kelso invited managers to investigate open source and said that if their bosses have a problem with that, to have them call him [Kelso].

Welty said his department's budget for software is so low, it runs on "budget dust." When the state went through a recession, he said, "Some departments cut people to pay software licenses. We didn't have those licenses and didn't have to cut people."

And finally, said Welty, open source is great for disaster recovery. If there is another disaster like Katrina, "disaster recovery just screams for open source." While proprietary stuff might have a long procurement cycle, with open source the department can jump in and begin working immediately. "The key is: 'It's OK to use open source," concluded Welty.

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