2009. november 22., vasárnap

Is Cloud Computing Killing Open Source in Government?

I know that some reader will raise their eyebrows reading the title. After all, cloud computing is intimately connected to open source: Linux servers are at the basis of most cloud infrastructures, and several applications that can be consumed as a cloud-based service are either open source or based on open source components. One may be almost tempted to look at the two as being strictly intertwined and mutually dependent.

Well, maybe they are from a vendor perspective, but a client conversation this morning confirmed my suspicion that they may be on a crash course, as I already wrote a few months ago. I was chatting with a CIO from a local authority in the UK and we were discussing about the outlook of open source software deployment in local government around the world. The UK government published an interesting open source policy (a Gartner research note for subscribers is available here), but it appears that not much happened since its publication. A recent survey of local authorities showed that many are still waiting for more guidance around product assessment and maturity models from central government.

But the new buzzword, both in London and in Washington, is cloud computing, and in particular the definition (and – maybe – development) of a government cloud (nicknamed G-cloud). So open source software is certainly losing momentum and political appeal, while cloud computing is gaining press coverage and executive interest.

More concretely though, and this was the point of our conversation, cloud-based alternatives to proprietary infrastructures, operating systems, office productivity suites, web servers and other applications, are becoming more palatable than open source software. First of all, going open source does not free a government agency from a vendor, who will provide an open source product (usually cheaper than a proprietary one): government agencies downloading their own operating systems or word processors from community sites and maintaining them with internal resources (including contractors) are in a tiny and rapidly declining minority.

Therefore some of the primary drivers to choose open source, i.e. cost and vendor independence, are just going away: in most cases cloud-based solution are going to be cheaper (and more elastic), and to use open source one has to go through a vendor anyhow. As a consequence I have seen a drop of interest in open source and corresponding surge of interest in cloud computing to solve pretty much the same problems (how do I reduce my dependence on Microsoft? how do I save on licensing costs?).

Of course there are still plenty of reasons supporting the importance of open source.
  • What if you have to change vendor (because it goes bust or just becomes too expensive)? With open source there is a chance that another vendor or at least a community can support you, whereas portability between cloud services is still far from reality.
  • What about the impact on local economy? Many have predicted the beauty of open source in government on the basis that it would create and sustain a local ecosystem of IT skills. This is not the case with cloud-based applications, that most likely run somewhere else without using any of the physical or intellectual resources in your jurisdiction, and without even indirectly benefiting your economy.

However these issues pale if compared with increasing budget constraints, hiring freezes that prevent from refreshing skills, financial vulnerability of small vendors and so forth. Cloud computing implies risks, but creates economies of scale that can benefit large as well as small government organizations.
Let’s face it. While open source software has often increased the need for application development ad other technical resources, cloud computing may ultimately make IT go away. Which one do you think sound more appealing to government executives?

Andrea DiMaio, Gartner Blog Network
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