2009. november 22., vasárnap

Open Source in Government Is Irrelevant

Did I get your attention? I was sure I would.

Of course I do believe that both open standards and open source do play an important role in government (and I won’t get into explaining the differences – after six years that people discuss about this I’m confident we all have a fair idea).

Academics, researchers, vendors, public officers, politicians have spent zillions of words to articulate the importance of adopting open source to drive down cost, to reduce vendor dependencies, to increase choice, and so forth.

Earlier today I participated in a Facebook discussion with a few esteemed colleagues from academia and industry, and I heard again one of those old oversimplifications that I thought I would never hear again:  switching to an open source product makes you save the whole money you  would pay in license and maintenance fees to a proprietary vendor. To be clear, this would mean that, if you stop using Microsoft Office and replace it with Open Office, all the money you don’t pay to Microsoft is money you save (of course net of any transition cost).

Well, does it mean that open source does not need support? You will need to get it from somewhere, be it another vendor or your internal resources. So there is a cost.  This could well be cheaper than what you pay to the incumbent vendor, but in any case one has to go through a detailed and transparent comparison.
This discussion flagged another reflection though. How much money do governments spend in office suite licenses, or in operating systems, or in other software products that sit at the lower level of the technology stack? This is the money that some politicians and open source zealots say would be almost entirely saved by switching to open source.

Now, this software is almost a commodity. It is software that governments run as much as banks, retailers, manufacturers, utilities do. For this category of software and for most of the infractruture it runs on, the emerging alternative is cloud computing. Why should I bother looking for an email client to replace Outlook and coexist with my newly installed OpenOffice, if I can get email and office suite as a service with somebody like Google at a fraction of the cost and – most importantly – giving up the IT management burden too? Why are we talking about moving servers from Windows to Linux when the real question is why do we need to have our own servers in the first place?

There are plenty of areas where governments could commoditize their solutions. Think about government networks: why can’t one of these expensive infrastructures be replaced by a VPN running on the public Internet? Why do local authorities need to run their own server to host a web site, or even strike a deal with a vendor to have it hosted, when they can just create one in the cloud?.

If one took cost optimization as the primary driver for an IT sourcing strategies, open source would find its place and relevance much higher in the technology stack. It would help government organizations reduce the dependency on those vendors, very often local, that have developed bespoke systems for them and get paid dearly for maintenance, adaptation and – often – to resell the same or a similar system to another authority.
If governments want to fight the open source battle, they have to do so where they get more than marginal benefits: this is in the vertical application space. Anything below will be – sooner or later – a candidate for commoditization.

Andrea DiMaio, Gartner Blog Network
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