As the federal government continues to look for ways to trim spending, the use of open source software is being considered as a way to save costs in the federal IT community.
At the recent Government Open Source Conference, a panel on open source cost savings drew a packed house. “What I saw in this panel was a real change in the government attitude toward open source: it’s not new, it’s not revolutionary,” wrote Gunnar Hellekson, chief technology strategist for Red Hat. “It’s just an extremely effective tool that agencies are learning how to put to its best and highest use.”
Many federal agencies already use some form of open source software, which has lower acquisition and maintenance costs, flexibility and access to source code, and freedom from vendor lock-in. Former U.S. chief information officer Vivek Kundra advocated open source in federal IT acquisition and later Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy issued a memo that emphasized reminded federal agencies “to select IT based on appropriate criteria while analyzing available alternatives, including proprietary, open source and mixed source technologies.”
Yet the Defense Department has been slow to implement open source software, even though it help cut costs significantly, said Kane McLean, a developer at BRTRC, a Fairfax, Va.-based information technology firm.
“The real message you want to communicate is that you’re doing the same job you were doing before–because you have to meet the mission–but you’re doing it without bumping your cost higher,” McLean said, referencing how the Defense Department can implement open source. “When you can explain that they can write a much smaller check, that usually starts getting their attention.”
David Wheeler, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses, does not advocate for government agencies to always adopt open source software, but said it often has benefits. “Open source isn’t always cheaper, but it’s often a bargain,” Wheeler said.
Still, the traditional government procurement infrastructure presents sizeable challenges to open source adoption. Wheeler said at the conference that “unless you’re used to dealing with the government, it’s really hard to get in.”
The open source community should learn how to interface with the procurement structure around government, which is an infrastructure, said Greg Elin, chief data officer at the FCC.