Linux in Government

Working on Linux in government? Here is a chance to talk to your peers.

Linux has been making serious inroads in government as well as in other markets. We all know why this is. The quick summary is it works well and the price is right.

As in most of the world, Linux has made its presence known in Costa Rica. My interview with Guy de Téramond, which appeared in the January issue of Linux Journal, detailed one example of Linux at work in Costa Rica. It also is running on servers at the Casa Presidential (the Costa Rican equivalent of the White House) and CIPET, a branch of the Ministry of Education that provides technical training for teachers.

I recently met with some Costa Rican system administrators who work in the government. In that meeting we talked about three issues:

  • technical issues of installing and running Linux;

  • the politics of getting users to accept Linux on their desktops; and

  • the upper level politics of getting Linux installed on desktops.

Before I get too far into the specifics of our discussion, let me give you a new resource Linux Journal has made available to help people involved in the "Linux in Government" effort talk to each other. We have a new mailing list, called gov-list. To join the list, go to this URL and sign up. We encourage the discussion of any issues you come across while getting Linux to do what you need within government.

Technical Issues

The technical issues seem like the easiest piece of the puzzle. Virtually no difference exists between making Linux work in a government environment versus any other environment. Linux works well; Linux interoperates with other systems; and Linux is reliable. Some unique issues may turn up in the government sector, but I sure haven't seen them.

One item that initially came to mind was the need to prove Linux works without buying new equipment. In fact, Linux can be loaded on existing PC hardware and should perform at least as well as what was previously installed. For hardware with limited capabilities, running Linux-based thin clients is an alternative. With a capable server, slower hardware with limited RAM can perform much better running Linux than it did when running another OS locally on the hardware.

Thus, the problem is really a political problem. Linux offers options, and it is up to you to figure out which options offer acceptable performance.

User Politics

User politics is one issue that comes up regularly. The good news is Microsoft has done a lot to make this one into a non-issue. Many office environments considering an upgrade currently run Windows 9x. A Microsoft-based upgrade means a change in what the desktops look like anyway. Odds are user resistance will occur whether the transition is to Windows XP or Linux. The fact that there will be a change in the user interface anyway could be a way of slipping Linux in the door.

In many environments, users are not particularly concerned with the OS behind the scenes as long as their applications look familiar. Both StarOffice and OpenOffice, for example, have managed to offer a familiar user interface to keep users comfortable. Similarly, a different web browser, whether it be Opera, Mozilla or Konqueror, performs the same functions as Internet Explorer and can be sold on its features.

If the office environment is composed of different departments, take advantage of Linux's ability to interoperate, and convert a department at a time. Done properly, the first converted department can help promote the overall conversion. In the end, the advantages of increased speed and reliability help offset any differences.

Upper Level Politics

Politics on the upper level is going to be the hardest issue to deal with in many conversions. On this level, politics is likely to take the form of vendor pressure to go with what they consider standard. Many vendors see the use of less expensive software as a loss of revenue, but this does not have to be the case. If an organization has $100,000 to spend, for example, show the vendor that the total expenditure is fixed. Work with them to develop a plan where they acquire happy customers, and they should go along.

Say you have $2,000/desktop to spend. By decreasing the software cost per desktop, more of the money could be spent on hardware. That could mean LCD displays instead of CRTs, faster computers or more printers. All of these items increase productivity and generally create a happier user base.

Take advantage of this model to show the vendor that more business is out there. If they embrace Linux and, as a result, make your agency run better than the next agency, they have a better chance of winning a bid from another agency.

Finally, one other card to play is the "buy local" card. With Linux you have a non-proprietary solution, which means you can support the solution locally. I know, for instance, that the Caja (the Costa Rican equivalent of the US's Social Security Administration) spends over $1,000,000 per year on support from Microsoft. It would be to Costa Rica's advantage to invest that money in local technical support rather than export the money to the US.


Phil Hughes


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Linux in Government (Argentina)

Anonymous's picture

We are using and development in GNU based software,
and a new site called is the most specific result (sorry for my english) of this.

Just take a look, in Argentina the "Ambito de Software Libre en el Estado Nacional" (...try to translate... "Group of GNU users/developers in the Government") is declarated of "National Interest".

Visit the page and please write me.


Already a global trend Re: Linux in Government

Jaco's picture

I live in Costa Rica and had been helping locally on a Congress Law to promote free software in the Public Sector. I want to take this opportunity to invite all the members to:

a new international organization created to promote the use of technology for social development (copy left to other sectors to...), and more specifically, the use of free software in the Public Sector and Development related projects. At this moment the group has members from Latinamerica, mainly from places where free software already is the first choice in the Public Sector, like the state of Rio Grande do Sul (8 million, $11Billion economy) in Brasil. Hipatia will be interested to keep in contact with people in this list who wants to see free software in the Public Sector.

I attended as a speaker in a seminar in the World Bank relating the use of OSS/FS in Governments and was very much impressed from the developments in the state of Kerala in India, I 'm happy to see in this list lawyers from Kerala!.

Definitely is a global trend already the move of Public Sector to free software. Too many cities and states already legislated and implemented, and the number is growing. Soon someone will draft a map showing this trend...In the US just California is hot on this issue, but most probably in 2003/4 many other states will follow the same path.

Re: Linux in Government

Anonymous's picture

You refer to 'older' equipment and desktops.

In the case of desktop users and given all the software and desktop options available, it would be great if distros did the following on install:

1. Inventoried the available hardware

2. Canvased the user to determine their most basic needs vs 'ideal' expectations.

3. Determined the possibiliy of any future upgrades being done.

4. Based the install on the above.

The install would size the software according to the hardware available. More 'meager' machines would get smaller/simpler installs. This would be especially useful for schools and other areas where IT dollars are scarce. The kernel could likewise be compiled on install to make it reflect the hardware inventory.

The net result would be a desktop tailored to the performance of the machine - not the other way around.

Re: Linux in Government

Anonymous's picture

What I need is:

1. A Linux interface to my SCADA systems

2. Autocad on Linux (Yes, I know that there are other cad programs. But we are heavy users of mapping software and there are many other third party software programs that interface with this standard.)

3. Tax, billing, accounting, and utility software packages.

4. A company to purchase support from for these products.

Linux is great for networking and desktop office use, but I'm still booting the other operating system 25% of the time.


Re: Linux in Government

Anonymous's picture

One thing I think linux solutions is lacking is a reliable, easy to install terminal server.

With terminal servers the TCO falls considerably since the hardware is minimal, (sometimes just a silent 486, without a HD, will do!).

And did I mention it must be _easy_ to install ?

I mean , distros should have a option to make a TS install, with programs that deals with DHCP and X config for the clients. Mozilla and openoffice ready to use wouldn 't be a bad thing :) .

Knoppix comes quite close to this, but works with new hardware only (PXE enable boards).

Another problem is to port/interact with old apps and servers (think in clipper / novel / cobol mainframes). Solutions to this will be very welcome.

Linux have a great place place in govermnts, as in ours houses and shops and cars. IMHO, it boils down to easy of installation, maintenance and use that make a difference.

Forget about making laws to put linux trough peoples' troat. The only way is to make a better, more manageble software.

Thanks and sorry for my english.

Easy, trivil, read messages above

Anonymous's picture

It is so easy to do this in Linux that you do it in 10 minutes (5 if you

Re: Easy, trivil, read messages above

Anonymous's picture

I find this particularly amusing as I installed Linux .99pl13 on my server (386/40) when it came out and ran it (NFS, dial-up net connection, mailing lists, and more) for five years. I upgraded because I wanted to add a larger SCSI disk and had to replace the motherboard because I needed a PCI slot for the new disk controller. In that five years the system was rebooted less than five times.
Sure, you can stay on the bleeding edge if you need to but a stable distribution is just that--you don't have to upgrade.

Re: Linux in Government

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely nothing could be easier to set up on the major distros than LTSP. There is even a RH based distro which does the whole thing out of the box, K12Ltsp

Re: Linux in Government

Anonymous's picture

You have no clue dude! I believe your post is FUD more than

anything else. Check out:

This is the answer to you terminal server question.

Secondly I am working as a consultant for a State Government.

I have turned them on to Perl. We have Perl applications talkking

to Cobol applications. And after I started writing applications in Perl the State programers asked me to teach them Perl.