Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part I
People believe that governments have embraced Linux and open-source software. You might see headlines saying that Linux advocates have made serious inroads in government. Logic dictates that Linux works well and the price is right, so why not?
This year, Oregon and Texas legislators introduced house and senate bills respectively supporting open-source software. Both legislative bills made their way to committee hearings, but the results differed significantly. Oregon's HB 2892 died. In Texas, SB 1579 found favor in the Committee and remains pending due to a walkout by approximately 50 members of the House.
California and Oklahoma also made attempts do some legislative mandating to use open-source software that died quietly. Rhode Island didn't see legislative action, but it did build a Linux portal for the state's rules and regulations database, which received good reviews.
Other states, such as Alabama, attempted grass roots efforts from their Information Service Departments to implement open-source initiatives. Grass roots efforts exist in Iowa, Utah, Hawaii and Louisiana.
We discovered open-source initiatives in city and county government units across the country. Similar to commercial users of Linux, the various local efforts have started at the bottom. One city in a far northwestern state secretly deployed Linux to avoid an entanglement with a local software company. In Texas, Houston looks like a pioneer and has already seen reduced costs and saved taxpayer money.
Depending on your worldview, we could say the Open Source community made important strides or failed miserably in the past year. Regardless, we gained extensive knowledge of our situation in state and local government. This discussion covers specifics of our overall findings.
The main thing a government unit considering open-source software wants to know is how it can save money. The people who answer to their constituents need to show cost cutting and a balanced budget.
A level below the legislators and government officials lays a large, permanent bureaucracy. The managers spend time working on technical issues such as reliability, continuity, security and interoperability. At lower levels, people maintain the existing systems with little funding for development. They need solutions they can deploy with little effort that fit seamlessly into their infrastructures.
Interested parties make up the final group with issues. These include advocates and the opposition. Here, I depict the opposition as well funded and organized. The advocates have little organization, financial resources and/or participants.
During the Texas hearing, Senate sponsor John Carona summed up the money situation nicely during the hearing before the Administrative Committee. He addressed the lobbyists making up the opposition and said:
Again, I don't understand why you all are so threatened by this, but from a careful look at the lobbyists in this room that are representing Microsoft, and all of you here representing proprietary software companies which—let's face it, that's where the big money is; it's not in open source, it's in proprietary—it's rather transparent as to why you all feel so threatened by this language. And I'll tell you, this [bill] is innocuous, but next session I'll be on a crusade.
Elected officials and state bureaucracies have little agility in the area of information technology budgets. Meanwhile, lobbyists and the popular press continue to say that open-source software provides little, if any cost savings. Analysts, such as Andrew Binstock of Pacific Data Works LLC, say governments are conservative when it comes to new technology.
Rhode Island became the first state government to implement open-source technology in view of the public. Jim Willis, the special project consultant for the Secretary of State, chose open-source software to implement an on-line rules and regulations database. The implementation used LAMP, which stands for the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database and any of three development languages—PHP, Perl or Python.
The state developed the database-driven portal for $40,000. Hardware costs amounted to $6,000. Deployment cost $3,000, and the remaining funds went for overhead and one consultant working only two days a week for four months. The portal runs under Red Hat Linux 7.2 and sits on a Dell PowerEdge server that came with a MySQL database pre-installed. Ninety-five agencies use the portal to submit PDF files with information on rules and regulations to the Secretary of State's office. The database currently holds approximately 1,700 regulations.
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