Linux in Government: In Spite of Endorsements, Government Linux Projects Still Treading Water

Latest report from the UK, although indicative of serious change, tells us again what we already know.

On Thursday, October 28, the press was abuzz with news of the United Kingdom's formal publication of its reports from the Whitehall buying arm of the Office of Government Commerce's (OGC) Linux pilots. The OGC Linux Pilots began last year and were done across multiple government sectors. The agency's conclusion says Linux is ready for government deployment.

In September 2003, OGC announced it would be coordinating proof of concept trials of open-source software (OSS) in a range of public bodies in conjunction with IBM. In December 2003, the OGC announced that the scope would be extended to include the involvement of Sun Microsystems. Skeptics said they doubted the UK would accept Linux, and recent leaks indicated Linux would fail.

OGC stated, "This report summarises the key findings from the Pilots and, to supplement the reports from the trials, also takes into account information obtained from other public sector activity in OSS planning and deployment in the UK and elsewhere in Europe." It went on to say:

The software industry is very fast moving, and frequently throws up new developments that initially promise to make great changes in the marketplace, but which ultimately fail to live up to their initial press hype. OSS is indeed the start of a fundamental change in the software infrastructure marketplace, but it is not a hype bubble that will burst and UK Government must take cognizance of that fact.

Later in the report, the United Kingdom explains why it decided to do its own study independent of the European Commission's initiative "eEurope an Action Plan", dated June 2000. Simply put, things have changed since 2000.

The key decisions of the OGC policy are as follows:

  • UK Government will consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements. Contracts will be awarded on a value for money basis.

  • UK Government will use only products for interoperability that support open standards and specifications in all future IT developments.

  • UK Government will seek to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services.

  • UK Government will consider obtaining full rights to bespoke software code or customisations of COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software it procures wherever this achieves best value for money.

  • UK Government will explore further the possibilities of using OSS as the default exploitation route for Government funded R&D software.

Although these policy recommendations appear encouraging for the Open Source community, they offer no new insights. Case studies in the United States have indicated that government bodies have been reaching these conclusions for years. For example, in a recent article, "California Air Resources Board's Secrets Revealed", CIO Bill Welty discussed that agency's use of open-source software beginning in 1994. In that agency's report alone, any government body could find enough evidence to justify adopting Linux and open-source technologies.

In a paper called "Roundup of Selected OSS Legislative Activity WorldWide", the Open Source and Industry Alliance tracks global OSS legislative activity. In the past two years, Alabama, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Virginia have initiated legislation to implement policies similar to the United Kingdom's, with similar ambitions in mind. Rhode Island, Utah and Pennsylvania also have joined the Government Open Code Collaborative to effect similar policies.

In Europe, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia and Switzerland have seen similar initiatives. In other parts of the world, Brazil, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, China, South Korea, Israel, Afghanistan, India, Malaysia, Nigeria and South Africa all have started Linux and open-source government activities.

Although we have tracked many case studies, wide-spread adoption of OSS within government lacks execution. For example, only a few years ago, Mexico agreed to implement Linux in all its public schools. Vicente Fox introduced an initiative called e-Mexico shortly after he took over the presidency in December of 2000. Funding was scarce and the government began to look at ways to finance the project without using hard currency. Initially, several vendors recommended Linux technologies for the project. Miguel de Icaza, along with Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems and others, attended the first roundtable discussions in Mexico. According to an InfoWorld article, Miguel seemed quite surprised at the support he received. The article quotes him as saying, "I thought I was going to be the only person for Linux. But HP surprised me, IBM surprised me and Sun surprised me."

Soon after this initial roundtable discussion, the Linux project in Mexico began taking shape. But despite Fox's statement that open-source technologies would be the most cost efficient, he met with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and the effort died. Microsoft pledged $60 million in software and training. They allotted $10 million to train workers in small- and mid-sized businesses. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation made an additional commitment to fund Mexico's program to move the country's libraries on-line. "Bill Gates flew down to Mexico, and they announced a donation of $30 million dollars and Linux was dropped", Miguel de Icaza was quoted.



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