Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part II

by Tom Adelstein

Texas state agencies spend more than $450 million annually on information technology, not counting staffing costs and purchases from local or federal funds. With this amount of money in play, Texas is a significant target for hardware, software and technical support vendors.

Key Texans believe state and local governments should embrace Linux and open-source software (OSS) to reduce taxes. The local media decided differently and did not inform the general public about OSS initiatives in the legislature. This is especially odd, as the Houston Chronicle runs Linux on an IBM mainframe and the city administrators made the front page of USA Today for bucking Microsoft. In addition to the Chronicle, the parent of the Dallas Morning News, Belo Corporation, uses Linux to host web sites and invested heavily in :CueCat, a product driven by the Linux operating system. So, advocates of the OSS bill feel baffled.

Specifically, when Texas Senator John Carona filed SB 1579, a bill to make the state consider OSS, the media remained silent. Most voters did not have a clue that the State Auditor's Office put annual IT spending at $1.4 billion. But, those costs did not escape Senator Carona.

Who Has Fiscal Responsibility?

The Texas State Auditor's office looked at the state's 21 largest IT projects; they found that average project deficiency was $388,000 over budget and 21 months behind schedule. Those numbers did not include the cost of the TIERS project, which came in $349 million over budget and 37 months overdue. Still, no media coverage was given.

Budget deficits caused state legislators to eliminate critical programs this year. How did the Department of Information Resources (DIR) escape budget cuts? License fees on $450 million servers alone should be a prime candidate to look at for savings. Texans still failed to see any media coverage.

Not All as It Seems?

The much-maligned Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has computers ranging from six to eight years in age. Microsoft, a major technology vendor in the state, claimed that TDCJ owed them millions of dollars. The problem: the state only requires agencies to keep records for five years.

Microsoft believed its license requirements exceed those of state law. They demanded TDCJ produce receipts, agree to an expensive licensing arrangement or face millions of dollars of fines. The TDCJ audit showed a shortage of 2,000 licenses due to lack of receipts, and the cost of replacing those licenses was $280,000. As Microsoft's new suggested licensing arrangement did not fit TDCJ's budget, TDCJ instead sent Microsoft a check for $283,000.

But, if spending exceeds $450 million annually, why does TDCJ use old computers? Also, how does this busy agency get by with those computers?

Would Shareholders Tolerate This?

The State Comptroller's office noted five canceled IT projects worth $28 million. Total project losses equated to 86% of our $450 million annual spending. Funding for the losses and overruns came from federal or local tax dollars.

The Comptroller published recommendations for the budget on the State's web site prior to this year's Legislative session. Among other points, she noted the “Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR) should be held accountable for the success of major agency information technology (IT) projects. The Program Management Office (PMO) within DIR is not meeting its legislative mandates.”

In another excerpt, the Comptroller wrote, “The TexasOnline Division should help DIR redesign its Web site to make it easier for visitors to find information and to provide a public software clearinghouse to help reduce commodity software purchasing costs.”

For the full text of the report, see “Limited Government, Unlimited Opportunity, January 2003”. The citations mentioned above come from the section titled “General Government Consolidate or Eliminate Agencies or Programs”, under GG 18.

Should Voters and Taxpayers Tolerate This?

The above information has not reached the public through traditional media. Considering the plethora of Linux and OSS successes Texas has had, again this lack of coverage seems strange. With plentiful workers, a depression in the IT job market and extensive Linux resources, what would Texans say if they knew what was happening?

Vaporware and Some Spin

The DIR published standards and recommendations for OSS. That's not a typo. SRRPUB09 OSS exists at An executive summary is included in the document, which reads

The United States, European Commission, and other nations have started addressing the use of OSS solutions in public sector and e-government applications. Many of the applications used in government could be obtained and improved using the model (e.g., registration, licensing, certification, permitting). This should support purchasing best value solutions and removing the reliance on an individual information technology vendor.

Agencies should consider Open Source solutions in information technology procurements, and the criteria for selecting a specific solution should be based on best value. Agencies should use products that support open standards and specifications in all applications. Agencies should consider obtaining full rights to the software code it procures wherever this achieves best value.

One might wonder about the need for Senator Carona's bill, SB 1579 in light of DIR's SRRPUB09-OSS agency-wide recommendations to use open source software. Recall, though, that the comptroller wrote, “the Program Management Office (PMO) within DIR is not meeting its legislative mandates”. If the PMO cannot meet external legislative mandates, one might wonder how it can meet its own.

Microsoft appears to be the influencer of opposition to Senator Carona's bill on OSS. Microsoft contends that when you look at the total costs of ownership, OSS has no advantage. Linux users know that's disinformation. We had postings on last week's article that concurred, such as this one:

As someone who actually DOES work for government, I think that open source is perfect for government! We need the security, and we can (and do) train our own people, not ship them overseas (!!!) for training as suggested. Support is a non-issue because we can read the source code, understand it, and change whatever we don't like. Not to mention our budget, since we're currently laying off dozens of employees. Eliminating our MS-related costs could have saved at least a quarter of those peoples' jobs.

The City of Houston

Houston, on the other hand, provides a bright spot for Linux and OSS—it has stood its ground in terms of cost cutting. The state level might look to Houston as a model.

In January 2003, administrators for the city of Houston had to choose between a multiyear, $12 million Microsoft licensing plan or an audit, because Microsoft claimed Houston used software for which it hadn't paid. Microsoft felt the public works department fell short on 252 Office licenses. The city demonstrated it had 135 more Office licenses than it needed. Microsoft felt the library fell short on 450 Office licenses. Houston found documentation covering all of those copies, including 111 donated by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates' charity foundation.

The city refused Microsoft's offer of amnesty if the city signed a new licensing agreement. Houston chose to pay for licenses it may have inadvertently missed. They felt $500,000 might be the ceiling on undocumented Microsoft licenses.

The city decided on an alternative system, which delivers software at a fraction of Microsoft's costs. Houston went with a local productivity suite running over Web-enabled protocols. The company, SimDesk, also provided storage for city data on its mainframe.

In speaking with city IT managers, we discovered Houston's experiment worked. Deployment of the alternative system went well, and the city began to save money immediately. An IT manager who wished to remain anonymous told us that other initiatives using Linux already have started.

NASA's Johnson Space Center

NASA created a Linux desktop environment that also could run government mandated Microsoft applications. A team of 30 engineers continues to program in a UNIX-like environment. The team also can create Word documents and Outlook e-mail on the same PC by using WINE.

The Johnson Center's IT department uses Codeweaver's CrossOver Office to give the engineers access to both open-source software and Microsoft Office. The Office server works without having to install CrossOver on each PC.

Furthermore, NASA may have started government interest in Linux in Texas when it began using Beowulf Clusters. The state since has sponsored three major Beowulf centers outside of NASA. They include:

  • CPGE Intel Cluster, Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, The University of Texas at Austin;

  • Wonderland Texas Institute for Computational and Applied Mathematics, University of Texas at Austin; and

  • Texas Tech Tornado Dept. of Computer Science (used for both research and teaching), Texas Tech University.

State Sponsored Medical Research

In addition, Texas has several major university medical schools. UT Southwestern Medical Center receives the most attention because many Nobel Laureates are on staff. Other med schools provide research and development, and a non-exclusive list of schools includes:

  • University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas

  • Baylor College of Medicine

  • Texas Tech University, Health Sciences Center

  • University of Texas, Medical Branch

  • University of Texas, Health Science Center-San Antonio

We found extensive use of Linux at all of these Texas medical schools. In fact, many research grant requests define Linux as the project's operating system. We noted Linux in use for the popular application LabVIEW, among others. We also found Linux in use where application development occurs.


Much more information is available about the use of Linux and OSS in Texas, including Mark Cuban's $1.7 billion take on, ATMOS Energy, Boeing's Future Combat Systems C4ISR, the US Army 4th Infantry Division at Ft. Hood, HP/Compaq, Dell and Oracle, IBM Austin, Law Enforcement applications and databases and so on. I feel that information, though interesting, would provide only diminishing returns.

Journalists have a duty to report what they find and can corroborate. In this article we have looked at some barriers to reducing the costs of running government on the state and local levels. Rather than approaching this material with a sense of right and wrong, we approached it from what works and what does not work.

As we approach the next subject, we continue to explore where Linux works, what it's used for, who's for it and who's against it.

Tom Adelstein works as a Linux consultant in Dallas, Texas. His current interest lies in the field of web services, security and supporting Linux deployments.

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