Linux Access in State and Local Government, Part V

by Tom Adelstein

Linux and open-source advocates have a passion for contributing. In this article, we explore the topic of Linux and open-source software serving government through the efforts of some interesting, geographically dispersed individuals. These individuals may not realize the profundity of their contributions, but then visionaries rarely do.

The effect of open-source software on theories of economics has emerged again. In the most recent edition of Linux Journal, Doc Searls further illuminated the economic shift in the most profound distinction I have seen since I began the study of economics 25 years ago. In a quote from the article, "Practical Penguin Progress" (Linux Journal, August 2003), Doc states:

Free software and open source are ways that the demand side supplies itself. Call this DIY-IT, or Do It Yourself Information Technology. In some cases, DIY-IT is so well developed that customers hardly need vendors at all.

DIY-IT is causing a shift in market power from supply to demand...Here the demand side--the customer--is in a position to supply itself.

In the traditional economic model of production-distribution-consumption, Linux and open source break the mold of the old paradigm. In the purest sense, Doc describes a perpetual motion machine that, in economics, would crack the existing model and end the need for producers and distributors of energy. Free and open-source software does the same thing.

Three Who Do

If Do It Yourself Information Technology continues breaking the extant paradigm, people such as Kevin Pate, Jeff Self and Richard Brice will have made a difference. I recently interviewed these gentlemen, and they put an exclamation point on what open-source software is doing in local and state governments.

Linux Journal: You chose to build an application or applications with Linux and or other open-source software. Tell us what you're doing.

Jeff: We (the City of Newport News, Virginia) have developed several applications built with open-source tools. Most of these applications have been Web-based. We have a JSP application that our city inspectors connect to with cell phones. We have really jumped into PHP development as well. We are using both PostgreSQL and MySQL for our databases. We are now looking at Python for some things we previously were planning on using Java for. Python just seems to be much easier to develop in. And we are taking a serious look at Zope. We are trying to find an open-source project manager application for our development team. We are promoting the use of wherever possible to city employees.

Kevin: The City of Houston plans on exploring the use of Linux in [its] infrastructure as much as possible. Once the city realizes the cost saving potential, I believe Linux will take a stronghold in [the] server environment. In the near future, the City of Houston will explore the benefits of moving its Oracle databases to the Linux platform, as well as some file and print services. My firm, Pate Consulting, is working diligently with the City of Houston to produce a solid Linux strategy that will help the city and its taxpayers save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Rick: I work for the Bridge and Structures Office of the Washington State Department of Transportation, and I develop applications for designing highway bridge structures. The people that use these kinds of applications presently work with Windows. However, I have latched onto and am modeling all of my work after something more important than a single software platform: the culture of the Open Source community, the bazaar style of development and the willingness to cooperate and collaborate openly with others. Open source offers advantages that I just can't pass up.

LJ: Do you think Linux is making progress in government?

Jeff: Yes. A combination of things is helping. Linux is acceptable now, unlike three or four years ago. When IBM pumped $1 billion into Linux, a lot of manager's eyes were opened. The economy also is helping Linux and open source. City governments are struggling to meet budgets. Because of this, Linux looks better and better.

Kevin: Linux is gaining momentum in government. Not only for the US, but it's also [doing so in] foreign governments as well. In addition, I heard that the City of Austin currently is performing a large Linux rollout. The more government entities are willing to adopt Linux, the easier it will be to make a push for Linux in one's own city. Governments worldwide are realizing the cost savings can be phenomenal. Moreover, they realize Linux is a tool they can utilize and customize fully due to its open-source licensing.

Rick: My interface with our IT department tells the story. There are those that see the technology budgets and know we can get equivalent or superior functionality from Linux-based solutions. Progress is being made in the sense that the level of awareness has been raised, and some are willing to start investigating Linux solutions. I've shared Linux distros with some of these people, and they are very excited about what they've seen.

LJ: Kevin, being in the Houston area, the city government reached out for your help with Linux; is that correct?

Kevin: Actually, I heard [the city] needed some help upgrading [its] Linux-based Web servers, participated in the bidding process and got the job.

LJ: Tell us more about [Houston's] process of finding you.

Kevin: The City of Houston releases RFPs when a particular project generates a need for services. Vendors (who have obtained a vendor number from the city) participate in the bidding process for an RFP. At that time, the city chooses the best proposal for the job including price, experience, etc.

LJ: You're Cisco certified, an MCSE and a Red Hat Certified Engineer; how do you use those credentials to attract business?

Kevin: The Cisco and Microsoft certification are not really used anymore to attract new clients, because we are strictly a Linux shop now. However, I do use them on our web site and in my signature to reveal the technological experience and diversity I have obtained during my career. The Red Hat certification helps tremendously in obtaining new Linux work. This certification shows potential clients that I have done more than just play around with Linux. When the very company that has the #1 Linux distribution certifies you, it erases many doubts [for] potential clients.

LJ: Jeff, in Newport News, did you find any resistance within the unit to using Linux?

Jeff: There hasn't been too much resistance at all. In fact, when I started working here, they were already running Linux for the city's intranet. I happened to work outside of the IT department initially. Many departments in the city have an information technology analyst. I was the first of the ITA's to run Linux. Now, many of the ITA's are running Linux servers for file sharing. The IT department finally got serious about Linux once they realized [how] many of the ITA's were already using it.

LJ: You have your own ideas about creating an outreach initiative. What are you trying to accomplish?

Jeff: Our director of information technology started working here last Fall. We started exchanging ideas [over] email soon after he arrived. I let him know my opinions of open-source software. We both believe that city governments are a perfect fit for the open-source model of development. Every city has the same functions. We have seven cities in the metropolitan area of Hampton Roads. Why not get the seven cities to work together on software development? We're not competing with one another, so there is no reason we shouldn't work together. Of course, each city has its own way of functioning in day-to-day operations. But I think the software could be written to be flexible enough to allow for each city's unique way of doing business.

I'm of the belief that city governments should be looking at ways to save taxpayers money. I think too many people working for city governments forget that the money they spend belongs to the citizens. That's why I believe Linux and other open-source software can and should play a vital role in city government.

LJ: Without breaching any confidentiality, what's next for Newport News?

Jeff: Our director is really pushing for an ERP system to replace many of our applications on the mainframe. It's possible that we may run it on Linux. We also will be looking at a groupware system down the road. We are keeping our eyes on potential open-source groupware applications. We are also looking for an open-source job description system, possibly utilizing XML to replace our current system, which keeps all job descriptions in Word Perfect.

LJ: What's your vision for the future of your department?

Jeff: I think open source will play a key role in shaping the look of our department in the future.

LJ: What should governments look for in Linux applications?

Jeff: They should look for projects that have an active development cycle and a strong user base. A large user base means others [are] out there [who] can provide their experiences and help out with problems. An active development cycle means new features will be coming and the chances of the project being abandoned are slim.

LJ: Rick, without breaching any confidentiality, what's next for your government?

Rick: I can only speak for the little microcosm in which I work. We will continue to develop bridge engineering solutions to make our design functions more efficient and consistent. We will continue to build an infrastructure of software components that other engineers can use to jump-start their development projects. We will continue to seek out others with similar needs and interest to form cooperative relationships. And most importantly, we will continue to promote the open source concept.

LJ: What's your vision for the future of your department?

Rick: My vision is to have the developers in the agency be thinking about and seeking out opportunities to collaborate with others in government doing similar work. It isn't something that can be mandated or enforced. It is something that will require a slow and gradual cultural change. I hope to lead by example and show success.

LJ: What should governments look for in Linux applications?

Rick: Best value. It is the same old story that has been told countless times. Assess your needs, and pick the solution that offers you the best value. Governments should be open-minded about Linux applications. Use them where they make sense.

LJ: Kevin, what do you think the future will look like?

Kevin: The future of Linux is very bright for several reasons. For one, the hardware support and features in the Linux kernel keep advancing at a rapid pace. For example, the Linux 2.6 kernel, which is due out sometime this year, contains support for asynchronous I/O, USB 2.0, IPSec and cryptography, as well as support for a multitude of new hardware. Linux has a future because it is a community more than it is a product. Communities with one common interest tend to survive for many years. In conjunction with the growing technological needs of our society and the thriving community of Linux, the future is very solid.

In the article mentioned above, Doc pointed out that "Linux is a project, not a product". Because the community creates the project, the thinking appears to be growing on a sub-conscious level. That growth doesn't appear to have geographic boundaries.

I wish to thank the people who contributed to this article.

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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