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

by Tom Adelstein

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.

Does the UK Report Have Something New to Offer?

According to the OGC's report, the United Kingdom plans to put some teeth into its findings. In fact, the report even goes so far as to say the UK will take the following actions:

  • OGC will update their Procurement Guidelines to reflect this policy.

  • Advice will be made available to all those involved in procurement exercises on areas of the software infrastructure and application marketplace where OSS has strengths and weaknesses.

  • Advice will also be made available to all those involved in procurement exercises on how to assess the merits of OSS v proprietary solutions in procurements.

  • OeE and DTI will discuss with academic research institutions the possibilities of future R&D work.

These actions look more encouraging than any others we have seen, including those of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney who, in January of this year, through the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, issued a final policy on the use of open-source software and open standards. The policy requires commonwealth officials to consider all relevant factors, including the potential for excessive dependence on a single supplier, before they spend taxpayer money on information technology.

An interesting point about the reports from the UK and Massachusetts involves how they went from enthusiastically endorsing Linux and open-source software to a softer tone. For example, reports:

The Office of Government Commerce's report into the viability of using open-source software in the public sector was toned down in its praise of Linux security before release, has discovered.

A copy of the report, seen by with amendments still visible, shows changes were made to the government's stance on the particular advantages of Linux versus proprietary software when it comes to security....

The article further stated:

The pre-release version of the report read: "Linux would appear to offer numerous strengths in terms of security." In the final version this became: "There is no definitive answer on the relative security merits of open or closed-source software."

Similar changes exist in every legislative action with which I have been acquainted. So far, China remains the only country to show resolve in implementing a Linux solution widely. That solution, called NeoShine, was rolled out on 500,000 desktops by June 2004. A second rollout of the same number of desktops will finish by December 31, 2004.

When Will We See Results?

John Oughton, chief executive of the OGC, wrote in the report that pilot schemes in the UK show Linux:

could support government bodies by offering efficient and cost-effective IT solutions.... This report will assist public sector bodies in making informed, value-for-money judgments when deciding upon which solutions best suits their needs.... The pilot schemes found that using Linux can extend the life of equipment and limit the number of servers need to run programs.

The report also said there were "potential green" benefits to using Linux, as well as the cost-cutting benefits.

Saying again that Linux could support government bodies indicates that results may not be realized until way in the future. We've had plenty of proofs of concepts--when will we see action?

One likely answer to that question already exists--when Microsoft and its brigade-size army of attorneys and lobbyists become persons of interest in the world's eye with regard to restraint of trade. Even with the resolve of China, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have made successful trips there. Several reports, such as this one in CNet state that Gates didn't see much alarm. The article says, "Speaking to reporters in China, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said he doesn't know whether discount versions of the company's software will be needed in that country. He also said that antitrust regulations being passed by the Chinese government will not particularly hurt Microsoft's business."

Eventually, someone will figure out that you don't have to run for president to amass a battalion of attorneys and lobbyists. Perhaps we'll see changes in the next legislative sessions. I know that in Texas, John Carona, who sponsored the Texas Open Source Software Bill, is running unopposed. I recall in the open committee meeting, he 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.

Recently, Carona reiterated that sentiment to me.

Tom Adelstein lives in Dallas, Texas, with his wife, Yvonne, and works as a Linux and open-source software consultant locally and nationally. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, published by O'Reilly and Associates. Tom has written numerous articles on Linux technical and marketing issues as a guest editor for a variety of publications. His latest venture has him working as the webmaster of

Load Disqus comments