Linux in Government: Outside the US, People Get It

by Tom Adelstein

Major governments outside the United States either have adopted Linux and open-source software or have begun the process that will lead to adoption. Open-source software, especially Linux, has spread globally to countries and regions that regard it as the best model of software development and an engine of economic growth. Governments see adoption as a way to exploit a promising trend.

The starting point for global Linux adoption began in Europe approximately four years ago. In 2001, the German parliament adopted a resolution that declared the government should use open-source software "whenever doing so will reduce costs". Two years later, a technology advisory group to the European Commission issued a report that called open-source software "a great opportunity" for the region that could "change the rules in the information technology industry", reducing Europe's reliance on imports.

In 2004, $19.5 billion of Linux-related technologies were sold in Poland and Russia alone. During the same period, seven leading Indian enterprises began porting application software and development work to Linux. Those companies included BSNL; Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation; South Asian Petrochem, Ltd.; Kotak Mahindra Bank; IDBI Bank; Central Bank of India; and the Department of Treasury, Government of West Bengal.

In Latin America, the six largest markets comprise the fastest growing region for Linux adoption anywhere. The six markets include Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela. According to a recent IDC report, "the Linux operating system is gaining broader acceptance in the vendor and user communities in Latin America, making it one of the fastest-growing segments within the operating system software market". Other examples abound, including Spain, Norway and South Africa.

What's Stopping the US?

Interestingly, the US government appears to favor a company it deemed a monopoly over Linux and open-source software. While technically educated Linux and open-source work forces have grown in Germany, China, Brazil, India and Hungary since 2001, the US government has done nothing to keep pace with the rest of the world. Only a decade ago, the US held a technological edge over Europe and Asia in all areas of IT. Today, the once burgeoning IT industry in the US has given way to its competitors, especially China and India.

These countries among others have gained the capacity and the desire to change. People also have seen Linux markets around the globe strengthen. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize that any country can assemble parts from China and put its own label on the resulting personal computers with ease. The only thing left to add is an operating system, and people can get one for free.

In my travels and work with governments, I have seen only one organization oppose Linux and open-source software. Regardless of where I go, Microsoft shows up and argues against open source. If the opposition doesn't call itself Microsoft, then it calls itself the Business Software Alliance or some other alter-ego.

One would think that the United States government eventually would conclude that not only has it lost its lead in technology, but perhaps the ugliest American of them all shows up as our de facto representative. Personally, I would rather have Condoleezza Rice's State Department showing up at technology hearings in foreign governments rather than Microsoft.

Finally, one might consider that by destroying its competitors, Microsoft has weakened the US technology sector rather than strengthening it. Look around and we see a technology sector suffering so badly that US universities have seen enrollment in computer sciences drop to nil. Additionally, the once well-trained US information technology workforce has aged, moved into other industries and suffered from the influx of foreign competitors.

On Global Soil GNU/Linux Has the Momentum

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced partnerships with three of China's leading computer makers: Founder Technology, Tsinghua Tongfang and TCL. The partnerships involve bundling the Windows operating system, promoting the use of legal operating systems and giving customers greater added value, according to the announcements. Conspicuously absent was China's biggest computer maker, Lenovo Group. From reports I have read, the absence prompted many questions from the audience.

Microsoft reportedly explained that additional Chinese computer makers would join the program in the future. They also reportedly said that Lenovo was "busy with consolidation issues" resulting from its acquisition of IBM's PC unit. But is that really the case?

Many believe Lenovo will increase its use of Linux, which competes with Windows. Last year, Lenovo adopted Linux and partnered with IBM, the largest corporate supporter of Linux. As a user of an IBM Thinkpad, I have been pleasantly surprised at the increased Linux support for legacy IBM laptops from Lenovo. I never saw drivers, utilities and modules to support the Thinkpad's power management under Linux when IBM ran the company.

Regardless of Microsoft's claims, the development of Linux's operating systems in China has velocity and magnitude and shows signs of strong future growth. Another report from International Data Corp (IDC) indicates that Linux's growing popularity in China might be more than a trend.

Getting It About Free Software

During the mid-1990s, I specialized in commerce over the Internet. You can dig around and probably find some of my writings and case studies from that era if you try. In early 1998, I joined a local Cap Gemini office with the mission of starting an e-commerce practice.

At the time, the premiere offering for conducting transactions over the Internet involved the use of Open Market's transact engine and eventually ShopSite Pro and ShopSite Manager store-building software. In the early stages of e-commerce, the transact engine primarily ran on big Sun hardware running Solaris.

Shortly after joining the Cap Gemini and while waiting on client decisions on proposals, the manager of the office asked me to see if I could create an in-house project using his over-populated bench. In fact, so many people had come off contract that our delivery management people couldn't find places for everyone to sit.

Using the firm's state-of-the-art brown paper, I put together a team, reserved a conference room and started asking people what they wanted to do. The group decided to work on an e-commerce project. The only problem with that suggestion involved money. Back in 1998, the cost of an e-commerce stack from Open Market ran around $2.2 million.

One of the bench players hacked Linux and suggested that we create a free e-commerce stack. I had used Linux and even ran it on a machine next to my desk. I liked the idea and assigned each person a task to find different free software components to create a shopping cart and a way to handle and complete a transaction.

Within a couple of weeks, we essentially had duplicated a complete e-commerce pipeline, end-to-end, for free. Granted, it didn't look like off-the-shelf software and it didn't have any GUIs, but it did the job. With our documentation, one easily could maintain and modify the system. Compared to Open Market, our system worked well.

I remember sitting alone in the conference room after everyone had left one evening, looking at the system. In a week, we would start building a commerce-enabled Web site for Ericsson. That company decided to pay for the transportation of Keiko the whale from the Pacific Northwest to Iceland. Our job was to build a Web site where people could make donations and buy Keiko gear. Ericsson intended that site to be a proof of concept to see whether it would build one to sell digital phone accessories.

Sitting in the conference room that day, I got it about open-source software. Ericsson could pay an Open Market partner to clear its transactions at an exorbitant rate, or we could do it for free.

I remember feeling a dilemma. I could let the the Swedish phone company over-pay for something on which my employer would realize a significant profit. Because my employer refused to offer the free solution to its clients, I couldn't offer it the Swedes. I had done the calculations, and in fact, the labor alone would have produced more revenue for my employer than selling the commercial stack.

So, I resolved the dilemma. I left the firm two weeks later and started a Linux company. That's how I got it about Linux and open source.

Final Thoughts

I advocate the use of GNU/Linux and open-source solutions to help countries around the globe improve their economic conditions. Any country can participate in its region by assembling lost-cost commodity hardware to create jobs and offer those products to its neighbors. The people in those regions can experience the joy of building communities to localize Linux and innovate in areas where they previously have been locked out.

The time has come for countries around the globe to embrace Doc Searls's idea of do-it-yourself IT (DIY-IT). With it, you can discover the simplicity of setting up assembly lines for inexpensive computer parts from China. You also will discover that Linux can make the job of manufacturing such systems even simpler.

Tom Adelstein is a Principal of Hiser + Adelstein, a consulting and operating company specializing in free and open-source software solutions and support. Tom is the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration and has written prolifically since 1985. Tom's business career began in public accounting where he first learned to program and develop software and later progressed to Wall Street, where he became the designated principal of a NYSE firm. He later returned to technology and has consulted and worked with start-ups as well leaders of the Fortune 500.

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