Can Open Source Software (Help) Save Us?
- The Federal debt crisis is the most predictable slow motion train wreck in history.
- Government Open Source Software champions are growing
- Among other things, Open Source Software can cut costs and speed time to deploy
- Developing Open Source skills can help everyone.
Profound Debt Problems
“Gentlemen, we are out of money. Now we must think.” That quote, attributed to Winston Churchill, is displayed prominently on the National Defense Magazine website recently, and it went on to describe the “massive deficits in national budget projections. We see a Budget Control Act and a Super Committee in the Congress that make only the faintest stab at closing the gap. We see a national debt piling up an additional $15.3 trillion unfunded liability for entitlements between 2012 and 2021. This is 10 times the Super Committee’s debt-reduction target of $1.5 trillion.”
And of course debt problems aren’t unique to the Federal government, or even to state or local agencies… or even to the United States. Debt problems are one root cause of the world’s economy’s malaise.
So what does that have to do with open source software? For one thing, it could help reduce costs at all levels of government, and ties in nicely with Open Data and transparency.
We have to make some radical changes on many fronts, including the costs of software. As Winston Churchill said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we have to think.”
Open Source Software for cost savings?
There are many reasons to consider OSS solutions, such as:
- Lower costs
- Simpler Licensing
- Higher Quality (Transparency)
- Freedom from lock-in; more application stack freedom.
- Faster implementation
- “Safety in Numbers”
- Enhanced Security
The price of an open source program is usually far less than a comparable proprietary program, and can even be zero. In the case of Apache OpenOffice desktop office software, the price is zero. So also is the price of WordPress software for web development and blogging.
Not surprisingly, enterprise-class OSS can also cost considerably less than proprietary applications, even after you include lifecycle costs (analysis to deployment) common to every software project. OSS software requires no licensing fee, with ongoing maintenance and support costs (if you choose to have them) significantly lower than vendor options. In a sense, you can have your cake and eat it too… in the case of Alfresco, download the “Community” –free but unsupported version– and move up to the fully supported Enterprise version with its single subscription fee if you choose. Total cost of ownership for Alfresco can be one tenth the cost of a traditional ECM system, and one third the cost of SharePoint. There are also no hidden fees or costs/seat.
The numbers of OSS users are increasing dramatically. Drupal sites number in the millions. Alfresco reported recently surpassing 2 million software downloads of its products. The “million eyeballs effect,” passionate users trying out and looking under the source code hood, relentlessly improves OSS. Users often find flaws and suggest fixes in open discussions faster than for vendors do for their products. Meantime, the very survival of vendors providing support forces them to listen closely to users. Remember: they make no money from licensing the OSS itself.
OSS solutions are not only open and transparent, they are often themselves based on open standards. Thus OSS provides independence from the vagaries of vendor changes. Those same standards can also make implementation faster because there are no secrets requiring expensive consulting, which can change from release to release. Implementing Alfresco ECM solutions, for example, can cost one tenth that of proprietary vendor alternatives and be delivered in a fraction of the time.
OSS Champions in Government
There is an increasing number of OSS champions, who are also pursuing open government and transparency initiatives. Examples include:
- Steven VanRoekel, Federal Chief Information Officer. Hailing from Microsoft, in 2009 he became managing director of the FCC and oversaw the re-launch of that agency’s web site. He used open-source based Drupal.
- Todd Park, Federal Chief Technology Officer. He too is a champion of Open Source and Open Government.
- George Thomas, Enterprise Architect at HHS. Word is that he prefers to do as much as possible using OSS.
On the professional side, it always helps to develop skills that increasingly larger crowds of other developers are using and that employers are seeking. Developing open source skills, whether learning Java or working with OSS, is something you can do “after hours” with plenty of low cost (or free) documentation.
And if government agencies, at all levels, can reduce costs as much as OSS proponents claim, that could be one significant part of the savings we must achieve.
Now there are two sides to every debate, including the OSS debate. I’d love to hear yours!