Applications > Open Source

Levelling the field?

Gill Hitchcock Published 01 April 2009

Levelling the field?

The government's flag waving for open source reflects advances that have already been made, write Gill Hitchcock and Mark Say

Reaction to the government's new policy document pushing the cause of open source software has involved cheers all round, although some of them seem to be half hearted.

The issue was dragged into the political field earlier in the year when Conservative shadow chancellor George Osborne declared his support for a report, which was kept out of the public realm, making the case for wider use of the technology and a "level playing field" in government procurement. It remains to be seen if this will be nullified as a political issue, but the government has portrayed the new document, Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan , as a big step forward on the issue.

Maximum value

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson actually used some of Osborne's language in his comment on the policy: "Open source software is a not a cure all remedy and is not the only solution to IT questions. However, by levelling the playing field and allowing open source to be as competitive as possible we can ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money from government IT, something that is more important than ever during the worldwide financial climate."

He said that several government departments already use open source components, and that he hopes the new policy will encourage others to follow suit.

The move has drawn support from industry and the public sector. IT industry association Intellect says it will be important in taking forward the debate on the issue, and welcomed its commitment to openness in procurement.

"We support the government's policy that open source should be used where it makes business sense, where it provides best value for money and where it delivers the best solution and outcomes," it says. "Innovation and value for money can come from both open source and more traditional software business models."

A more cautious view comes from Richard Steel, president of the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and head of ICT at LB Newham. While broadly supportive of the announcement, he expresses reservations about the potential for open source.

"From a Socitm viewpoint we are happy with anything that encourages competition and a mixed economy in the provision of IT," he says, and suggests the government's policy announcement will be helpful in encouraging organisations to think about the options offered by open source. "It's backed up by wider initiatives across government where they are actively seeking more inventive approaches to the delivery of open source."

From a more personal perspective, he cautions that the issue is sometimes clouded by emotion and beset by confusion over the terminology, and that organisations need to look closely at what best suits their purposes. It is all about the procurement of software and organisations need to be clear about their requirements, not choose open source for its own sake.

Stephen Roberts, principal analyst at Kable, says it is a strength of the document that it avoids this mistake.

"The temptation might have been for Watson to make a firm commitment to reducing the usage of proprietary software," he says. "This would not have been a sensible move. Under the existing principle of free choice, open source solutions are the preferred option in some environments while proprietary systems have the edge in others."

Government policy since 2004 has been that decisions on open source should be made on a case by case basis: the public sector should consider using the technology alongside proprietary systems and contracts will be awarded on a best value for money basis. Roberts makes the point that this has already given open source a significant, if not heavy stake in governmental IT and that there is a possible tension between promoting open source and other areas of government policy.

Existing stake
"As Watson's paper points out, open source components are fairly common as middleware and within large systems in the government IT estate," he says. "Apache is dominant within web servers and the NHS Spine relies on Open Enterprise Server.

"But in other areas, such as application development, more sophisticated departments have been cutting costs by mandating the use of commercial off the shelf software. In the public as in the private sector, organisations with straightforward requirements tend to find the dominant software offerings the cheapest and easiest to run."

It is probably wise not to over-emphasise the degree of change on the policy front, but the fact that the government has seen fit to publish the document, and make positive noises about open source, suggests it will push the possibilities closer to the front of people's thinking. How this fits with the desire to obtain savings by using commercial off-the-shelf products and re-using systems that have proved successful elsewhere remains to be seen.

First published in GC magazine, April 2009.
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