What Role Will Open Source Play In Government?

But some open-source experts wonder if Sun Microsystems Chairman Scott McNealy, who has been asked by the Obama administration to produce a paper on how open-source software and technologies can be channeled toward more cost-effective government, is the most appropriate voice for the community.

In a recent interview with BBC News, McNealy said the advantages of open source over proprietary software are "intuitively obvious," and seemed to tip his hand with regard to what recommendations his paper might contain.

"The government ought to mandate open-source products based on open-source reference implementations to improve security, get higher quality software, lower costs, higher reliability -- all the benefits that come with open software," McNealy told BBC News.

In the BBC interview, the ever-ebullient McNealy also took a shot at some familiar foes. "Open source does not require you to pay a penny to Microsoft or IBM or Oracle or any proprietary vendor," he said.

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While solution providers are pleased that McNealy has the ear of the Obama administration, some are concerned that a potential government mandate won't account for the reality that open source isn't always the best fit for every situation.

Bernard Golden, CEO of Hyperstratus, a solution provider that focuses on virtualization and cloud computing, doesn't think it's any more appropriate for government to mandate open-source software than it would be for it to mandate proprietary software.

"There may be situations where proprietary software is the best choice," Golden said. "For example, when you have a skill set in a proprietary content management system, and there isn't an open-source product that can enable you to leverage that skill set."

Government agencies that move to open source are still going to pay for implementations, so the up-front costs of open source and proprietary solutions are essentially similar, said John Locke, principal consultant at Freelock Computing, an open-source consultancy. But down the road, the cost advantages of open source become readily apparent, he said.

"The real benefit of using open-source providers is that you're not locked into a single vendor for ongoing maintenance, and solutions that are developed in one place can be easily reused in others," Locke said.

Frank Basanta, director of technology for open-source integrator Systems Solutions, said IBM and Oracle both have database software that runs well on Linux, which means a government-wide migration to open source wouldn't necessarily mean cutting off relationships with proprietary vendors.

Basanta, who is expecting a surge of work to result from the Obama administration's stimulus package, says the government's interest in exploring open source is a tide that's likely to raise the boats of many solution providers. "Everyone says open source is cost effective, but when you don't have to touch a server for three to six months, that's where government will start to see it," he said.

McNealy may not have the strongest moral high ground from which to speak on the importance of open source in government, given that Sun open-sourced Java less than three years ago. Still, Allen Gunn, executive director of Aspiration, an organization that helps nonprofits with open-source implementations, said Sun has become a clear leader in advocating open source.

"Any time a corporate executive says something like this, it can seem self-serving, but I do think McNealy and Sun are walking the walk. They've been doing a lot of listening, and it shows," Gunn said.