The Feds Get Cozier With Open Source

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That's because the White House has placed its imprimatur behind open-source software, posting on its Web site a memo encouraging all federal agencies to give open-source programs a fair shake in any procurements they make. The memo, which was issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) on July 1, takes the form of a formal software-acquisition "reminder" aimed at senior government procurement officials and CIOs. Its essential message is that the federal government is committed to the idea that open-source software belongs amid commercial off-the-shelf and government off-the-shelf software as part of the purchasing process.

Because of its bureaucratic wording, the document is the subject of differing interpretations. Some advocates of open source see it as a crucial endorsement for Linux. However, the OMB itself is being more cautious, taking the view that the memo simply reaffirms the inclusion of open source in federal procurement practices.

"These policies are intentionally technology- and vendor-neutral," reads the memo, sent out under the signatures of Karen Evans, OMB's administrator for IT, and Robert Burton, associate administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

"All agency IT investment decisions, including software, must be made consistent with the agency's enterprise architecture and the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA)," it goes on to say. (FEA is an ongoing government effort to consolidate the disparate IT technologies used across 24 separate agencies.) "Additionally, agencies must consider the total cost of ownership, including life-cycle maintenance costs, the costs associated with risk issues, including security and privacy of data, and the costs of ensuring security of the IT system itself," the memo states.

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For Linux advocates, the next paragraph contains the kicker: "This reminder applies to acquisitions of all software, whether it is proprietary or open-source software," it notes.

That's a definite boost for open source, according to Linux entrepreneur and author Tom Adelstein. "This memo states that the procurement process has been altered to allow open-source software to be part of the procurement process," he says. "When someone writes an RFP, they have to include open-source software."

More measured in her assessment of the memo's import is its co-author. "It re-emphasizes existing policy," OMB's Evans says. "Agencies have and continue to use open-source software in their IT infrastructure. Open-source software is viewed by government officials as one of many suitable technology solutions. The memo lays out the guidance for those agencies who are evaluating open-source software. It does not instruct agencies to always consider open-source software."

Foot In the Door

Still, one thing the memo makes clear is that open source now has its foot in the federal door.

"When you're working with the government, things take time to happen," says John Weathersby, chairman of the not-for-profit Open Source Software Institute, which works to promote use of the technology in government, in Oxford, Miss. "There's a lot of work being done with open source in the government. This is one more step along the way."

Government VARs servicing federal agencies, however, should be aware that those operations are still coming up to speed on licensing issues. "Open-source software's source code is widely available, so it may be used, copied, modified and redistributed," the OMB memo acknowledges. "It is licensed with certain common restrictions, which generally differ from proprietary software."

Accordingly, the OMB is advising federal-procurement managers to make sure they know what they're buying into. "These differences in licensing may affect the use, the security and the total cost of ownership of the software and must be considered when an agency is planning a software acquisition," the memo notes. "Because software licensing requirements can be legally complex and can directly impact agency operations, procurement executives and program managers should consult with their General Counsel's Office to ensure the requirements are understood before procuring and using the software."

Apart from the endorsement angle, the memo appears to have been written as part of an ongoing series of communications by OMB aimed at supporting the government's "SmartBuy" software procurement policy. Launched in June 2003, SmartBuy is a governmentwide, federal acquisition program managed by the GSA to eliminate redundant software purchases at far-flung agencies and to apply the government's purchasing power to get discounts. This past February, OMB issued a memo that listed open source as one of 10 software categories that it's including under SmartBuy. Those categories include antivirus, database, disaster recovery, document imaging, ERP, geospatial information systems, network management, office automation, open source and statistical analysis.

"[The memo] describes those software categories for which GSA is working with software providers to obtain enterprise licensing that applies to the entire federal IT infrastructure," Evans explains.

Becoming an official part of the SmartBuy nomenclature is another step toward making open source commonplace alongside proprietary code in the government's software arsenal.

"This levels the playing field between open source and commercial software," Adelstein says.

Moving forward, open source is now clearly on firmer footing, Weathersby agrees. "Open source is not going to eradicate proprietary software," he adds. "But it is becoming an accepted solution in government. As it matures, we within the open-source community have to mature with it. Working with the government takes patience."