Mass. ponders open-source software use
Analysts uncertain of new policy's impact
Peter Quinn, Massachusetts' chief information officer, said the state is going to break large contracts into smaller task orders. "This way, we only put at risk 90 days of investment," he said.
State of Massachusetts
Massachusetts issued an open-standards policy this month that directs agencies to consider using open-source software when purchasing new information technology systems.
The policy, announced Jan. 12 by Gov. Mitt Romney's administration, stated that IT purchases should be based on best value and should aim to cut system cost and facilitate information sharing among agencies.
The policy also directs agencies to evaluate "all possible solutions, including open-standards compliant open-source, proprietary and public-sector code-sharing solutions."
"Our intent is to ensure fair competition among all possible solutions, so that the commonwealth will get the best value for its IT investments," said Eric Kriss, Massachusetts's administration and finance secretary.
The Massachusetts Information Technology Division and the Executive Office for Administration and Finance ignited a furor in September when the offices prepared a draft policy that not only advocated shifting to open-computing standards, but also suggested that open-source software might be an integral part of that strategy.
Software companies strongly opposed the proposed policy, which they had interpreted as advocating greater use of open-source code. Industry officials concurred that the state should be able to choose between proprietary and open-source software, but they said that government should not state a preference for open source. They quickly received assurances from state officials that Massachusetts was not trying to eliminate proprietary software.
"We want to put more focus on thinking about where open-source products can fill some of our needs. That does not mean we are kicking out proprietary products," Kriss told Washington Technology at the time.
Using open standards, such as hypertext transfer protocol, extensible markup language and secure sockets language, allows governments to share data more easily across different computing systems. Open-source software, such as Linux and Apache Web server, are available for free and are one possible option for open standards.
Analysts are divided as to whether the final policy is a softening or a reiteration of the state's previous stance on open source.
"Massachusetts is definitely on the cutting edge," said Jim Krouse, manager of state and local market analysis for Reston, Va.-based market research firm Input Inc. "Open standards are one step closer to open-source software."
But Gregg Kreizman, director of public-sector research for the market research firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., said the policy leaves it up to the agencies to decide whether to use open-source code or proprietary software.
"If I'm an agency, it's still going to be prudent to look at all solutions, but the agency can say proprietary [software] may still meet its needs," he said.
Oregon is the only other state that has tried to require use of open-source software. It eventually abandoned the effort, Kreizman said.
"Oregon started down the path of requiring it, but realized it wasn't realistic," he said. "Open source isn't always the best value."
Massachusetts' new policy stipulates that all prospective information technology investments must comply with open standards in certain model areas, and that IT systems will be reviewed for open-standards compatibility and will be enhanced where needed to achieve that.
Although many states are pursuing open systems, most have not said publicly that they will consider open source, as Massachusetts has stated.
At the state government level, open standards will help ensure that government jurisdictions are not building silos that keep agencies from sharing information with each other, Krouse said. Leaving new technology investments "open" helps ensure that seamless systems integration will be possible in the future, he said.
Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.