Across the Digital Nation: U.S. watches world governments try open-source software

Rishi Sood

China's government recently re-announced a policy that forces all public-sector entities to use only locally produced software for all system upgrades. The policy, which will be in place until 2010, is expected to increase domestic-made software use from 33 percent to 100 percent.

This protectionist policy is a direct move to limit the influence of traditional software firms, such as SAP AG and Siebel Systems Inc., as well as end the increased reliance on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system and the Office application suite.

Two major types of companies will benefit from this new policy: Chinese software companies such as Kingsoft and open-source software companies such as Red Flag Linux.

China represents the extreme end of a growing acceptance of open-source software as an alternative to traditional software procurement. Across the globe, public-sector organizations are reassessing the need for proprietary or commercially driven software applications and are investigating the benefits of open-source code.

There is diverse scale and scope among the global public-sector organizations involved in the open-source movement. Germany's Ministry of the Interior has an initiative in place to standardize systems on Linux. France's culture, defense and education ministries all have open-source based projects. Moreover, governments in Brazil and Chile have become proponents of open-source based initiatives, such as Linux, despite project inefficiencies in neighboring Latin American countries.

Among the chief drivers of the open-source movement is the goal of reducing overall deployment costs. Open-source software users typically pay for technical support and training as the traditional license fee is not applicable.

Proponents claim other key benefits, including limited reliance on a single vendor, a security alternative, and a mechanism for more efficient innovation in public-sector applications.

At the same time, several governments have voiced serious concerns with the move to open source. Chief issues cited by public-sector technology executives include possible increased security vulnerability and rising costs because of additional training and support.

The most notable exception to this trend has been government entities in the United States. Despite research that indicates significant interest among public-sector organizations in using Linux, there are no major directive by federal, state and local government organizations toward open-source-based applications.

Although many public-sector organizations have open-source-based projects in place, the vast majority of these initiatives are relegated to demonstration and pilot projects or in niche service areas.

The greatest concern among government decision-makers in the United States, particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been the security of open-source software in mission-critical areas.

In the end, however, the outcomes of these public sector Linux initiatives across the globe will have a dramatic impact on the use and application of open-source software among government organizations in the United States. As these public-sector entities extend specific application development in this area and realize significant benefits in deploying Linux software, government organizations will seek to replicate the success.

It's too soon to forecast the outcome of this debate, but many eyes will be watching for the results.

Rishi Sood is a principal analyst with Gartner Dataquest in Mountain View, Calif. His e-mail address is rishi.sood@gartner.com.

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