Open source riles software makers

Massachusetts ignites furor with new strategy

"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." ? Eric Kriss, Massachusetts' administration and finance secretary

Commonwealth of Massachusetts

"Governments should choose the software that offers the best value. If the best value comes from Adobe or Autodesk, that's great. If the best value comes from an application that comes from the open-source community, then government should go in that direction." ? Steve Ballmer, Microsoft Corp.'s chief executive officer and director

Microsoft Corp.

A decision by the state of Massachusetts to shift to open-computing standards and consider open-source software as part of that strategy has many software companies concerned about their future business with the state.

While open standards are on their way to becoming part of a mainstream government technology, the mere mention that a state would use open-source software has the industry in an uproar.

Massachusetts will focus initially on open standards to increase interoperability of systems, upgrade legacy systems and cut costs before considering open-source software or systems, said Eric Kriss, Massachusetts' administration and finance secretary.

"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.

Word began circulating last month that Massachusetts' officials were advocating greater use of open standards and source code as a result of a leaked memo from Kriss to Massachusetts Chief Information Officer Peter Quinn. The news touched off a firestorm of activity among software companies that see the move as a threat to their business in the state.

In a matter of days, companies such as Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., and Autodesk Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., publicly expressed concern that they would be locked out of future procurements, and warned states against setting preferences for open-source software products.

The use of open standards, such as hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), extensible markup language (XML) and secure sockets language (SSL), enables governments to more easily share data across different computing systems. Open-source software products, such as Linux and Apache Web server, are available for free and are one possible option for open standards.

[IMGCAP(2)]While software companies said governments should be able to choose between proprietary and open-source software products, they strongly contend that government should not state a preference for open source.

"Governments should choose the software that offers the best value," said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive officer and director, at a meeting of the Business Software Alliance's industry task force in Washington this month. "If the best value comes from Adobe or Autodesk, that's great. If the best value comes from an application that comes from the open-source community, then government should go in that direction."

Despite Ballmer's conciliatory tone, industry officials said the company was more concerned about the developments under way in Massachusetts than his remarks revealed.

Other software companies on the BSA industry task force also voiced their dismay at the Massachusetts declaration.

Carol Bartz, chairman, president and CEO of San Rafael Calif.-based Autodesk, said Massachusetts' move toward open sources would mean that software companies eventually would be frozen out of doing business with the state.

"When you look at what's going on in Massachusetts ... that means really no one at this table can sell to them," she said, referring to the companies present at the Washington meeting.

Most state and local governments are beginning to move toward open standards as part of their ongoing infrastructure evaluation and analysis, industry observers and analysts said. A much smaller number, about a dozen, are considering using open-source software.

Tony DeVore, vice president of public sector for the eastern region with IBM Corp., Armonk, N.Y., said the company doesn't see a huge groundswell in the state and local market for open source, but does see one for open standards. He said state and local governments are getting serious about open standards because they can't afford to keep buying proprietary solutions that they eventually may have to replace.

IBM is the integrator on a portal project for Miami-Dade County, Fla., that is based entirely on open standards, DeVore said.

In December 2000, IBM announced it would spend $1 billion developing and marketing Linux-based servers, middleware and new technologies, such as grid computing.

Steve Kolodney, vice president of public-sector services at American Management Systems Inc., Fairfax, Va., said many state governments are conducting research on open source, but none of them are "committing their enterprise to it."

"[State and local governments] are experimenting with ways to reduce costs, and anything that helps them reduce costs is a strategy worth considering," he said.

Massachusetts wants to gradually begin using products whose standards are not proprietary to a company and are open to peer review, Kriss said. With this approach, standards such as HTTP, XML and SSL might form the basic underpinning of the state's infrastructure, he said.

These particular standards, which are widely used by government and industry, can provide a platform "that moves us closer to interoperability and exchangeable data," Kriss said.

Gregg Kreizman, director of public-sector research for market research firm Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., said it's increasingly common to find architecture or policy statements that spell out requirements for open standards, such as Internet and application protocols, document and image standards and the XML family of standards.

Governments also are giving more consideration to using open-source software, but "it's just not advertised as much," he said.

While there are examples throughout government of open-source software being used for complex systems and in place of Windows and Unix for traditional applications, the majority of the implementations are for Web servers, file servers, print servers and network applications, Kreizman said.

"[Massachusetts] officials are really saying that they are going to be 'considering' open source and using it where they can," he said. "This is prudent. They are not requiring the use of open source, which would be going overboard right now."

The state of Utah, for example, is using a lot of open-computing technology, including Linux, said Val Oveson, Utah's chief information officer. The state has not yet established it as a standard, however.

John Weathersby, chairman of the Open Source Software Institute of Oxford, Miss., a group that advocates greater use of open-source products by government and industry, said state governments are pursuing open-source products because of their maturity and adaptability, he said.

"Open-source programs are part of the IT landscape," he said. "Smart development and IT service shops will start including open source as part of their offering packages."

Although the institute is actively discussing open-source strategies with several state and local governments, Weathersby declined to identify them because of the controversy surrounding the Massachusetts' program.

"It does remind me of the old saying: No good deed goes unpunished," he said.

Kriss is trying to allay vendors' fears. Many large organizations, including federal and local governments, are thinking through the future evolution of their infrastructure and weighing the use of open source and standards, he said.

"We're not doing anything new. But we are trying to press forward in more of a top-down consolidation vision, making sure that these standards are in place rather than doing it in a random, decentralized pattern," he said. "And we're carefully evaluating open-source standards, rather than treating them like someone's stepchild they had forgotten."

Staff writer William Welsh can be reached at Staff writer Joab Jackson contributed to this story.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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