Open-source software comes of age in the gov't market

The lowdown

What is it? Linux is an open-source operating system that runs on a wide variety of hardware platforms.

How much does it cost? Linux was developed under the Free Software Foundation's GNU General Public License, so the source code for each distribution is free. Some commercial distributions come with proprietary software, services and professional support that isn't free.

Is it ready for the desktop? Linux is better for servers than for desktops, but wide availability of commercial and open-source applications for office automation, software development and database management on Linux suit it for some desktop users. It can also be coupled with thin-client systems in kiosk and locked-down desktop environments.
Who's using it in government? Energy and NASA top a list that also includes the Defense and Homeland Security departments, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NOAA and the General Services Administration.

Must-know info? OMB has told federal CIOs to consider Linux and other open-source software on equal footing with proprietary commercial software.

At the 1999 LinuxWorld Expo in San Jose, Calif., Linus Torvalds joked about his goal for the operating system he started: "Total world domination."

Six years later, Linux has won a spot in government workplaces around the globe.

Because Linux can run on older, cheaper hardware, agencies can extend the hardware's lifecycle. Even with a support contract with Red Hat Inc. or Novell Inc., the acquisition cost of Linux is tiny in contrast to deploying a new version of Windows on existing hardware.

Linux has found a home in scientific applications, and federal researchers have made major contributions to the Linux community. The Energy Department uses both Novell's SuSE and Red Hat, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also uses Red Hat.

NASA does a lot of software development on the LAMP platform, the collection of open-source software that includes Linux, Apache Software Foundation's Apache Web server, MySQL database, and Perl and Python scripting languages.

Nearly two years ago the Office of Management and Budget made Linux part of its Technical Reference Model for enterprise architectures. Although OMB advised chief information officers to look at potential licensing and security problems with open-source software, many such doubts are fading. SuSE recently won a Common Criteria Evaluation Assurance Level 4 rating ? the same level assigned to OSes such as Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Trusted Solaris.

Novell is helping to win more converts by all but eliminating the differences between its proprietary NetWare OS and its SuSE Linux server. This spring, the company plans to unveil Open Enterprise Server, which has all the functionality of its Novell NetWare but on the Linux platform.

S. Michael Gallagher, a Maryland network manager, writes about computer technology.

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