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Linux in Government

by Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom
07/15/2002

Ten years after joining the research staff at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Przemek Klosowski still remembers his first encounter with Linux.

"It was 1993, and I was here as a grad student," says Klosowski, who in addition to working as a scientist at NIST is also a cofounder of the D.C. Linux Users Group. "At the time we were using PCs. Windows 3.1 was barely out. It was all very primitive. We had expensive commercial VMS and Unix workstations, but you had to fight for access. When Linux came along, it was very attractive. Suddenly you had the sophistication of Unix and the price point of PCs."

Because he was a researcher, Klosowski had freedom to play with NIST's computer equipment. Although installing an untested operating system like Linux was risky, Klosowski says the risk was balanced by other factors: zero cost, zero licensing hassles, and the potential benefits that might come with running a more versatile operating system.

"You were on your own, but you were also looking for a solution," Klosowski says. "Once you found the solution, you would talk about the solution, not the software. Nobody cared what software you used."

Nearly a decade later, Klosowski shares the same attitude when it comes to recent news stories documenting the sudden spiking popularity of open source software within the U.S. federal government. Coming on the heels of major software contracts announced by IBM and Hewlett-Packard, the stories suggest a rising political groundswell or major marketing push. To Klosowski, however, the stories seem more indicative of a growing confluence of individual projects. Under pressure to build better, safer, and more reliable computer systems, more and more government employees are following the same trail blazed by Klosowski back in 1993.

"There's no concerted effort," says Klosowski, noting the growing market share for open source programs inside the Washington Beltway. "It's more based on the technical judgment of people tasked with specific problems. They turn to open source because they can't find any other program to solve that problem."

In many ways, the U.S. government's affinity for open source software seems somewhat preordained. After all, if it wasn't for the vision and generosity of agencies such as NASA, the NCSA, and DARPA (the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency), most open source software programs wouldn't even be around today.

Outside the realm of scientific applications, however, the barriers to open source adoption have always been, and remain, high. Given the visibility associated with federal contracts, an IT manager switching a major database from Oracle to MySQL, for example, can be a lot trickier than an individual scientist deciding to switch from Windows to Linux.

"The last thing you want is some representative coming after you, asking why you failed to put out a bid " says one NIST employee who, unlike Klosowski, still prefers to keep a low profile when it comes to open source software.

View a timeline of open source in governments around the world.

Maybe that's why when it comes to adopting open source as a management tool, the U.S. government actually lags behind other major governments. From Asia to Europe to Latin America, politicians and bureaucrats are gravitating toward open source software for a variety of reasons. In China, the Ministry of Information Industry has been pumping money into the country's largest free software startup, Red Flag Linux, as a way to stimulate that nation's domestic software industry.

In the European Union government technocrats are examining open source software as a way to smooth the integration of conflicting, parochial software and communications standards. And in Latin America, where concerns over skyrocketing software fees and Microsoft market hegemony have triggered a spate of reactionary legislative bills, the debate surrounding open source software carries both nationalist and populist overtones.

"To guarantee national security or the security of the State, it is indispensable to be able to rely on systems without elements that allow control from a distance," argues Edgar Villanueva, author of a 2001 Peruvian bill which, if passed, would ban the use of all proprietary software in the Peruvian government.

"Our proposal strengthens the security of the citizens, both in their role as legitimate owners of information managed by the state, and in their role as consumers."

Considering that the U.S. is the world's dominant supplier of proprietary software, it makes sense that most federal IT managers tend to emphasize the pragmatic, as opposed to political advantages of open source software.

"The number one word I hear when people talk about why they use open source is reliability," says Terry Bollinger, information systems engineer for MITRE Corporation, a McLean, Virginia-based technology research firm. Bollinger's company is currently under contract with the Defense Information Systems Agency to study open source adoption within the U.S. military.

Although the MITRE report has yet to be finished, a June, 2002 A.P. story, citing an initial draft, indicated that Bollinger and his co-workers have detected at least 249 separate uses of open source computer systems inside the military. Bollinger won't corroborate that number, but he does find a general acceptance of older tools such as GCC and Emacs. When it comes to newer system-level technologies--Linux, Apache, or Python--he says military personnel still must navigate a thicket of rules and specifications.

"I think it's fair to say, I've not come across a single unauthorized use of Linux," he says. "What I do come across are people worried about complicated rules. They try to get a reading on what exactly those rules mean, and they get all these baffling answers back."

The Strange Case of the Disappearing Open Source Vendors
Open Source in Government


Within the upper levels of military management, Bollinger says, the primary concern is security, a concern that proprietary vendors have helped to reinforce through marketing and advertising.

"The availability of the source code definitely unnerves some people," Bollinger says. "I've heard a lot of people express concern that leaving the source code open will give people a better opportunity to study how your software works and to mount a sophisticated attack.

That said, Bollinger says he personally feels that security issues favor open source software over the long term.

"Open source licenses allow you almost total autonomy when it comes to how you want to use your source code," says Bollinger. "You don't have to go through a six-month loop to get a bug fix and you don't have to publish changes in your source code if you have no plan to redistribute the software. These are very, very attractive features for cases where you're threatened by cyberwarfare."

Even outside the military, the demand for heightened security is prompting some government agencies to give open source platforms a second look. In January, 2001, the National Security Administration announced its plans to develop a security-enhanced version of Linux and that it would share prototype versions with the public.

For the most part, however, government agencies are exploring open source options as a way to enhance software flexibility, lower costs and, as Bollinger points out, improve system reliability as more government services migrate online.

Related Article:

Lisa Nyman Discusses Open Source in Government -- Lisa Nyman is co-creator of QuickFacts, a service that lets visitors track down city, county, state, and national census data using only a single pulldown menu. QuickFacts uses Perl scripts, Apache Web servers, and a MySQL database to deliver increased interactivity at minimal cost. Sam Williams interviews Ms. Nyman about QuickFacts and open source in government.

Ms. Nyman will also be at this July's Open Source Convention where she'll participate in a panel discussion on Open Source in Government. She'll also be co-presenting for a session titled The Poor Woman's Desktop Mapping.

"It's definitely a hot topic right now," says Lisa Nyman, senior Internet technologist at the U.S. Census Bureau and chief architect of QuickFacts, an interactive feature on the U.S. Census Web site that lets visitors look up census data and federal statistics by city name. Written with the help of Perl scripts and built atop a collection of open source technologies--MySQL, Linux, Apache--QuickFacts has propelled Nyman into the limelight, as least as far as the Washington D.C. open source development community is concerned.

How fast that community continues to grow depends on a variety of factors. Education is certainly one factor, and Nyman credits the Cyberspace Policy Institute, a department of George Washington University, and the General Services Administration for hosting educational workshops dealing with open source and other related technology issues. Another factor is the use of open source in general society. For the moment, federal usage of open source software seems to be trailing business usage by about 12 to 18 months. That lag time could change quickly, however, given the recent surge in federal spending and security-intensive IT projects.

Perhaps the most important factor, however, is the performance of open source software itself. As Linux-veteran Klosowski is quick to point out, open source has flourished in places where users view software not as a political football but as a pragmatic tool. Given the political environment, the best thing to say about any software program is that it gets the job done and leave it at that.

"I think the awareness is slowly increasing," says Klosowski. "In the beginning it was mostly a stealth operation. You avoided telling anyone you were using it. Now it's not so bad. You have a climate where people feel a little more freedom to tell their managers, 'Look, we're having success with this stuff. We can do more.'"

Sam Williams is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. He has covered high-tech culture, specifically software-development culture, for a number of Web sites.


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