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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."

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