Group to push open source in U.S. government

Open-source software needs a higher profile in Washington, D.C., according to a group of about 70 organizations and companies that launched a new campaign to educate U.S. government agencies about the benefits of open source.

Members of the Open Source For America coalition, which launched Wednesday, include Google, The Linux Foundation, the Mozilla and Debian projects, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The coalition's goal is not to convince the U.S. government to favor open-source software over proprietary code, but to give open source an equal chance to win government contracts, said Tom Rabon, executive vice president for corporate affairs at Red Hat. In recent years, some open-source groups, particularly outside the U.S., have pushed governments to mandate open-source software instead of using software from U.S.-based Microsoft.

That's not the approach from OSFA, Rabon said. "We just want make sure that our government is taking advantage of every opportunity," he said. "To the extent that we can make them more aware of not being locked into a particular technology and the collaboration aspects of open source, these are the types of things that just take time for them to understand."

Microsoft is not part of the coalition. A Microsoft spokesman referred questions about the company's reaction to the coalition to a blog post last week by Teresa Carlson, Microsoft's public sector federal lead, who questioned often-cited benefits of open-source software.

Open-source software, sometimes free to acquire, doesn't always lead to lower IT costs, Carlson wrote. In addition, Carlson questioned the long-standing claim that open-source software is generally more secure than proprietary software.

"The challenge with an open source development process is that the process by its nature is ad hoc and voluntary, making it difficult to determine if the methodology itself reduces vulnerabilities," Carlson wrote.

Microsoft supports many open standards, Carlson also wrote. "The reality is that governments operate in a mixed source world so interoperability and security should be prioritized across the board," she said. "Let’s make sure that in licensing and business models, government retains its freedom to choose. Interoperability fosters competition, and competition leads to innovation, enabling government to get the best value for taxpayer dollars. "

Open-source software is not new to the U.S. government. Several agencies, including the U.S. Department of Defense, have long used the Linux operating system and the Apache Web server, for example. But government contracting proposals aren't always written to give small open-source companies a good chance of winning, Rabon said.

OSFA's goal is to raise awareness across the U.S. government and to give open-source companies a voice, said David Thomas, spokesman for the coalition. "What we're looking for is to level the playing field," he said.

Individual members of the coalition have representatives in Washington, but there's been no one devoted full-time to promoting open-source and educating the government about it, Rabon said. "If you're going to be heard in Washington, you have to have a presence," he said. "There's no one voice that can speak for all of us."

This seems like a good time to promote open-source software, with U.S. President Barack Obama's administration pushing open and transparent government, Rabon added.

"Their use of technology has sort of been a wake-up call to all of us," Rabon said. "The more open you are, the more opportunity there is to participate."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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