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Linux in Government
Pages: 1, 2

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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