The Open Source Way

Joyce Edson, Deputy CIO and Asst Gen Mgr, City of Los Angeles
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"Open source", in the world of IT, is program code that is meant for collaboration and open contribution. Intended to be modified and shared, because by design and spirit, it is meant for the public at large. It’s been said that “"open source" intimates a broader set of values—what we call "the open source way." Open source projects, products, or initiatives embrace and celebrate principles of open exchange, collaborative participation, rapid prototyping, transparency, meritocracy, and community-oriented development.” So it is a natural conclusion that in this age of open and transparent government, that the government IT manager or technician would be one of the first to want to embrace this new role of collaborative team member within a larger community.

Additionally, as organizations, especially government, continue to emerge from the technology funding embargo of the Great (2008) Recession - an economic force that froze IT purchases and programs and forced many into strict “keep the lights on” operational mode, IT managers and CIO’s are carefully expending their still relatively measly budgets.

 In time and with more experience, the IT community will find itself hard pressed not to adopt “the open source way 

With tech budgets being notoriously high but often perceived by fiscal agents, as having a relatively low product to cost ratio, open source can provide important information and experience; the proverbial “free” letter guess in the game of technology “Wheel of Fortune”. Open source providing the ever fiscally challenged IT professional, the opportunity to get a “hands-on” look and feel for new and previously unexplored technology product lines. Providing invaluable insight into where tech fits into operations, what features do or don’t make sense to implement, and what final product to commit to. There’s even the chance, depending on the technology, your organization’s maturity and the maturity of the open source product, that you might even be able to use that open source as the ultimate “free” letter to solve that one part of your technology puzzle, and who would want to pass on a Free Spin?

However, the fact is open source, for all it’s obvious advantages, also carries with it unknowns and uncertainties that the technical mind can find, well, unsettling. True, it brings the opportunity to have a hands on experience with a “functioning” technology, with only the cost of time and effort, but it also comes without the traditional safety net of support. There is no number to call, no specific person on the other end of the call to explain and be explained to, no process to escalate issues, and no one to walk a fledgling System Administrator through the steps to “fix it”, and in some organizations, this can be a show stopper.

Also, while governments have in concept and philosophy, fully embraced the open and transparent approach to operations, there is still a significant concern and rightly so, in these days of identity theft and issues of personal privacy, that the software systems that we use must be certified and assure every security protection possible. When dealing with a “storefront vendor” there is a physical entity associated with security. With open source, there is no such physical entity, but rather a virtual community of contributors with no direct or even real legal responsibility for assuring much of anything. Another significant hurdle to overcome in the acceptance of open source.

But the bottomline in the tech maturity timeline, large entities don’t usually consider open source for enterprise level secured financial transactions or personal identity laden human resource systems, even though there are options out there and are frequently used for personal and small(er) businesses. But there is a growing list of success stories where open source has gone from niche to mainstream - in operating systems (Linux, MySQL, BSD) and web software (Apache, Firefox, WordPress), and in other areas, so in time and with more experience, the IT community will find itself hard pressed not to adopt “the open source way”.

For IT organizations, especially government, with limited budgets and long procurement processes, time and increased experience with open source products will lead to a growing understanding and acceptance. And as this understanding progresses and becomes more accepted, open source will become a “go to” option to keep up with the fast moving technical environment, and perhaps eventually, as a standard first option, realizing the broader set of open source values by relying on the collective work and minds of a virtual community of IT “hackers”, “geeks” and “nerds”, working globally, 24x7/365 to explore, develop and showcase whatever tech that sparks their individual interest. 

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