5 Reasons To Start Using Open Source Today

“At some point you reach a tipping point. You do not want to compete for budget dollars, you want to collaborate, that’s where open source comes in.” – Daniel Risacher, Associate Director, Enterprise Services and Integration, Office of the Chief Information Officer, Department of Defense.

In the recent past, coming up with codes and sharing with fellow tech-experts was a hobby for a small community of programmers. Today, this process is known as “open source” and is transforming government. Open Source will be essential for the agency of the future. GovLoop put together a panel, “The Future of Open Source,” to discuss how your agency can incorporate open source, as part of our September 17 in-person event, “The Agency of the Future Is Here.” David Egts, Principal Architect, Pubic Sector, Red Hat and Daniel Risacher, Associate Director, Enterprise Services and Integration, Office of the Chief Information Officer, DOD. If you could not attend the event or wanted a chance to review the key points, here are a few of the key insights from our panelists.

1. No Strings Attached

One lesson for every agency is that the future is unpredictable. Signing a contract with a software platform for the next five years could stick your company with a legacy system that is not compatible with emerging technologies. Egts brought up the example of a recently popular technology, cloud computing. “Using proprietary software means that if you move to the cloud, you are tied to one cloud provider. Open source strengthens your hand, you can move to different clouds,” remarked Egts.

2. Competition and Collaboration

“Open source allows you to take advantage of collaboration and competition,” said Risacher. Open source allows software developers and interested individuals to collaborate on the code, yet they are still competing with each other to create the best code for your agency. Great ideas do not have to come from either collaboration or competition, with open source they can come from both. Egts also points out that open source allows you to pit vendors against vendors and against service providers. Open source gives your agency the flexibility in procurement to get the best system.

3. Mining Talent

There’s smarter people outside our agencies, outside our enterprises, how do we allow them to help?” Risacher asked the audience. Personnel agree that the “siloed-nature” of government agencies is an obstacle for innovation, but taking advantage of outside resources can be complicated. Risacher argued that open source allows agencies to take advantage of talent outside the agency without having to develop formalized partnerships or draw up contracts.

4. Tailored to Fit

Risacher discussed a case study from the NSA about how open source allows agencies to share platforms while adapting the technology to their specific needs. The NSA came up with the Ozone Widget Framework (OWF) a platform that facilitates integration through a web browser. Other agencies wanted to deploy OWF as well, but their needs differed from the NSA. At first, the NSA was either unwilling or unable to share the program. Eventually, personnel got together on an informal basis to contribute to its code and adapt the platform to their agencies on an unofficial basis. The OWF became so popular that in March 2013 Congress passed a law mandating OWF become open source. According to Risacher, this example demonstrates the principle that “No software is going to work and meet 100% of your needs from a box.” Open source allows agencies to adapt successful platforms to their needs.

5. Trial and Error

Ann Rodriguez, Under Armour, suggested to The Agency of the Future audience that every agency “fail faster to succeed sooner.” The more opportunities agencies have for low-risk innovation, the more the agency can grow and improve. “Open source allows you to try out various iterations of a program and see what works at no cost. There is a reason that all of the Silicon Valley start-ups are using open source,” said Egts.

While our panelists made a compelling case, they also recommended proceeding with caution. Here are three considerations to keep in mind before transitioning to open source:

1. Do your own research.

Risacher recommends that employees do their own research into open source, instead of relying on your vendor or systems integrator. Even if you may not be the most tech-literate staff member, it is not difficult to find key information about open source on the Internet. “Just type into Google what you think your agency needs and then type ‘open source.’ You will soon find out if your systems integrator is charging you for a component you could easily find for free,” said Risacher.

2. Open Source has costs.

Proponents of open source often cite the cost savings in licensing fees and vendor costs with the adoption of open source, but it is important to remember that open source has costs and it should be budgeted accordingly. “Open source is free, like a free puppy is free,” said Risacher. “It may be free initially, but you need to set aside money for maintenance and support costs.”

3. Get active in your community.

Open source began as a community of hobbyists. While today open source has transformed into a full-fledged software movement, the community remains. Egts suggested attending events that open-source contributors attend, such as GovLoop’s Agency of the Future and RedHat’s many summits. In addition, the D.C. area boasts a few local groups for open-source enthusiasts including novaLUG (Northern Virginia Linux User Group).

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Kathryn David

I’d love to hear from you all about whether the 5 reasons outweigh the three considerations/obstacles our panelists provided!

Kevin Lanahan

Kathryn, I’d vote yes, that the 5 reasons outweigh the 3 considerations.

We moved our website to Drupal 3 years ago. We spent a considerable sum on consultants to help us understand Drupal, create our content types and themes and devise a migration strategy. We have the flexibility to fix things that don’t work for us and create new modules to do things that others haven’t needed.

The Drupal community is lively and helpful, and there is a wealth of free information out there to help us make the platform do what we want it to do. Other open source projects have similar communities.

We can try new methods and discard them if they don’t work, or roll them into other projects.