How Open Source Can Support Government Demands

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide “7 Open Source Myths Debunked.” We spoke with a dozen government technologists, lawmakers and other experts to debunk common myths and help your agency make fact-based decisions about using open source. To view other myths, resources and facts about the state of open source adoption in government, download the full guide here.

One common myth of open source is that it is not enterprise-grade. The rumor mill is that open source software doesn't scale well to meet the demands of large government agencies.

Here are the facts.

There are too many examples to name in this guide, but we’ll run through a few that prove open source software can support large-scale initiatives in government.

Let’s start with the VA. In the early 1980s, the VA released the underlying software for its electronic health record (EHR) system in the public domain without restriction. Decades later in June 2011, the VA established the Open Source Electronic Health Record Alliance (OSEHRA) as the central governing body that oversees the community of EHR users, developers and service providers. Today that system, known as Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA), serves more than 1,800 hospitals and other healthcare providers around the world, according to OSHERA.

As the IT leader of the second largest federal department, the VA’s acting CIO, Rob Thomas II, said that “the open source community will be more important to the VA than ever, and VA will drive more robust participation in open source development.”

Thomas made those comments at the 2017 OSEHRA Open Source Summit, on the heels of the VA secretary’s announcement that the department is moving to a new commercial EHR system — on par with what DoD uses. Some wondered if the change in direction signaled an end to the VA’s relationship with open source, but Thomas said the agency will work with OSEHRA to maximize the reuse of technologies funded by the VA and identify opportunities for open source products.

At HUD, Chief Technology Officer Mark Hayes is using open source to modernize aging systems and applications. “We’re going from [the computer programming language] COBOL to an open source platform,” he said, noting that HUD has moved more heavily into open source over the past two years. “That’s our model for our legacy systems now.”

The goal is to build these new systems in the cloud and do so using open source technology. HUD implemented an open source enterprise bus solution that will facilitate communication between different services, including the department’s records management and workflow solutions. The Federal Housing Administration’s Loan Review System (LRS), which makes it easier for lenders to do business with FHA, is also built on open source. LRS is an electronic platform that provides a more precise and transparent methodology for FHA mortgage loan reviews.

“We’re beginning to set up all the building blocks, so that any future application development can take advantage of these products that we’ve already got in place,” Hayes said. “We’ve done demonstrations at different areas of the department, and it has created a demand for more systems being built on this open source stack.”

Some quick tips:

  1. Open source can be a cost-effective option for modernizing legacy systems.
  2. Work with your team to test open source software before it is released into production.
  3. Involve end users in the development and testing of software that will be used across your agency.

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