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Open Source Isn’t Just for Cost Savings

This is the second installment in a two-part series on open source software (OSS) for enterprise IT. The first installment discussed common myths about the use of open source technologies.

“I think the biggest benefit to open source is the ability to move fast and to be agile.”

Andrew Hoppin

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk on open source software for enterprise IT organizations. Held at the World Bank, the panel featured a lively discussion from both public and private sector practitioners.

The panel’s moderator was Richard Boly, Consultant at the World Bank.

The panel featured:

John Scott: Founder, AirGap LLC., Military Open Source Working Group (Mil-OSS)

Adam Clater: Solution Architect Manager, U.S. Civilian and National Security, Red Hat

Ben Balter: Github (former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow)

Andrew Hoppin: Partner at DrupalSquad and New Amsterdam Ideas (former CIO of the New York State Senate)

Open Source Success Story: The Transformation of the New York Senate

Andrew Hoppin served as the Chief Information Officer of the New York Senate from 2009 to 2011. When Hoppin arrived in 2009, Senate was in bad shape. “We just had the former majority leader of the Senate convicted on federal corruption charges. Another senator was kicked out for throwing a bottle at his girlfriend. Nothing was getting done in term of lawmaking. It was a really bad culture and really bad reputation across New York State,” Hoppin explained.

This reputation extended to IT, which was operating years, even decades, behind the times. Its CRM technology was roughly 20 years old and used a command-line interface. The NY Senate’s website had nothing close to a content management system (CMS). Instead, its website was hand coded and centrally managed by two people out of a staff of 1,400. And the Senate’s internal information distribution system consisted of staffers literally cutting and pasting news. “We had people show up at five in the morning, taking paper newspapers and cuting out articles with X-Acto knives. They then photocopied them, printed hundreds of copies, and distributed them to staff all over the state capital. It cost New Yorkers about $1.5 million per year,” Hoppin said. At the same time, New York, along with the rest of the world, began to feel the full force of the global recession, which made efficacy that much more important at all levels of government. “We had this imperative to not spend money – ideally save money – while also making our part of New York state government better. We turned to open source to do it,” Hoppin explained.

Why Open Source?

Hoppin emphasized that while the cost savings were important, it was only a narrow corner of the larger picture. Other considerations included:

  • Innovation and Speed: “We needed to figure out how to do things better, quickly,” Hoppin said. Lacking the internal capacity to accomplish this, Hoppin knew that they needed to be part of a larger development community.
  • No vendor lock-in: “We didn’t want to be dependent on any particular vendor, especially in an institution with a very visible history of corruption,” Hoppin reasoned, adding, “All of the big top 20 tech companies have lobbyists in Albany, and we didn’t want to have anything to do with that.”
  • Talent recruitment: Transforming the business of IT meant recruiting programmers who might otherwise never consider working in government. OSS provided a development environment that was fun, innovative, and cool.
  • Leverage tax dollars: Hoppin and his team knew that if they built something useful, then their accomplishments could be shared and replicated by the assembly or other legislatures – all through OSS. “After all, why not? We pay for this as taxpayers in the first place,” Hoppin stated.
  • Security: Echoing John Scott’s earlier presentation, Hoppin argued that his shop felt comfortable knowing they could get their hands on the source code and look at it themselves, scrutinizing it for weaknesses.
  • Help: “Companies like Red Hat were providing really credible enterprise support for these [OSS] products, so it wasn’t like we were going to be on our own,” Hoppin explained.

The Results

It is difficult to overstate the revolution that took place in the New York Senate during those years, at least on the IT side of things. The project that made the biggest impact, however, was the content management system. “We started with the website because that was the central nervous system between New Yorkers and their elected officials,” Hoppin said. They adopted an open source CMS with zero in-house development talent, and within four months they had launched a new website and went from complete reliance on contractors to one hundred percent autonomy. Open source meant that they could use external support, but it also meant that there were no long-term commitments or dependencies on any outside organization, team or company.

The website itself was also vastly improved. The NY Senate went from 2 to 800 content managers throughout the organization, the vast majority of which were not technical. The website also included open data features, with information on budget, spending and compensation available to the public for the first time. It also offered live streaming, which offered New Yorkers outside of Albany a chance to see firsthand what their elected officials were doing. New Yorkers could also search for legislation by keyword for the first time, and now have the ability to publicly comment on bills for an added layer of transparency and interaction.

Hoppin attributes these successes, among others, to the ability to adopt open source technologies. And the IT office got a lot of good feedback, too. New York’s 62 senators and their constituents didn’t care at all about open source or proprietary software – they only cared about results. It was incredible for them to see their organization’s public reputation transformed away from one previously defined by stagnation and corruption.

Of course, there were cost savings. Open source allowed Hoppin to save more than ten percent off of the annual historical baseline IT budget. “But I don’t want to overstate that, because we still have to pay developers and vendors,” Hoppin noted. Instead the biggest benefit was the ability to move fast, to be agile and efficient – ultimately transforming the NY Senate from an anachronism into an innovator.

Additional open source resources:

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