Australia sources for open strategy

special report When the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) held a conference on government use of open source software in February 2002, there were two surprising outcomes. One was the huge number of department staff interested in learning more about open source, the other was the relatively small number of departments which were willing to stand up in public and say -We're already using open source".

special report When the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) held a conference on government use of open source software in February 2002, there were two surprising outcomes. One was the huge number of department staff interested in learning more about open source, the other was the relatively small number of departments which were willing to stand up in public and say -We're already using open source".

More than two years later, interest levels remain high but open source is much more easily embraced in public. A two-day conference on government and open source held in Adelaide in January this year as part of the annual Linux.conf.au was awash with examples of departments and agencies deriving real benefit from open source solutions.


Editor's note: On April 8, 2004, NOIE was replaced by the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO).
While legal concerns and implementation issues remain, the consensus is that open source software is now a realistic and frequently preferable solution for many government bodies.

Speakers from a variety of government agencies and departments said that while many managers had initially expressed concern over whether open source products would be properly supported, they rarely complained once effective systems were up and running.

-The way we've done it is really by demonstration," says Graham Williams from the CSIRO.

Williams has helped develop a number of data mining applications for use in Commonwealth health agencies, all of which have made extensive use of open source technologies. In many cases, this functionality would not have been available in existing commercial packages at an effective licensing cost.

Similarly, Williams said that concerns over security in open source platforms were generally misplaced. -Everywhere you go people tell you how insecure Linux is, and it's a huge myth," he says.

Open source in action
When the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) sought a replacement for its Internet and intranet publishing systems, an open source solution eventually won out because of its standards compliance.

Page II: Government departments have shed their initial reluctance to use open source technologies, but the problem persists -- how do you determine appropriate usage?

According to Web infrastructure manager Avi Miller, compliance was a more critical factor than either cost -- NOIE's shortlist was equally divided between commercial and open-source products -- or other concerns such as security.

-We would have run CP/M on an Amiga if it was the best standards-compliant environment," he says.

While the Federal Government has made it clear that open source is never likely to be a mandated solution, it has increasingly warmed to the theme of open standards. Tony Judge, general manager of the business strategies branch of NOIE, says that guidelines published by the government Information Management Steering Committee were designed to ensure that conformity to standards was considered alongside value for money when purchasing decisions were made.

Of course, value for money is easy to calculate when proprietary alternatives don't exist. The Bureau of Rural Sciences chose an open source solution for its geographic information systems simply because commercial products lacked some facilities. -In terms of applying open source, we've done as well as we have because we've looked for niches where we can fill needs that other products can't," says Antti Roppola from the Bureau.

Whatever core measures are used, government users do face the additional challenge of working within tightly-defined contractual guidelines.

-There's a lot of issues that arise with the interaction of an open source licence and what you have to provide in a government contract," says Peter Bailey from Synod, which used a mixture of open source and proprietary code for a content management system developed for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). -The acceptance of the use of open source components can be an issue."

Legal blues
One of the problem areas for utilising open source is that government contracts modelled on the Government Information Technology and Communications standard include an explicit requirement that products include a warranty and indemnity clauses -- something which is effectively barred by open source licensing approaches such as the General Public Licence (GPL).

Page III: Government departments have shed their initial reluctance to use open source technologies, but the problem persists -- how do you determine appropriate usage?

According to NOIE's Judge, such support issues need to be considered, but shouldn't constitute an automatic black mark.

-When you talk about the legal issues around open source, what you're really talking about is risk management," he says. -Indemnity and liability are only two elements of managing risk."

If suppliers are willing to commit to working on support issues, then contractual requirements can generally be satisfied.

The Federal Government is keen to see more collaboration between state and national agencies -- an approach which open source greatly simplifies. As a model example, Judge cites the national AusTender site, which is based around code developed for a NSW government agency but now maintained nationally.

Interestingly, such activity could pose a different kind of legal challenge. Professor Brian Fitzgerald told attendees at the conference that the impact of GPL regarding code sharing remained unclear for government agencies.

Under the licence, developers are required to make source code for any works derived from a GPL-licensed product freely available if that product is distributed to other parties.

-As a rule of thumb, distribution amongst government departments is not a distribution [for the purposes of the GPL]," Fitzgerald says. However, he notes that since each individual state in Australia has a separate constitutional status to the overall Commonwealth, it is not clear whether code shared between federal and state agencies should be subject to the GPL requirement to make source code freely available.

-The GPL is a very unique regulatory structure that has worked very well to this point," he says. -If the Australian government wants to operate within that framework for its open source software, it needs to understand how it operates."

Nic Suzor from the QUT School of Law says developers could sidestep the state/federal issue issues by only releasing source code directly derived from GPL-licensed products, while keeping entirely software in separate packages and thus free from licensing constraints. In this way, code could be shared between federal and state agencies without raising any concerns.

Despite such legal niggles, it seems clear that open source has now established a firm foothold in government IT. While the hardcore open source community might like to see it usurp proprietary software entirely, agencies appear happy to add open source to the menu of possibilities, and choose according to their particular needs.

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