Government agencies in Asia are using open source software (OSS), where it can fulfill their IT requirements, saying it brings important benefits of cost-effectiveness, customization and choice.
Victor Lam, Hong Kong's deputy Government Chief Information Officer for consulting and operations, said several OSS solutions to date are free to use and have reached a maturity level appropriate for extensive and widespread utilization.
This essentially translates to two major advantages with OSS adoption that public agencies can enjoy. First, it opens up more choices, and second, OSS lowers software cost for IT systems, he explained.
For example, the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) uses Linux-based server operating systems (OSes) for running different types server applications including Web servers, Web application servers, database servers, and mail gateway servers, Lam said.
OGCIO also utilized OSS for mobile platforms, creating the "GovHK Notifications" and "GovHK Apps" apps meant for public use, he added.
Lam pointed out adoption by the individual Hong Kong government departments depends on their own user requirements and other relevant factors, such as fit for purpose, value for money, interoperability, security, compatibility, and ongoing support. All these ultimately influence what the most appropriate IT solution is, whether proprietary or open source, he said.
Legacy system obstacles
Tan King Ing, deputy director for open source and open standards, ICT Policy and Planning Division at Malaysian Administrative Modernization and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU), said OSS would not be suitable when existing legacy proprietary systems are working well and stable and do not involve high licensing or maintenance costs.
In this kind of scenario, migration to OSS will only incur additional costs for deployment, data migration and retraining personnel. These steps may also cause service disruptions and instability during migration and transition, she said.
In Malaysia, an OSS Master Plan was launched in 2004 with the aim of improving public service delivery via increased interoperability and lower total cost of ownership (TCO), Tan said.
According to her, implementation of OSS solutions on desktops like OpenOffice, messaging systems, network security, and backend servers such as MySQL have brought about licensing cost savings, benefiting budget-constrained agencies in particular.
As of 2011, the estimated cost savings so far in licensing fees alone from OSS implementation across public sector agencies in Malaysia was MYR 370 million (US$119.8 million), she said, noting that this figure "represents only the tip of the iceberg, based on only known OSS implementation".
Tan explained besides OSS allowing the development of customized and localized applications to meet niche requirements, such apps can be deployed to other agencies without licensing costs. This also helps make large-scale IT rollouts, such as for public schools and agencies' branch offices, more financially feasible, she added.
A Singapore Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) spokesperson said OSS represents more choice which is something that is welcomed by the country's public sector. According to him, close to 100 OSS products are being used across various aspects of the Singapore government, from desktop utilities to key components in business systems of the agencies.
ICT procurement decisions for all software products remains governed by several interrelated factors that are evaluated against the merits each piece of software provides, the spokesperson emphasized. Besides TCO, other factors include the software's value-for-money and fit-for-purpose to support the business function, technical and security standards, licensing and implications for government use, he said.
Asheesh Raina, principal analyst at Gartner, said within a country's government sector, OSS adoption depends not only on the criteria specifications for any IT implementation, but also whether the appropriate OSS is sufficiently mature with a strong support community and ecosystem. The lack of which will leave the public agency feeling less assured or comfortable enough to use that particular OSS, he explained.
Raina added while savings on licensing costs are an attractive benefit for governments, they cannot be ignorant of potential misuse of OSS--that is, usage which deviates from licensing and reciprocity framework of the software.
Scott Wallace, acting first assistant secretary for policy and planning division at the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), concurred. Pointing to the Australian government's OSS policy, he said there typically few or zero restrictions on OSS use, and agencies can tailor the software to their own needs.
Still, he added public agencies should understand the license conditions and check whether it includes the concept of reciprocity, before modifying the software. A highly reciprocal license means an agency must make any modified code publicly available. That is why there must be strong governance over tracking all instances of OSS, or risk breaching the terms and conditions of OSS licenses.