The document -- A Guide to Open Source Software for Australian Government Agencies -- released today by the Special Minister of State, Senator Eric Abetz, at a conference in Canberra, states "the primary considerations [in open-source software procurement] are fitness for purpose and value for money."
"Agencies should consider open-source software on its merits," Abetz said.
The guide -- a companion to the government's 2004 A Guide to ICT Sourcing -- was developed to help agencies make a proper assessment of open-source solutions against competing offerings. "All solutions -- open source or proprietary -- which can meet an agency's functional specifications should be considered by an agency when it is undertaking software procurement.
"However, the different nature of open-source software can make such assessments -- and comparisons between different solutions -- difficult," he said.
The guide, Abetz told the Open Computing in Government conference, provided "decision-makers with the right questions to ask and the resources to analyse the relative merits of open source and proprietary solutions.
"It specifically informs decision-makers on areas such as risk management procedures, cost of ownership issues and the different contractual considerations that can apply to open-source software," he said.
Understanding cost of ownership for open-source software is important because, under an open-source model, costs often are incurred at different phases of the implementation and operation of an information technology system, according to the guide.
Abetz claimed the release of the guide, combined with the government's "strong commitment to competitive neutrality, allows me to predict that the future of open source software access to the government's AU$1 billion per annum new IT spending has never been brighter".
The federal government has an annual ICT investment of around AU$5 billion.
The guide argues while the risks involved in deploying open source are not necessarily higher or lower than proprietary deployments, there is "a change in risk profile" that must be understood by procurement officers.
Just one example of this was the fact open-source solutions had a clear edge over proprietary rivals in termination costs.
Whereas proprietary software suppliers could lock in agencies to their offerings due to the lack of functional or interoperable alternatives, the 'free redistribution' clause of the open source model greatly reduces vendors' opportunities to do this.
The guide also stipulates that purchasers should not overestimate the value of warranties provided with software. It advises agencies to adopt a prudent stance when considering open-source software solutions where no warranties or indemnities are offered.
"Agencies may decide, after appropriate due diligence and risk assessment, that the absence of indemnities and warranties is a manageable risk in certain scenarios.
"However, if an agency deems the risks too high, it should only acquire open source solutions through external service providers.
The guide also notes that open source and proprietary software differ substantially in their development, release and useage lifecycles.
"This results from the differences in development procedures and licencing between the two.
"Before making any open source software acquisitions, agencies should understand the process by which open source software products reach functional maturity for production-quality deployment".
The guide also notes that agencies can still undertake an informed analysis of the technology risks involved in open-source solutions even when the type of technical marketing information and analyst research available for proprietary solutions has not been done.
The document also touches on the highly sensitive issue of intellectual property and associated prospects of litigation. "Some users who are new to open source assume that there are no intellectual property boundaries and that everyone is free to reuse any intellectual property contained in open source software products.
"This is not the case. "If anything, open access to the underlying intellectual property means IP subtleties are perhaps even more important for open source software.
"Agency staff should be well-briefed in these subtleties to ensure they have the analytical and decision-making skills required to judge and manage the various risks involved," it said.