NZ Ministry of Justice: We want open source

The New Zealand Ministry for Justice believes that open source software is a more stable, supportable, and cost-effective choice compared to proprietary solutions.
Written by Suzanne Tindal, Contributor

The New Zealand Ministry for Justice believes that open source software is a more stable, supportable, and cost-effective choice compared to proprietary solutions.


In the report, which can be found on the New Zealand Open Source Society site, the Ministry addresses traditional concerns about open source, and concludes that although "open source software (OSS) was once an extraordinary way of thinking, limited to academia and small guerrilla projects in a community of hackers" it "can lead to a more stable, supportable, and cost-effective IT environment, and should be pursued for pragmatic reasons".

The Ministry's new policy says: "Given two equivalent packages, one open and one proprietary, the OSS one would be the preferable choice for reasons of better supportability and lower lifecycle cost."

The report is not unequivocally in favour of community software, however: "Being free to choose an open source solution is not the same as allowing any developer to choose any OSS product for any purpose, which would lead to an unsupportable morass."

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According to the document, historical reasons for governments or enterprises not taking up open source, which include the lack of commercial support, poor user interfaces, perceived unreliability and legal risks, are no longer valid.

Open source has a lesser risk of support structures being removed, it says, with proprietary software being a greater risk because products could be cut or software providers could be shut down due to lack of profits.

The document also states that user interfaces have improved, citing Firefox as an example.

Open source is more reliable than proprietary software because the source code is available for everyone to check and improve -- and it is "far more difficult to introduce trojan horses or backdoors into OSS than into proprietary software", the report says.

However, advisor for analyst company IBRS, Dr Kevin McIsaac, told ZDNet Australia that this view is an open source myth which has been circulating for some time.

"There is no conclusive evidence that it is more reliable, but also none that it's less reliable," he said.

There have been cases, McIsaac said, where vulnerabilities have lain dormant in open source code for years.

As for legal risks, the report states that open source reduces the likelihood of copyright violation because the source is publicly viewable, adding: "Hundreds of copyright and patent infringement cases have been filed by software companies against one another over OSS, [but] none of these cases have involved users of the applications in question, so the significance of this legal risk to the Ministry is low."

This is a naïve statement, according to McIsaac. "It's not common to see end users sued, but that doesn't mean that they can't be."

Software company SCO Group is a notable example of such behaviour; it brought a lawsuit against Daimler Chrysler and other users in 2004 for using Linux software, which it alleged at the time, had SCO intellectual property embedded without certification.

On the Ministry's decision to use open source where possible due to its low cost, McIsaac said he would "certainly agree that in many instances you are not worse off", listing open source software which has been very beneficial to its users, including Apache servers and MySQL. However, the cost is not necessarily lower, he argued.

"The question about whether it's cheaper or not can be difficult to answer," he concluded. Although open source avoids the cost of licensing, he continued, there are ongoing costs and maintenance costs -- a view which the NZ Ministry of Justice seconds within the document.

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