Many obstacles to open source in government
A host of impediments--many having to do with the nature of program funding--prevent wider adoption of open source software within the federal government, said David Wheeler, a research staff member at the Institute for Defense Analyses and an open source proponent.
Wheeler spoke June 7 during a webinar put on by GovLoop; he summarized the results of a not-yet-public report on open source adoption co-authored by him and Tom Dunn of the Georgia Tech Research Institute.
Government officials interviewed by the pair voiced a fear of change and there does exist a lack of software expertise within federal agencies, Wheeler said--but officials also pointed to the cost of transitioning to any new software.
"This was inhibiting people from switching to anything else, whether it was an open source software solution or a different proprietary solution," he explained.
Program offices and federal contracts are also discouraged from utilizing open source software, Wheeler said. Program offices want to ensure they spend their entire budget and don't want their head counts diminished. Contractors, meanwhile, likewise don't want their personnel ranks diminished and view sharing software code as directly undermining their ability to receive additional government business.
"This was a reason not to share, not to reuse, but to try to do everything you could in house," Wheeler said.
Government policies laying out open source's acceptability within agencies get turned around by opponents as a weapon against it, Wheeler added.
Some impediments have to do generally with misconceptions about open source itself, such as that it's a particularly bug-ridden or a vector for malware. "There's a strange perception--just because you can't review the source code of software, doesn't mean it's safe," he said.
Many in government also don't understand the open source company business model, Wheeler said. Federal agencies want warranties and support--precisely how open source companies make a lot of their money--but the open source business model of divorcing licensing (free) from support or subscriptions (paid) remains difficult to grasp in some government circles.
When agencies do adopt open source, they often make it difficult to share the code through internal restrictions, Wheeler said.
"There are cases where a release from one part of one agency to another part of one agency requires essentially all the steps as if it were being released to the public," Wheeler said, adding an emphatic "that makes no sense."
Agencies also still tend to make their own open source forks and never release the code back, creating a situation whereby they must maintain specialized code on their own, precisely a situation open source is meant to avoid, Wheeler said.
Wheeler also included a plea not to use specialized open source licenses when they do distribute code back to the public. "Please, government, never, never, create your own special vanity license," he said. "Please try to limit yourself to standard licenses that are widely used, otherwise the government ends up creating yet another area where it can't collaborate with others."
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