Federal CIOs tout benefits of 'open source' software

Federal agencies increasingly are using "open source" software, which allows program users to access and modify code, and officials are exploring new ways to incorporate the technology into e-government initiatives, senior government technology officers said Monday.

"Open source is usually brought forward by technology people very focused on the success of the technology," said John McManus, deputy chief information officer at NASA. "My experience has been that technology sold up through an agency will be more successful than something sold from the top down."

He added that having access to the software source code is a key factor in choosing the open-source platform. "It's the ability to have the equivalent of custom development," McManus said. "It's a big tipping point for us."

There are plans to launch a forum for the development of specialized e-government programs, with an initial meeting planned for April 5. The officers added that open-source programs have figured prominently in efforts to develop specialized applications, with lower-level programmers passionately advocating the technology to their superiors.

George Thomas, chief information architect with the General Services Administration, said open source has helped GSA move "beyond the best-of-breed" commercial software programs. "We can control every aspect of a given application, not something you can conceive of from a commercial program," he said. "You get to decide how to slice, dice, deploy and manage it. You decide what features come next."

Barry West, CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said he became an open-source "convert" a decade ago while working as CIO of the National Weather Service.

"My programmers would come to me and say 'Look at what we can do better, cheaper, even free, with open source,'" he said. West moved the National Weather Service to a Linux-based system he identified as "very cost effective," especially during severe weather incidents where demands on the agency's information infrastructure peak far above normal demands.

FEMA currently operates a "huge piece" of the agency's disaster-response network via open-source software. "Our lead time increases significantly for getting warnings out to the public," West said. Open source "improved performance, encouraged communication among developers and shortened our development cycle."

West said open source has been invaluable in its ability to expand rapidly to cover increased network demand during an emergency. He also touted open source's "near universal adaptability and acceptance" and its "robust, reusable software development patterns," and he praised the quality of support from vendors such as Red Hat.

"The bottom line is, those CIOs not using open source now will be in the next 12 to 24 months," he said.

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