McNealy pumps open standards, open source

At a recent government IT trade show, Sun's CEO promoted openness, but said commercial software built on open source code is a better bet than just downloading open source applications. Grant Gross reports

Government agencies need to move towards open standards and managed services to cut IT costs and improve service to customers, Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy said during his keynote speech at the recent FOSE (Federal Office Systems Expo) conference in Washington DC.

McNealy used part of his keynote and a later press conference at the trade show — which focuses on government IT — to trumpet Sun products and push for open standards, saying open standards and open-source software can reduce the exit costs associated with IT products.

Vendors like to brag about the acquisition and maintenance costs, but few talk about exit costs that can dwarf those other expenses, he told the audience.

McNealy, whose company pushes the open standards Java platform and participates in the OpenDocument Format Alliance, recommended government agencies buy commercial software built on open-source code, instead of downloading open-source software and running it without commercial support. The upside of software built on open code is that it allows customers to change vendors without massive exit costs, he told the audience.

“Sharing ... lowers your barrier to exit. By building on open source software, you’re guaranteed that if I overcharge, somebody else will start a business based on the reference code and charge less.”

McNealy also focused on managed services, saying nearly all computing functions, including storage and computing power, will soon be available on a managed grid. The US Congress might have to change some procurement laws to allow many government agencies to take advantage of this computing services grid, but most agencies not affiliated with military or intelligence functions could benefit from a grid of managed services, he noted.

“The barrier to exit on the grid is zero — when you’re done, you leave.”

Sun’s own Computing Grid project has been delayed, however, partially because of US State Department concerns about foreign governments using it. Sun had planned to implement its grid early last year, but Sun officials said last month that State Department concerns about computing power being used as a weapon by foreign governments have held up the project.

McNealy defended the grid concept, saying it makes sense for government agencies to in effect outsource their computing functions. “The point is, is the government in the business of maintaining [IT] infrastructure? I don’t think so.”

The concept of software as a managed service is already popular, he added. “We’re taking it one step down — computing as a service.”

Asked about the security implications of government agencies moving many functions to a commercial managed service, McNealy had little cause for concern. Security breaches happen, he acknowledged, but the private sector already holds much more valuable personal information about most people than the government does, he pointed out. “The problem with the government blowing it is, we can try to vote them out, but that’s hard. If an enterprise blows it we can move to another supplier and they’re out of business. The government never goes out of business.”

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