Open source day for govt IT chiefs

An open source consciousness-raising effort for government IT chiefs in Wellington today will include a Microsoft effort to define terms.

An open source consciousness-raising effort for government IT chiefs in Wellington today will include a Microsoft effort to define terms.

Microsoft, IBM, Sun and the Open Source Society are expected to be represented at the event, which is being staged by Govis, the government IT managers’ forum. According to organiser Mike Pearson, the event has attracted about 80 people, well up on the usual 50 or so attendees.

Microsoft spokesman Brett Roberts says he’ll be trying to pull discussion on open source development from its polarised positions closer to a middle ground.

“First I’ll want to make it clear what we’re talking about. If you go into a room and say ‘let’s talk open source’, people there will have a number of different ideas of what they mean by it. Some automatically assume you want to talk about Linux. It’s broader than that. It’s a whole development methodology, which has been around since the year dot.”

Open Source Society (OSS) spokesman Peter Harrison is in no doubt about the definition: to the OSS, it’s all about freedom.

“It’s the freedom to use, the freedom to distribute and the freedom to copy” open source-licensed software, Harrison says.

Shared source, the Microsoft programme which allows customers to view its code, “denies the essential quality of freedom” that open source implies, Harrison says.

The definition of open source shouldn’t be a mystery to any government IT manager who has read the State Service Commission’s background paper on the subject. The document, written by e-government unit head Brendan Boyle, in March, says open source software is openly published code, “available free of charge, can freely be modified and distributed, and which is most often developed by voluntary effort”.

Harrison maintains he won’t be looking for a fight at the event.

“We’re not gunning for Microsoft; we’re hoping to educate people about what’s out there.”

That is much more than Linux, Harrison says: it also includes numerous open source applications, including ERP software.

Microsoft’s Roberts says he’ll also do a “reality check” on security.

“Some people think that because something’s open source it’s magically more secure. That’s not so, and I’ll be producing some statistics that show that.”

Roberts first offered to produce statistics on comparative rates of fault reports (or “issues” as Microsoft prefers to call them) in Windows and Linux for Computerworld in March. They did not arrive by deadline and he did not respond to subsequent requests to provide such information.

He’ll also talk about Microsoft’s shared source programme, and “whether people really do want to get their hands on our source code”. All commercial customers on Microsoft enterprise agreements have the right to examine Windows code, he says, “and not one in New Zealand has taken us up on it”. The government has, “but it has different reasons”.

The government has subscribed to a particular form of shared source known as the Government Security Programme, which allows it to examine Microsoft code for possible vulnerabilities but not change it to remedy any shortcomings it sees. This has attracted criticism from several directions, including an “open letter” to the Prime Minister, which compares Microsoft’s approach unfavourably with that of open source vendors who, by definition, welcome such correction.

Harrison claims to have encouraged IT minister Paul Swain to enter the agreement, arguing that it was a security risk for the country not to know the inner workings of Microsoft software.

Govis’ Pearson says the event has attracted some private-sector hangers-on who want to hear the good or bad news about open source software (OSS) in government. About 15 of those booked to attend are from private organisations, says Pearson.

Aside from Roberts and Harrison, IBM is bringing one of its open source heavy-hitters from the east coast of the US. Mary Ann Fisher is the company’s worldwide Linux programme director for the public sector. She works with governments, healthcare organisations and universities to integrate Linux and OSS into enterprise IT strategies. Fisher is also responsible for IBM’s Linux investment strategy for the public sector.

In Australia, meantime, one state government, it appears, has ratcheted its open source attention level up another notch. The New South Wales Department of Commerce has set up an open source evaluation project involving about 40 agencies, aiming to find out which open source products are most appropriate for government. As a result of ministerial shuffling earlier this year the NSW department now incorporates the former standalone department of information technology as well as industrial relations, fair trading and some public works and services.

“The project is investigating the use of different open source software packages and operating systems,” says the department’s deputy director general, Robert Wheeler. Results will emerge at the end of the exercise later this year, in the form of a guide to open systems use.

“Open source in government” will also be on the agenda at the forthcoming annual conference of AUUG, the Australian Unix and Open Systems User Group, The conference will be held in Sydney from August 31 to September 2.

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