Governments are considering open source technologies as an alternative to costly proprietary software. But while they’re past the science project stage and starting to get real benefits from open source, there’s still some confusion and fear surrounding the low-cost software alternative, says Ross Chevalier, CTO/CIO of Novell Canada. “There’s a very strong element of fear that if I do this maybe I’ll get in trouble,” says Chevalier, who recently spoke at GTEC Week.There are also misunderstandings due to advertising claims made by some proprietary vendors, he said in an interview with TIG. “There’s still a perception that the public sector hasn’t embraced open source,” he says. Adoption rates vary across the country and within different sectors. Outside of Canada, adoption rates are significantly higher. In Europe, for example, open source is much more common. “That’s so last year,” he says of the open source versus proprietary software debate. in Europe “It’s not even a relevant conversation.”
In Canada there are a huge number of projects underway, says Nancy Faigen, Novell’s vice-president and general manager for Linux. But there’s still some concern about using open source technologies.
“There are continuing discussions among all the different government agencies that want to deploy open source technologies as to whether or not they’re going to get approval,” she says.
Public Works and Government Services Canada has been given the mandate to procure technologies for government agencies.
“Right now they’re still trying to figure out what their policies are going to be in regards to the use of open source technologies,” Faigen says. “Not that there’s a tremendous demand for Linux and open source, but how does the Canadian government decide to use these technologies to protect itself against risk?”
The benefit is they can save money on software and, in some cases, on hardware because they’re not tied to proprietary hardware platforms. It also gives them more flexibility. “In the past year almost every major cross-industry and industry software provider has ported its solution to Linux so now government has a lot more choice.”
Linux caveats
Some would argue otherwise.
“We’re seeing the commercialization of the open source stack,” says Darren Massel, senior platform strategy manager with Microsoft Canada. “A lot of support is coming from IBM and Red Hat and Novell — you’re actually purchasing a support contract or subscription from one of those vendors.”
Customers need to understand what that means, he says, because they can become restricted or have to be compliant with what that support contract entails.
“We do not want any sort of restrictions on the options customers have, but we want to make sure customers are taking the time to do a solid evaluation of the technology to make sure it does deliver business value,” he says.
For example, does it have the right features and functionality, or does it offer the best total cost of ownership?
Still, few will argue momentum is building. The question is how far that adoption will go in the public sector, says Warren Shiau, lead IT analyst with The Strategic Council in Toronto. Is it simply a policy statement that never results in action, he says, or will it change the way governments use IT? While there’s still a lot of work to be done, open source has great potential in desktop applications, he says, and Microsoft is trying to combat that.
The main challenge in both public and private sectors is from a vendor with an incumbent position, such as Microsoft, IBM or Oracle.
“People are trained on that platform,” Shiau says. “If they do any custom applications they’re used to that skill set [and] open source is not necessarily congruent or consistent with that platform.”
It also means the IT department is responsible for maintaining that platform, which requires greater spending. Open source tends to be tied to the IT department rather than business decision-makers. “It tends not to be (used in) huge cross-department, cross-ministry implementations,” he says, “It’s very ad hoc.”

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