Gary Doucet, senior director of the infrastructure, architecture and security division, Treasury Board Secretariat, comes to the public sector on an executive exchange program. Doucet, who was lead architect for CGI’s work on Secure Channel, spoke to TIG about the opportunity to make a difference

and about the federal government’s Linux initiatives.

“”Within the private sector you listen to what the government would like to do in terms of direction,”” says Doucet. “”When you’re actually inside you get to effect the direction. In the private sector you wait for an RFP to come out and it describes the solution. I wanted to be on the front, which was describing what the solution actually looked like. You have a better chance of making a difference that way.””

TIG: How is open source being used now in the federal government?

GD: Government of Canada’s main Web site (www.gc.ca) runs on an open source solution. It’s an Apache Web server. As well, the DNS systems system we have is an open source solution, so Canada’s top level domain gc.ca uses that. And the National Research Council’s research press, which publishes monographed conference proceedings and publications, uses open source as well. By using open source solutions they stay at the forefront of scientific communications internationally. The atlas of Canada online provides geographic information products. They use open source as well. And Geological Survey Canada operates a Canada-wide network of about 100 seismographs, so in addition to detecting earthquakes around the world they use the seismographs to detect seismic waves from nuclear tests and report the findings via satellites to the UN in Geneva. Another example is software-defined radio (SDR), a new generation of wireless devices. It can be reconfigured to adapt to changing communication protocols and frequency bandwidths; it’s a fairly dynamic field. It has many applications. For example, emergency response organizations can benefit from the vastly improved communications through SDR. It has an underlying open source architecture. So it gives the industry a common interpretation of SDR specifications. There’s interoperability among the manufacturers. There’s a project based at Communications Research Centre Industry Canada sponsored by Defence Research and Development Canada as well.

TIG: Could open source be used more?

GD: We’re obviously seeing a trend towards more use of open source solutions and we expect the government will be in that trend as well, so we expect an increase in use. The government generally tries to test software and applications for either specific projects or research purposes. When we adopt an application and software, especially in a service environment, it’s usually because it has been tested and proven by others.

We try to play it safe so in that way we’re a bit of a fast follower. As open source use increases I think the government will follow where it makes sense. Our approach is to have departments and agencies base their software decisions on their business needs. That principle is set out in the federated architecture program (FAP), which includes 13 architectural principles to guide the development of IT infrastructure and systems in the federal government. Our approach is to have departments and agencies base their decisions … on the principles set out in FAP. We’re saying follow FAP. If it leads to an open source solution, great.

TIG: What are the advantages and disadvantages of using open source, particularly in the public sector? How do ease of use and training factor into this issue?

GD: It gives (decision-makers) options to provide higher-level service to Canadians, to reduce costs, to foster a competitive environment, and to create opportunities for small and medium-sized businesses. I’m not saying if you choose open source all these things happen. But because open source is in the mix these are the sorts of benefits you get. In terms of ease of use and training, all these issues have to be considered whether you use open source or not. Our challenge is to make sure we have all the information that’s required to make those decisions and understand what it takes to learn a proprietary solution, but we also need that for open source. We’re basically assisting the decision-makers throughout the public sector to gain and apply working knowledge about the full spectrum of operational and strategic business choices, because we consider this to be a business choice.

TIG: I understand the government has commissioned a study on open source business opportunities. Where are we with that at the moment? What have we learned?

GD: It’s complete. You can download it. It’s called Open Source Software in Canada: Open Source Business Opportunities for Canada’s Information and Communications Technology Sector. A Collaborative Fact-finding Study. The author is E-cology Corp., and it was produced in September 2003. www.e-cology.ca/canfloss/report. We gained a better understanding of OS adoption and activity in the public and private sectors in Canada, as well as opinions about strategic issues and some of the long-term prospects of open source software. It gave us a bit of an environmental scan on the current state of open source software as well as world-wide trends.

TIG: One of the issues I’ve heard raised with the difficulty of using open source in government more is related to the amount of data stored in proprietary file formats

GD: That issue is not unique to open source solutions. The same challenge would arise when you’re moving from one proprietary solution to another. Again I go back to the federated architecture program. Canada has indicated through that it is moving to standards based formats. We see a number of advantages for government in doing that. If you’re using these better standards you get greater flexibility and adaptability of product replacement.

TIG: I’ve read in other interviews awareness building and the marketing aspect of open source in government is still a challenge. Is that an issue mainly with the people who do procurement as opposed to the people who implement technology? Where do you see the awareness needed the most?

GD: Really all the stakeholders, and the full range of business models and licensing terms that all the solutions come with. It’s really a matter of sufficient awareness among suppliers. In the case of the government … I wouldn’t say it’s one particular segment of the government.

TIG: Do you have any predictions as to where the public sector will be with open source in, say, five years?

GD: We’re witnessing a trend towards increased use of OS solutions so I would expect as more public sector decision-makers become aware of what is available in OS that we will be seeing more of it used in the government. That being said, though, the government approach is to have departments and agencies base their software decisions on the business needs.

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