The Federal Government’s peak IT strategy branch has published the final version of its second guide to open source software for departments and agencies, in its latest move to help the public sector better understand how to buy and use open source software.
The publication of a new policy on open source software by Special Minister of State Gary Gray earlier this year caused controversy, as it represented a dramatic shift in the Government’s position on the use of open source software, mandating the consideration of such options in any technology purchase, instead of merely recommending it.
The guide published last week by the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) attempts to be a practical document suggesting steps which agencies can take in implementing its new policy. It is the second version of the document, with whole of government chief information officer Ann Steward noting the guide had been updated to take the new policy into account, as well as “the increasing maturity of open source software”.
In general, the guide does not mention examples of where open source software has been used within government — neither documenting successful nor unsuccessful implementations.
Instead, it aims to provide a more generalised view of open source software, defining it, explaining the Government’s new policy in the area, and discussing how open source software can fit into the procurement cycle which departments and agencies must use when buying technology.
Companies who are focused on selling open source software to the Government have complained in the past that they often feel locked out of government procurement processes designed primarily around proprietary software.
However, AGIMO’s guide contains just two pages giving agencies guidance on how to identify issues related to procuring open source software. “In many aspects, procuring open source software is similar to procuring proprietary software,” the guide notes.
The guide urges agencies to have regard for the total cost of ownership of any software implementation. “Even software that can be downloaded and used without cost may have downstream support, maintenance and exit costs,” it notes, noting that agencies may need to purchase services for maintenance, support and development when buying open source software.
The largest section in the guide is devoted to what AGIMO describes as its ‘Software Licensing Risk Framework’ for open source software use in Government.
This section discusses the various open source software licences available — such as the GNU General Public Licence under which the kernel of the Linux operating system is licensed, for example — and how agencies may safely use and modify software which uses such licences.
The guide encourages agencies to take “the most conservative position” when they are faced with uncertainty about whether an open source software licensing right or obligation applies to their situation.
“For example, there is some uncertainty about whether dynamically linking GPL-licensed code to agency-developed code creates a combined derivative work to which the GPL applies,” AGIMO wrote. “The Free Software Foundation is emphatic that it does, while the Open Source Initiative thinks the situation is unclear. The conservative assumption is to treat the package as a combined derivative work to which the GPL applies.”
The general tone of the document appears to be cautiously positive with regard to open source software, with AGIMO noting in it that software released under an open source licence can have a number of advantages over proprietary software — such as no up-front payment for use, fewer restrictions on its use, the potential to reduce vendor lock-in, and obviously the ability to allow users to view and modify the source code.
However, the Government currently appears to be facing an up-hill battle in practice to get departments and agencies to adopt open source software.
For example, AGIMO revealed last year that despite the popularity of the Mozilla Firefox open source web browser in the global technology community, just three percent of government desktops were using the browser. Popular open source office suite OpenOffice.org is also not being used, despite its similarity to and compatibility with Microsoft Office.