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The UK government can reduce risk by using open source software

The use of open source is a topic that is continuously debated in both the private and public sectors. With some companies and organisations welcoming the liberal use of technology, whilst others fearing that in removing proprietary software companies and organisations will be doing away with vital legacy expertise and control.

Earlier this year open source evangelists and early adopters witnessed a key milestone when the UK government took a positive stance on encouraging the use of open source in government IT systems. In recognising some of open source software’s true benefits, the UK government updated its policy and introduced an action plan to drive the adoption of open source tools inside government.

Abiding to the new 2009 policy, the government will now actively and fairly consider open source solutions alongside proprietary ones in making procurement decisions. Procurement decisions will then be made on the basis of the best value for money solution to meet the business requirement.

Despite this tremendous step forward it is therefore extremely concerning to hear that that the 2012 Olympics will not be using open source software. This is a major opportunity for the government to reduce costs associated with the project and to show its full support for open source products.

In a recent interview, Michelle Hyron, Atos Origin’s chief integrator for the London 2012 Olympic Games stated: -We will probably use open source for some of the operational tools like e-learning, but as an operating system? No. I think if you target open source carefully as to when and where you use it, it is possible. Will it be considered? Yes. It’s not a definite no-no. But we will also make sure that we do not take any risk. On a project like this, risk is not something you want.

As an open source evangelist, I hope that the decision against using open source for the Olympics will not become a costly and regrettable error. Not only is the government’s actions to rule out open source tools contradictory to its new policy, it also fails to recognise that open source products are equal risk or in many cases a lower risk than proprietary software. Open source software has to pass a number of complex tests. In fact, open source products are put through greater testing before GA release than proprietary based products. At Talend for example, over 1,000 of our community members are involved with testing milestone releases (milestone releases are roughly equivalent to beta releases). And a recent study by independent analysts has proven that open source database MySQL has ten times less defects than Oracle!

One of the major benefits of using open source software is that in having such a passionate community of followers, the software is constantly being developed and improved. In contrast, proprietary software’s code cannot be developed by its users to meet evolving business needs and can therefore become dated within a matter of months.

Another fact that challenges the idea that open source is high risk is that when subscribing to a commercial version of an open source product the user is provided with full customer support. This helps to emphasise how secure and protective open source products actually are.

Despite fears around open source, there is a steep rise in government and agencies taking on open source software. For example, the Revenue Commissioners in Ireland has introduced an open source data integration tool to meet various data integration needs such as improved data management. Since adopting the open source based software, the Revenue Commissioners has already identified benefits, including increased speed of developing optimised structures for query, reporting and analytics.

Open source evidently has its benefits over proprietary software and this does not come at the cost of having greater risk. Although some believe that open source is high risk, the issues raised above stress that open source is a professional and supported offering. With open source being able to integrate with legacy systems, risk is automatically reduced as organisations no longer need to spend massive amounts of IT budget on replacing major IT systems that may only be required in the short-term. In this case, the Olympics, as a project, is a perfect example of where open source software can show its true purpose. Often, IT budgets for such projects are very limited and open source software provides that vital flexibility needed for continuously adapting project requirements.

After recognising all of open source’s advantages, the UK government must ensure that it fully supports open source and steers clear from being locked in by proprietary software or face an on-going list of timely and costly IT blunders.

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