Cities of the Future, Part 4: Open Source Avenue

Part 1 of this series discusses the different approaches being taken to design more efficient urban landscapes.Part 2 addresses the need for designers to take moral and ethical issues into account. Part 3 focuses on the risks and rewards of using cloud computing.

As city administrators grapple with the notion of tying all their apps into one overarching network, should they be looking to open source as an alternative to apps from vendors?

Enterprise-level open source apps exist, and are used both by the federal government and by large corporations.

For example, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is using a solution combining open source business intelligence software from JasperSoft and business process software from HandySoft to increase operational efficiency and organizational effectiveness. This will save it 75 people-hours a day and more than US$1.5 million a year.

The NRC isn’t the only federal agency moving toward open source. The Rapid Access Computing Environment, which is part of the Defense Information System Agency (DISA), runs its network on Linux. DISA also recently launched, a Web site for sharing open source code within the military that’s modeled after the popular open source site.

DISA is part of the Department of Defense, which is throwing its weight behind open source. Defense Department deputy CIO David Wennergren advocates the use of open source technology.

In the enterprise sector, FTD, which bills itself as one of the world’s largest floral companies, uses the open source Enterprise DB database to power external reporting for its ARGO shipping administration system.

ARGO initially ran on FTD’s Oracle order processing system database, but FTD moved it to EnterpriseDB because it cost one-sixth of what a comparably configured Oracle solution would, and it ran apps written for Oracle. Moving to open source also helped FTD avoid hardware upgrades, which would have been an additional cost.

In the educational sector, the Saugus Union School District in northern Los Angeles County moved its network operating system (NOS) from Novell to Red Hat Linux back in 2008. At that time, it handled 11,000 student accounts at 15 K-6 campuses and handled 800 staff accounts. The NOS also provided authentication through LDAP and authorization to 50 to 60 programs.

LDAP stands for Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. It’s an application protocol that queries and modifies data using directory services running over TCP/IP.

Open Source May Be Expensive

There are costs associated with moving to open source. “Open source doesn’t always mean free,” pointed out Al Hilwa, a program director at IDC. “Open source is a different monetization model, which shifts the payment from a direct, for-license approach to using the license as a loss leader for services, support, hardware, advertising or even some other software license such as giving away the development tools but charging for the server runtimes.”

Support and training costs can be significant, Hilwa told TechNewsWorld. For applications that have to serve cities, very long-term strategic considerations must be taken into account because the apps are expected to be around for a long time. Strategic vendor partners who are likely to be around in the long term are crucial, and the cost of licensing is typically a small part of the total cost of ownership, Hilwa said.

“Many services related to open source software aren’t free,” Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at the 451 Group, told TechNewsWorld. “Consulting to define the best use of the technology, selection of the best technology, ongoing maintenance and support, and integrating of that technology with other established systems is just as costly as single-vendor produced technology.”

Hardware and software often make up less than 20 percent of the total cost of ownership of a system over three years, while staff-related costs range between 50 percent to 70 percent of the total, Kusnetzky explained. “If the software was available at no cost but its use required additional staff, additional training or the like, the total cost may actually be greater than if it was obtained from HP, IBM, CA, Microsoft or someone else,” he said.

City administrators must look at the cost of support for open source. “Support service is a primary source of revenues for many Linux vendors,” Charles King, principal at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

“Labor costs are 10 to 20 times the cost of the software in almost anything, so one question that should always be asked is, what is the cost of the labor compared to the cost of the software?” Phil Lieberman, CEO of Lieberman Software, pointed out.

The RAK Factor

City administrators should also look into the availability of developers for the platform they want and how good the documentation for the platform is, Lieberman said.

“Open source is fantastic, it provides a tremendous leg up for society,” Lieberman told TechNewsWorld. “But for all its goodness, it isn’t exactly easy to install or configure.”

Part of the problem is that installers and developers need to know a lot about the platform they’re working with, and here’s where proper documentation, and lots of it, become crucial.

“We have this term in programming — ‘random-ass knowledge’ — that we use,” Lieberman said. “Some platforms have a tremendous amount of random-ass knowledge that you need in order to even create a ‘hello world.’ For some others, things work as you expect them to. Open source software has a tremendous requirement for random-ass knowledge.”

That’s because open source communities don’t have as much leverage or incentive to ensure developers are productive and to minimize the amount of random knowledge required to work with their platforms, Lieberman said.

The main difference between open source and commercial applications, however, boils down to one thing: Who’s ultimately responsible when things break down. “With commercial software, there’s one throat to choke when things go wrong,” Lieberman pointed out.

Legal and Other Issues

What about lawsuits? If a city gets open source apps, could it find itself tangled up in lawsuits filed for one reason or another over open source?

For example, IBM has filed suit against TurboHercules, which makes an open source mainframe emulator that, in essence, lets users run mainframe apps on their PCs.

Verizon was sued by the Software Freedom Law Center in 2007 on behalf of Busybox, a GPL-licensed package, on the grounds that one of Verizon’s suppliers used a GPL-licensed app in Verizon’s FIOS wireless routers without fulfilling the redistribution obligations of GPL.

GPL stands for the GNU General Public License. It requires derived works to be made available under the same free licensing terms.

The suit against Verizon was settled when the supplier agreed to provide its source code free to the public, appoint an open source compliance officer, and pay the plaintiff damages. Similar claims have been filed over the years against other enterprises, including Cisco, Diebold, and Skype.

Cities can prevent this type of problem from occurring by turning to companies such as Source Auditor, which identifies and manages open source code in commercial software products, or by insisting that their vendors do so.

“It’s important for organizations of every sort to understand the product licenses related to their IT investments,” Pund-IT’s King said. “That’s the best way to avoid trouble.”

On the other hand, perhaps commercial software is just as vulnerable. “What makes you think open source software has any more liability than commercial software?” Lieberman asked.

Ave Maria

The best way to decide whether to go open source or not is to look at the business case, Lieberman advised.

“One thing we see all the time as a vendor of security products is that the decision whether or not to go open source is absolutely a religious decision,” he said. “You’re either of the religion of Linux and open source or you’re of the religion of commercial software.”

Careers have been made and broken as new CIOs with different “religious” points of view come in and old ones leave, Lieberman said. “The important thing for IT is to make a business decision, not a religious one.”

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