Across the Country, Local Governments Are Giving Linux a Hard Look, Part Two

With relatively few local governments in the U.S. using Linux, one might expect those who are to be putting their heads together, sharing information among themselves, and with others who might be considering using open source software.

That doesn’t seem to be happening.

While Charles Kalil, information systems manager for the city of Garden Grove, Calif. — which has been running Linux since 1995 — is aware of a few other cities which are running Linux, he hasn’t spoken with them.

Neither has Harold Schomaker, CIO of Linux-friendly Largo, Florida, or Rick Routon, an IT manager from Bloomington, Indiana, where more than three quarters of the city?s servers run Linux.

Nor, until recently, had any of these cites heard from other local governments who were interested in using open source.

Lately, however, Largo has begun getting inquiries from other small-to medium sized cities, both in Florida and from other states. The city was also visited recently by a delegation of governmental IT managers from the Mediterranean island of Malta, who are considering using Linux.

And while Garden Grove hasn’t heard from any cities interested in open source, Kalil expects that to change.

Kalil, who says Garden Grove is “using Linux more than ever,” has just drafted a white paper detailing the benefits the city has seen from open source, which include improved uptime, easier maintenance, and $70,465 in annual savings. Kalil plans to make the paper available to anyone interested, and to present it at local trade shows.

That’s the sort of information that is likely to interest other local governments, says Forrester Research analyst Stacey Quandt.

“Many government agencies don’t want to be the first ones to put their toes in the water,” she says. “They’re looking for proof points, and as these examples become more visible, other agencies will begin considering open source as a viable option.”

Covert operations

Many cities and counties using Linux are intentionally keeping a low profile, says Tom Adelstein, a founder of open source email vendor Bynari, and now an independent Linux advocate.

Adelstein cites several local governments he’s contacted who refused to talk to him about their Linux use. A number of large cities are using open source but not talking publicly about it, he says. “They’re very covert about it,” he says.

For some, that may be driven by an instinct for self-preservation. At least one public sector employee in Texas was told he’d be fired if he used any open source software, according to Adelstein.

But many government workers using open source are “chomping at the bit to find other people” using it, says Adelstein, who is in the process of launching GovernmentForge, a Web site which will provide a central place for state and local government IT workers to trade information and open source applications.

Battle in the state house

Part of the incentive for keeping a low profile might be that when Linux has popped up publicly lately, it seems to have invited controversy.

That’s what happened in state legislatures this year in Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma and California, where bills supporting the use of open source software were introduced.

The California bill, while it attracted attention, was not given much chance of passing by most observers, because it mandated choosing open source over proprietary software.

The proposed Oregon law would require state agencies to consider the use of open source for all new software acquisitions, and to provide justification for any purchase of proprietary software.

The bill was opposed by industry groups including the Initiative for Software Choice, and the Business Software Alliance.

The controversy over the bill spilled out of the state capital and onto the pages of Oregon’s largest newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, where one of the bill’s supporters, network engineer Ken Barber, accused Karen Minnis, the speaker of the Oregon House, of killing the bill “after powerful out-of state corporate interests showed up at the Oregon Capitol, seeking to make the bill go away.”

Minnis, who called the bill “a solution in search of a problem,” replied that “state agencies already have the ability under existing law to use open source software.”

The bill was sponsored by state representative Phil Barnhart of Eugene, a self-described “long-time Slashdot lurker.”

With the bill under consideration, a lobbyist for the American Electronics Association visited Barnhart’s office and said “we’d just like to make this bill go away,” says Sally Nunn, a legislative aide for Rep. Barnhart.

“The next day,” she says, “it went away.”

The AEA opposed the bill — and the legislation in Texas and California — because it didn’t create a level playing field, says Steve Kester, the AEA’s vice-president for state policy.

The bill would have created “a higher standard” for the purchase of proprietary products, he says.

“Imagine you’re a purchasing agent looking at two products, both of which meet your needs,” he explained. “To buy one you have to write a report which has to be reviewed by upper levels of management, while the other you can simply purchase without that added review. That is obviously unfair.

“If you remove these institutional preferences, and you have a policy that simply states that open source is to be considered on an equal footing with proprietary software, then [the AEA] is out of the debate,” Kester says.

The bill received a public hearing in the legislature’s General Government Committee, but was not voted on by the committee. Since the Oregon legislature, which meets only once every two years, is still in session, the bill is technically still under consideration, but “all observers agree, it’s probably dead,” says Barber.

Part One: Budget crunch drives cities, counties and state agencies to look at Linux.