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Free Software and Software Development in the Government

10 replies on 1 page. Most recent reply: Sep 7, 2003 6:42 PM by Bruno Souza

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Bruno Souza

Posts: 4
Nickname: brunos
Registered: Jul, 2003

Free Software and Software Development in the Government (View in Weblogs)
Posted: Aug 31, 2003 7:17 PM
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Summary
Governments around the world are discussing laws and policies to promote the use of free software. It seems that most of the time this debate ignores the problem of developing applications inside the government.
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It took me quite some time write my first post. One reason is that I've never webloged before. Another reason is that I try to listen more then talk, so I observed my weblog-colleagues here at Artima for awhile. Maybe the real reason is that everybody says that when I start talking, I have a hard time stopping, so, better wait until I have something useful to say. Hopefully, "useful" in a weblog has a very loose meaning...

As the leader of one of the largest Java Users Groups in the country, I'm actively participating in the Free Software inside the government discussion. This is one of the most important debate of the IT industry going on in Brazil right now. The topic is so hot that during the last few weeks I spoke in several free software related meetings and events around the country. This is because the Brazilian government is considering federal laws that proposes the preferential use of free software inside government agencies and institutions. Some of our states and cities already have similar laws, and now the debate has reached our federal level. The same discussion is going on worldwide, and is probably happening somehow in your government as well.

One of the most important of these recent events, the "Free Software Week in the Parliament", was promoted by the Brazilian Parliament and had the presence of Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation) and Miguel de Icaza (Gnome Foundation), along with many important free software advocates and politicians. This is one of many demonstrations of the strong support that the free software model is having at our Parliament.

It is clear that free software brings many benefits to governments, from cheaper licensing to more transparent security, and puts the government in a much better position to negotiate contracts. Also, the use of free software ends up promoting the service industry, what has a good appeal to Brazil, since not many Brazilian software companies rely on licensing as their main income.

From a developer point of view, having a law that mandate the preferential use of free software, seems to be attacking the wrong side of the problem...

Governments and companies do not get locked into a vendor or a platform simply because they use closed software. They get locked because they develop their own applications tied to a specific product, be it a free product, or a proprietary product. Once all your applications are written to a product, and all your data is saved into a product-specific format, to move to another offering (free or proprietary) is a big effort. And the longer you do it, eventually it gets near to impossible - and you're locked. Vendors know this, and promote it as much as they can. And although free software makes you less dependent on the vendor, it does not necessarily keeps you from getting locked into a product...

Governments usually develop many applications. Some of then are large, complex, and affects huge amounts of people. And the amount of data generated by a large government as Brazil is almost scary. And the fact that those applications and data are usually tied to a product is the main obstacle to the adoption of free software, and one that cannot be simply dispelled by laws.

That's why governments would be better off defining laws or policies to guarantee that applications developed to or by the government are based on open standards, and that all data is saved into open formats, always focusing in keeping the government owned software effectively free of product lock-in.

Since we know that the use of free software is good for the government, the use of open standards, that can be implemented as free software, gives us a better way of promoting free software use. Once applications are free from specific products, it is a lot easier to replace closed products for free implementations, giving free software implementations a real chance to compete and to show their technical advantages. Defending free software on their technical merits is a much stronger argument to governments and companies. Keeping our applications ready to benefit from free software implementations favors free software even in the (quite common) case were the free implementation is still being developed.

If governments want to adopt free software, they are better off attacking the right side of the problem, and focusing on developing their applications to open standards, as a way of not be locked into products, be them free or closed software.


David DeCesare

Posts: 3
Nickname: zaphod
Registered: May, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 2, 2003 11:09 AM
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Excellent post! I think you are 100% correct in your assessment. If there is a mandate to use only free software, there are still hard choices to make. Linux or OpenBSD, MySQL or PostgreSQL etc. These are important questions that have long term ramifications. I'm not saying that govenrments using open source software is at all bad. But I agree that it isn't the end all solution.

Johannes de Jong

Posts: 3
Nickname: plotz
Registered: Jan, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 4, 2003 12:49 AM
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Sure worth the wait Bruno.

I never did realize, that even with open-software, one could get "vendor" locked. Thanks for making me think (look) a bit deeper :)

Jiri Barton

Posts: 4
Nickname: iceni
Registered: Jun, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 4, 2003 6:15 AM
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Exactly right!
I'm a big fan of Python and I see many people using Python on commercial OSes too. Going along with this article, it is the standard (Python) that counts.
Next, I saw some killer guy using DocBook on Windows in the OpenWeekend conference here in CZ; I understood it was the DocBook that is going on here.

I'm glad there's a guy that finally gave this a broader perspective. I think everyone should read this excellent article.

Steven Shaw

Posts: 15
Nickname: sshaw
Registered: Apr, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 4, 2003 7:46 AM
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How can the question be "Linux or OpenBSD" when the answer is:

FreeBSD

How can the question be "PostgreSQL or MySQL" when the answer is:

FirebirdSQL

:-)

rodolfodpk

Posts: 2
Nickname: rodolfodpk
Registered: Feb, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 4, 2003 8:35 AM
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Bruno,

I am working on several government projects so this is a very hot topic for me.

For OS :

Linux, sure !

For run time containers :

J2EE means open standarts, right ? So our government is already working with this platform. But we are working mainly with Big Blue platform but meanwhile open source alternatives like JBoss, Jonas and Apache Tomcat (Geronimo ?) are already solid products for runtime containers. I would love to work with JBoss, for example, but...

For data format :

I think XML is more open than anything but for massive scalability we still need relational databases. PostgreSQL, SAP db or even MySql would be great but how to manage a tree of thousand of these servers with confidency and performance ? So IMO databases are the most dificult part to fit in a open standarts. Even SQL has not the same implementation (syntax) in market leaders databases.

For development Process and tools :

Althought this is a kind of subjective topic (everybody I knows has one personal approach for this), big government projects usually wants to use RUP (big blue again..) in their projects... More tools ($), more training. So IMO some Extremme Programming concepts would be sufficient for many medium or even great projects. And we could use tools like www.Xplanner.org, to mention just one. And with Eclipse IDE around, why waste more time and money with another IDEs ?

[]
Rodolfo

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 5, 2003 4:46 PM
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If "free software" is provides an inherently superior solution, why is it necessary for the government to constrain developer's choice? Presumably because the government is better able to decide, at a national level, what platform and software should be used for all software development than people working at the sharp end? I guess developers are too dumb to make these decisions for themselves.

What happened to "free as in freedom"? It certainly isn't evident here.

Vince.

Bruno Souza

Posts: 4
Nickname: brunos
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 5, 2003 5:34 PM
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>
> For OS :
>
> Linux, sure !
>

Just be carefull. Just because you like Linux, your applications should not target Linux! Don't tie yourself from the start! Government applications should be multiplataform, to avoid lock-ins. Java and Phyton are just examples of many languages that can help you avoid plataform and OS lock-ins.

> For run time containers :
>

This is the beauty of open standards. Once you target your application to a standard, even if the Free implementation is not available, or isn't stable or whatever, you can still use it in the future, when it gets more mature. I'm not saying that JBoss is not mature, but it seems that you still don't trust it. But if you want to benefit from JBoss tomorrow, you can target the standard today.

> For data format :
>

Data formats are strongly needed for documents. Governments generate huge amounts of docs, usually in proprietary formats, and then build applications on top of those, with macros for example... Layers and layers of lock-ins, that are hard to replace for a free software solution...

About databases, SQL is the best that we have. It is not perfect, but we should restrain the urge to simply ignore it and write to one specific database, or the problem gets worst. Our best shot is to try to keep the use of extensions to a minimal, and support more then one database in the solution, this will keep everything closer to the standards, and at least give us options.

>
> For development Process and tools :
>

What's really important is that your generated application is not tied into specific products, but avoiding the dependence of tools is important too. Choose languages and technologies that will give you multiplataform tools, and specially that are provided by many vendors.

Cheers,

Bruno.

Bruno Souza

Posts: 4
Nickname: brunos
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 5, 2003 5:59 PM
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Hi Vince,

Governments are not very good at deciding technical details. That's one reason that they should stay away from locking into one particular product.

On the other hand, developers and specially developers associations and users groups, should participate and help the government decide on what is best. And this has not to be on a national level, as long as each decision does gives the government choice of products, choice of vendors, and specially, the choice of choosing a free implementation, now or in the future.

Governments are not like private companies that can simply decide to standardize on a product (although it is my opinion that companies should not do it either).

As of "free as in freedom", this works for developers, not for governments. I should not be able to develop a government application that talks to a non standard web server that does not folow the HTTP standard, just because this web server has a free license. This would lock the government application in this particular product. Being a free product can be less damaging, but that does not make the lock-in a good thing.

Basing decisions on standards are the accepted restrictions that gives us more freedom. Just think about how interesting would be your life if you didn't have the (usually government imposed) eletrical standards? Voltage, frequency and -- specially -- the power outlet? Those restrictions give you the freedom to choose vendors, eletrical equipament, and to move from one place to another.

Cheers,

Bruno.

Vincent O'Sullivan

Posts: 724
Nickname: vincent
Registered: Nov, 2002

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 6, 2003 3:14 AM
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> Basing decisions on standards are the accepted
> restrictions that gives us more freedom. Just think about
> how interesting would be your life if you didn't have the
> (usually government imposed) eletrical standards? Voltage,
> frequency and -- specially -- the power outlet? Those
> restrictions give you the freedom to choose vendors,
> eletrical equipament, and to move from one place to
> another.
>
You appear to be blending two separate arguments together. Certainly agreed technical standards can be useful (but they are still a form of lock-in) but what you are arguing for are imposed political standards, which is quite a separate thing.

Commercial software vendors can (and do) meet technical standards just as well as anyone else when they are required to. The gist of you're article though is that governments should restrict the use of commercial software as a matter of principle and without reference to its technical merits and should do so by imposing laws that prevent anyone from doing so. It is this element of the criminalization of the use of software that does not fit your personal criteria for acceptability that is deeply worrying.

Taking things to their logical conclusion here... What sentence would you impose on a government employee that, say, used a copy of Excel to track some data? Under your proposals they would now be criminals, so should they be fined or jailed and maybe just sacked. Of course, this wouldn't happen if said government set up a "Software Police" bureau to monitor the actions of their employees and developers working for them.

It seems to me that the solution here is worse than the perceived problem. A "Free Software" movement that seeks to pass laws, and thus make criminals of others that do not conform, has no right to use the word "Free".

Vince.

Bruno Souza

Posts: 4
Nickname: brunos
Registered: Jul, 2003

Re: Free Software and Software Development in the Government Posted: Sep 7, 2003 6:42 PM
Reply to this message Reply
> > Basing decisions on standards are the accepted
> > restrictions that gives us more freedom. Just think
> about
> > how interesting would be your life if you didn't have
> the
> > (usually government imposed) eletrical standards?
> Voltage,
> > frequency and -- specially -- the power outlet? Those
> > restrictions give you the freedom to choose vendors,
> > eletrical equipament, and to move from one place to
> > another.
> >
> You appear to be blending two separate arguments together.
> Certainly agreed technical standards can be useful
> (but they are still a form of lock-in) but what you are
> arguing for are imposed political standards, which
> is quite a separate thing.
>
> Commercial software vendors can (and do) meet technical
> standards just as well as anyone else when they are
> required to. The gist of you're article though is that
> governments should restrict the use of commercial software
> as a matter of principle and without reference to its
> technical merits
and should do so by imposing laws
> that prevent anyone from doing so. It is this element of
> the criminalization of the use of software that does not
> fit your personal criteria for acceptability that is
> deeply worrying.
>
> Taking things to their logical conclusion here... What
> sentence would you impose on a government employee that,
> say, used a copy of Excel to track some data? Under your
> proposals they would now be criminals, so should they be
> fined or jailed and maybe just sacked. Of course, this
> wouldn't happen if said government set up a "Software
> Police" bureau to monitor the actions of their employees
> and developers working for them.
>
> It seems to me that the solution here is worse than the
> perceived problem. A "Free Software" movement that seeks
> to pass laws, and thus make criminals of others that do
> not conform, has no right to use the word "Free".
>
> Vince.

> It seems to me that the solution here is worse than the
> perceived problem. A "Free Software" movement that seeks
> to pass laws, and thus make criminals of others that do
> not conform, has no right to use the word "Free".
>

Hi Vince,

Now I understand your complains :-) I think I can give you a better answer now!

No, I'm not proposing to pass laws to promote the use of Free Software. Actually, I'm just commenting on top of the decisions that many governments are already taking!

And, to be fair to the Free Software movement, the idea is not to banish or outlaw the use of proprietary software, much less to make it illegal! What governments are discussing are laws that either allow for the use of Free Software (many governments don't allow it), or to go a step further, to make the use of Free Software preferential (if there's a Free solution, use it instead of a proprietary one).

What I'm discussing is: ok, the use of Free Software is a good idea, and there are lots of reasons for that (cost, intellectual property, security, to name a few). But use of Free Software because it is Free Software has many other problems, so, if we want to do it right, we better decide to use Free Software that are based on technical standards.

And even more important, if governments do want to use Free Software (and they do, that's why many are even proposing laws to make the use preferential), them they should start building their own applications with as little product lock-in as possible, to actually allow for the use of Free Software.

> Commercial software vendors can (and do) meet technical
> standards just as well as anyone else when they are
> required to. The gist of you're article though is that
> governments should restrict the use of commercial software
> as a matter of principle and without reference to its
> technical merits
and should do so by imposing laws
> that prevent anyone from doing so. It is this element of
> the criminalization of the use of software that does not
> fit your personal criteria for acceptability that is
> deeply worrying.

On the contrary, I'm not proposing this! What I'm proposing is exactly to base governments decisions in standards, that can be met by both proprietary software and Free Software. This will allow for governments their freedom to use Free Software when the technical merits allow it, but also, will give governments the ability to use proprietary software when (for instance) the Free Software implementation of the standard is not yet mature.

As you, I get concerned by the use of Free Software just because it is Free Software, but I believe that if Free Software is given a chance to prove it's technical merits, then everybody wins.

Hopefully my points are clearer this time...

Cheers,

Bruno.

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