Open Source & IT Procurement

Paul Matthews, Chief Executive of the Institute of IT Professionals (IITP) congratulated Commerce Minister Foss for listening to the IT industry and supporting the nearly unanimous passage of New Zealand's recent law banning software patents.

This represents one more step forward in efforts by the public sector to change the law and procurement processes for information technology (IT) solutions. It places open source software solutions on an equal footing with traditional  'closed' proprietary solutions. This change will also benefit many small companies in the private sector that can't afford costly, proprietary solutions.

In an excellent article by Phil Marshall on Why Procurement Professionals Need To Get Open Source Savvy he states that, "Procurement’s primary role is to obtain goods and services in response to business needs.  If procurement offices are tasked with finding the best solution at the best price, shouldn’t they always be looking for open source alternatives to all commercial software purchase requests?"

To accomplish this, he says that procurement professionals need to understand where to find free and open source software (FOSS) products and how to evaluate them. They will need become familiar with FOSS selection criteria, product support, open source licenses, the extent of the development and user communities,  and more. Much of this information can be found on the Open Health News (OHN) web site.

FOSS Procurement Tools & Processes

There are several resources available today that can help procurement professionals navigate the world of open source alternatives. One of them is the Open Business Readiness Rating (Open BRR) model, sponsored by Carnegie Mellon West, O’Reilly, SpikeSource, and the Intel Corporation. The BRR helps determine which stage of the Open Source Maturity Model a project is currently at - and whether it is likely to progress to a later stage.

The Open BRR has identified twelve criteria that can be used to evaluate software once an initial shortlist of open source products has been established. It suggests that only the six or seven most important criteria are actually used in any particular assessment. The criteria include:

• Functionality - does the open source software meet user requirements?
• Usability - is the software intuitive / easy to install / easy to configure / easy to maintain?
• Quality - is the software well designed, implemented, and tested?
• Security - how secure is the FOSS solution?
• Performance - how does the software perform against standard benchmarks?
• Scalability - can the software cope with high-volume use?
• IT Architecture - is the open source software modular, portable, flexible, and extensible. Can it be integrated with other components?
• Support - how extensive is the available professional and community support?
• Documentation - is there good quality documentation for the FOSS solution?
• Adoption - has the software been adopted by the community, the market, and the industry?
• Community - is the FOSS community for the software active and lively?
• Professionalism - what level of professionalism does the development process and project organization exhibit?

Those evaluating potential solutions decide which of these criteria are most important for the software to be successful in the environment it is to be used and for the purpose which it is to fulfill, weighting the different criteria according to the particular need and situation.  With companies today spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually on software purchases, there are significant potential savings associated with using an open source procurement process.  See

Other useful guides to the procurement of open source solutions include (1) the 'Civic Commons Legal and Procurement Issues Guide',  the 'Guide for the procurement of standards-based ICT' published by the European Commission, and (3) the British government has published an Open Source Procurement Toolkit.

Current 'Open Source' Procurement Policies & Procedures

National, regional, and local government agencies need to modify their IT procurement processes to encourage the use of 'open source' solutions whenever possible. This is slowly happening at both the national and local levels of government in the U.S., the U.K., and in many other countries across the world. See collected news clips on 'open source' IT procurements posted on OHNews.

National Governments

Looking back in our files, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) —sponsored by California Republican Darrell Issa along with Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, and supported by every member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee—threatened to put open source software on par with proprietary by labeling it a “commercial item” in federal procurement policies. Congressmen Issa and Connelly did the math and saw billions more—an estimated $20 billion annually—in potential IT savings across the sprawling and expanding federal government complex.  Proprietary technology firms have been fighting to stop legislation that puts open source products on par with their products in the federal procurement process, even as commoditization and acceptance of open source is becoming the norm across most all private technology markets.

In the United Kingdom (U.K.), the Open Source Procurement Toolkit has been published by the British government. It was designed to ensure that there is a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and helped dispel some of the myths associated with open source aimed at discrediting their value and reliability. Information is still being collected and shared in efforts to categorically prove that open source software provides better value for money when considering the total cost of ownership. However, Mark Bohannon, Vice President for Corporate Affairs & Global Public Policy at Red Hat, has stated what many have come to believe, that "open source software has by any measure become mainstream and vital to enterprise and government IT architecture." He has noted that in the public sector, most governments are now more likely to engage in the acquisition and use of open source solutions as a better way to achieve the innovation they need to be able to serve their citizens today and in the years to come.  He has further stated that governments are "increasingly more interested in becoming participants in the open source community, as opposed to simply being purchasers.”

Local Governments

The advantages of open source software can be enormous, especially for local governments. They can avoid vendor lock-in and costly proprietary software products.  However, for open source solutions to be a workable alternative, small communities across the U.S. and around the world need to be brought up to speed on all aspects of open source. These towns need to know about open source licenses, the best available open source solutions, the concept of cloud hosting, open data policies, open access, open standards, open architecture, IT training, and more. They need help moving away from expensive, barely functional old enterprise technologies to save money.

But, most towns don’t have a Chief Technologist, a Chief Innovation Officer, a Chief Data Officer, or millions of dollars earmarked for innovative use. They have 'Earl the Webmaster' and approximately $50,000 per year earmarked for the entire community’s emergency management. Buying a custom solution is basically a non-starter. Open source solutions may be a perfect fit for small communities and/or local government.  One site local governments might want to check out is the COSI 'Open' Government Technology & Solutions web site.

Healthcare Sector

Finally, the following are some selected articles and news clips previously posted on Open Health News (OHN) related to the acquisition and use of open source health IT solutions by governments that have a bearing on the healthcare sector:

Open-source software has gone from strength to strength and is now standard for much of the technology industry and is increasingly used by the government in the U.K. and in many other countries. Read the following article on the U.K.'s National Health Service and their interest in the open source VistA electronic health record (EHR) system - see NHS VistA: The Enlightened Choice?

Both national and local governments across the U.S. and around the world are slowly increasing their investment in the acquisition and implementation of open source EHR systems like VistA, OSCAR, OpenEMR and OpenMRS. For example, see VistA & Open Source EHR Systems in Florida and the Caribbean.

Unfortunately, there is  an industry ecosystem built over the past 50 years on principles inimical to open source and associated business models. It will take continuous vigilance and proactive efforts by the global open source community to change existing IT procurement policies in the U.S., U.K., and many other countries. See Government IT Suppliers Claim Procurement System Excludes Open Source [UK]

* Readers might also want to check out some of the following  articles on IT Procurement  posted on OpenSource.Com