Sun's McNealy: Some feds see open source as anti-capitalist

Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman Scott McNealy wants President Barack Obama's administration do what the United Kingdom, Denmark and other countries have done: Encourage, as a matter of policy, open-source software adoption.

Although open-source platforms are widely used today in the federal government -- particularly Linux and Sun's own products, Solaris and Java -- McNealy believes many government officials don't understand it, fear it and even oppose it for ideological reasons.

McNealy cited an open-source development project Sun worked on with Health and Human Services Department, during which a federal official said "that open source was anti-capitalist." That sentiment, McNealy fears, is not unusual or isolated.

"If you think about it, proprietary software is the software equivalent of a planned economy led by a dictators, whereas open source is all about choice, the market economy and multiple competitive players," said McNealy.

That's the message McNealy and Bill Vass, the president and chief operating officer of Sun's federal division, are now delivering. They have already met with Obama Administration officials to offer a paper on open source that has since grown into a discussion about the merits of having a federal CIO. The new administration has plans to appoint a chief technology officer, but not a CIO.

"There is not a corporation, a Fortune 1000 company, around that doesn't have a CIO," said McNealy. "Yet, the federal government dwarfs all those organizations and they really have an empowered, cabinet kind of position."

The Obama administration has not yet spelled out its federal technology plan nor has it appointed all the key people it needs to run it. Meanwhile, outside observers are trying to glean broad policy directions from tactical moves, such as the use of the open-source content management system Drupal for the Web site.

The Fiscal Year 2010 budget released Thursday reaffirms plans to appoint "the nation's first [CTO] to ensure that our Government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st Century. The CTO will work with each of the federal agencies to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

That's little different from what the president said during the 2008 campaign, and it doesn't provide specifics about what those best practices may be. But the Obama Administration has been soliciting advice -- and McNealy's arguments may be particularly well timed.

The open-source push is growing. Just this week, the U.K.'s Chief Information Council updated its policy on open-source software. That government has long encouraged its use, and noted that during the last five years "many government departments have shown that open source can be the best for the taxpayer." The policy also said government agencies need to speed up open-source adoption and look to re-use software when possible.

One advocate of open source is Rick Dietz, director of IT for Bloomington, Ind. On its Web site, the city spells out its views clearly. "The city is committed to using and creating open-source software whenever possible."

Dietz sees limits, however, particularly for specialized applications where open-source alternatives don't exist. But he believes the Obama Administration could play a big role by encouraging its use.

"It would be an interesting project to look at what are the software needs across these government entities and then work on some uniformed, collaborative solutions," said Dietz, " so that governments aren't spending tens of thousands of dollars to support a myriad of systems, all of which are essentially doing the same thing."

The U.K. government's position may grow more appealing to the U.S., especially as the deficit soars.

According to Vass, open source has won adoption among U.S. intelligence agencies because they believe it is inherently more secure in the development process. Even so, he said, one of the arguments used by other federal agencies in rejecting it concerns security issues.

Said McNealy: "You would be astounded to know how many people are scared to death (of open source) or have mandated out open source."

And McNealy believes a federal CIO, with budget power similar to a corporate CIO, will be needed to bring about the changes needed to move toward software built on collaboration and re-use.

A long list of vendors have argued for open source, and the likely counter-attack by proprietary vendors was summed up last week in a study about how virtualization, cloud computing and open source could save governments big money. In response, Susie Adams, the CTO of Microsoft Federal, said that open source is "just another business model."

But it is a business model that has won specific endorsements from other nations and places such as Bloomington, and it's a business model McNealy intends to keep pushing at the Obama Administration.

This story, "Sun's McNealy: Some feds see open source as anti-capitalist" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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