Could the Government’s action plan for open source in the UK give the model renewed impetus? Jason Stamper investigates.
In February this year, the government’s Minister for Digital Engagement, Tom Watson, issued an Action Plan he called Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use. The message was clear: local and central government departments must be much more active in their investigation of and adoption of open source software. Open source is now considered not just an equal to proprietary software in government projects, but often superior.
“The UK has always been something of an open source laggard,” says open source content management firm Alfresco’s co-founder, president and CEO, John Powell. “But things are definitely changing fast, not least since the government published that policy document.”
According to Powell, the company has seen in-bound lead enquiries shoot up from around 4,000 a week to over 6,000 a week.
Alfresco, which was founded in the UK in 2005 by Powell, the former COO of Business Objects, and John Newton -- co-founder of Documentum – is a classic example of the latest breed of open source software firms. Far from being a group of hobbyists, Alfresco is run by executives with a serious pedigree at leading commercial content management and business intelligence firms. It’s backed by not one but three major investors: Mayfield Fund, SAP Ventures and Accel Partners, which was a key backer of companies like Veritas Software, Macromedia, Foundry Networks and Facebook.
But as well as the experience of its founders and investors, it is also its ambition which shows how far open source has come. Gone are the days of open source firms merely trying to outmanoeuvre their larger proprietary software rivals by offering more niche, or simply cheaper software.
Alfresco recently launched version 3.1. “The intent of Alfresco Enterprise 3.1 is to extend Alfresco’s position as the leading open source replacement for high-cost enterprise content management systems and Microsoft SharePoint,” says Powell. “In today’s economic climate, Alfresco provides a low-cost, low-risk alternative with commercial service level agreements for organizations looking to replace legacy systems or start new projects.”
3.1 is said to usher in improvements to service levels and response times, as well as to simplify administration, monitoring and deployment. It even supports the draft OASIS web services standard, CMIS (content management interoperability services).
The myth of hippy developers
Companies like Alfresco are still battling a perception in some quarters that open source is about hobbyists writing sub-standard code that just about works, and knitting it loosely together under the auspices of one open source project or another before it is given away for free because it is less feature-rich than rival, commercial offerings.
Headlines like the one in Linux Magazine back in November 2007 – “Peace, Love, and Linux: It’s about free code, man. Free, as in speech. Can you dig it?” – did little to change the perception that open source developers are just a bunch of anti-establishmentarian hippies. Which is why the government’s latest action plan is so important.
Yet the very notion that open source software is written by hobbyists in their bedrooms – let alone hippy hobbyists – also turns out to be some way from the truth. “The open source community definitely helps, but our software is developed by professional developers on our payroll,” says François Mero, EMEA general manager at French open source data integration firm Talend.
Talend, which raised a further $12m in investment in January despite the tough economy, opened its first UK office in Maidenhead in February this year. The firm claims it is winning market share from commercial rivals such as Informatica and IBM, and backs this up by claiming that in the past 12 months, its paying customer base increased by over 300%.
“Talend provides solutions that are all about business,” says Martin James, Talend's UK sales director. “As UK businesses continue to face the economic meltdown, companies are looking for aggressive ways to optimise their IT investments. Talend open source data integration solutions are a flexible answer to deliver tangible business value at a great price.”
“What the community does is not write significant amounts of code, but help you understand the needs of the market, the feature requirements,” Mero adds. “And it definitely helps with QA and testing – we have over 1,000 registered beta testers in the community so we can do far more real-life testing than any proprietary company could hope to.”
Alfresco’s Powell agrees: “You get three things form the [open source] community,” he says. “You get testing, bug fixing and reporting. You get peripheral contributions though this is usually from software partners – for example we are translated into 22 languages thanks to contributions from partners. Thirdly you get help with interfaces to other software, for example our integration with [information capture and exchange firm] Kofax came from the community.
“You occasionally do get some core contribution from the community but you tend to need to do some refactoring or rework,” says Powell. “You don’t just get code from the community and throw it into the mix.”
Not everyone sees it this way. Nick Halsey, VP marketing at a US-based open source start-up in the business intelligence space, Jaspersoft, says, “Some companies are start-ups that happen to choose to be open source. For those companies the community is not that big a deal, which is fine – it’s an observation rather than a criticism. But Jaspersoft was formed around an existing open source project [called Drupal] and there are big chunks of the core product that has been contributed by the community.”
Jaspersoft, which claims it is the world’s most widely adopted business intelligence software (presumably discounting Microsoft Excel) on the basis that it has racked up 8 million downloads worldwide and more than 10,000 commercial customers in 96 countries, just announced version 3.5. Describing it as the first software-as-a-service-enabled BI platform, the firm says 3.5 features a multi-tenant architecture, enhanced user and data scalability, and analysis that does not require a data warehouse or OLAP server.
Government enthusiasm grows
But regardless of the extent to which these companies get core code contributions from the open source community, they are all in agreement about one thing: the government’s latest action plan can only be good news for open source business in the UK. The action plan could not state its intent more clearly: “Over the past five years many government departments have shown that open source can be best for the taxpayer… but we need to increase the pace.”
It’s not perfect, of course, as some commentators have pointed out. Laurent Lachal, Ovum’s open source research director, noted that the plan, “Bites off more than it can chew… is not as pragmatic as it flaunts itself to be... and is badly phrased.”
Lachal also asserts that, “We are not convinced that positive discrimination is the way forward, both on principle and from an implementation perspective. Open source software vendors themselves want to win deals because they provide the best software at the best price rather than because their software is open source.
“However, we do agree that neutrality is a sham if public sector procurement and IT people, as well as suppliers, are not comfortable, confident and knowledgeable when it comes to open source,” he adds, “which is precisely, and rightfully, what the document wishes for.” For more visit Ovum.com for the report 'UK government and open source adoption in a recession'.
Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: the Government’s Action Plan
This is the foreword to the government’s new open source action plan:
Open Source has been one of the most significant cultural developments in IT and beyond over the last two decades: it has shown that individuals, working together over the Internet, can create products that rival and sometimes beat those of giant corporations; it has shown how giant corporations themselves, and Governments, can become more innovative, more agile and more cost-effective by building on the fruits of community work; and from its IT base the Open Source movement has given leadership to new thinking about intellectual property rights and the availability of information for re–use by others.
This Government has long had the policy, last formally articulated in 2004, that it should seek to use Open Source where it gave the best value for money to the taxpayer in delivering public services. While we have always respected the long-held beliefs of those who think that governments should favour Open Source on principle, we have always taken the view that the main test should be what is best value for the taxpayer.
Over the past five years many government departments have shown that Open Source can be best for the taxpayer – in our web services, in the NHS and in other vital public services.
But we need to increase the pace:
1. We want to ensure that we continue to use the best possible solutions for public services at the best value for money; and that we pay a fair price for what we have to buy.
2. We want to share and re-use what the taxpayer has already purchased across the public sector – not just to avoid paying twice, but to reduce risks and to drive common, joined up solutions to the common needs of government.
3. We want to encourage innovation and innovators - inside Government by encouraging open source thinking, and outside Government by helping to develop a vibrant market.
4. We want to give leadership to the IT industry and to the wider economy to benefit from the information we generate and the software we develop in Government.
So we consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that Open Source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT; to ensure that we specify our requirements and publish our data in terms of Open Standards; and that we seek the same degree of flexibility in our commercial relationships with proprietary software suppliers as are inherent in the open source world.
Tom Watson MP
Minister for Digital Engagement
To see the plan in full, visit http://tinyurl.com/cgbxlh.
The government’s action plan on open source may not be perfect, but the key point – that departments should look for economies of scale by being able to reuse open source solutions without having to pay for more and more commercial licenses – will likely prove a shot in the arm for open source in the UK. As for commercial enterprises, there is much food for thought in the plan for them too.
However, they should also note that it emphasises that the approach to open source needs to be pragmatic, i.e. based on value for money rather than principles; the definition of value for money must be based on total lifetime cost of ownership; and fitness for purpose must also be taken into consideration. But open source’s credibility is higher than ever thanks to the UK Government.