Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Government Procurement Adds to Open Source Problems

As governments embrace service-oriented and performance-based procurement, they are discovering one major problem: they are not very good at it. And this has serious implications for the adoption of open source solutions by the public sector.

Performance-based procurement of services presents new challenges, as U.S. federal agencies are learning. Services are not managed, measured or maintained in the same way as products. The focus is service needs, not products specifications. Procurement personnel trained in buying hardware and systems are spec-oriented, not outcome-oriented.

These difficulties are compounded with open source. Open source is just as disruptive of government procurement as it is for the IT industry. Worse, open source involves the procurment of both a software product (community-developed and often free) and support services (with performance-based contracts).

Common criteria for bid selection -- how well product meets specs, financial stability of the company, product costs, and alignment with current suppliers -- make no sense with open source. Getting the software and getting the support are often two different things.

While open source fits well with service-oriented procurement and its performance-based contracts, governments so far do not. More is required of IT staff with both open source and performance-based contracts before procurement begins. They need to understand the open source product/services and the outcomes they expect. They will need training to handle new demands with respect to estimating contract costs, conducting risk assessment, setting realistic baselines, performance benchmarks and financial incentives.

Metrics must become their new mantra.

Without a serious commitment to training, it is a lot to ask of any Acquisition Department.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Lessons from the Open Source Frontier #2

Things with open source software are not always what they seem, or what is reported. Just ask the City Council of Birmingham (UK). Critics declared their open source effort a failure, but not so fast. Reports of the death of open source in Birmingham are greatly exaggerated.

According to its Head of IT, the City Council actually expects to realize cost savings over time, and contrary to press reports it plans to "significantly increase" its use of open-source.

Which brings us to a few additions to my original Lessons from the Open Source Frontier.

Lesson #3: Open source requires skills.

You can build them up or buy them. More likely, you should do both. But either way, a real migration is involved and requires experienced people--techs, installers and troubleshooters--to manage it. The level of skills on staff will impact the "team costs" (like project set-up, technical design, development, testing and training) that were so high in Birmingham. Investment to acquire those skills: real. Value of those skills for the next open source project: priceless.

Lesson #4: Objects in the mirror are less costly than they appear.

Government budgets are often short-term. The true TCO of technology projects is not. Costs for open source may differ greatly in the short term and long term. Special discounted license rates--such as offered by Microsoft to governments--affect the cost comparision in the short term. But start-up costs are not the only consideration. Vendor lock-in has its price. You never develop the technical and managerial skills needed to have more choices in the future. And the costs of your data/documents trapped in proprietary formats will always be there.

Even the iMpower Consulting report criticizing Birmingham notes:

"The extra resources involved in decision making and project management mean that the cost of this first-time open source implementation for BCC was significantly higher than for a comparable proprietary upgrade."

So, costs were higher the first time around. Is this a surprise? How much did the Windows license cost the first time around? The obvious implication is that management and training costs will be lower for future open source implementations.

Lesson #5: The price of lock-in is high, as is the price of freedom from it.

Identifying and eliminating technical "lock-in" is hard work, as Birmingham discovered. There are endless ways in which proprietary applications and configurations obstruct porting to any other technology. That is the price of lock-in, and it is permanently steep if you continue to live in a world of fewer choices. If you never move, you never feel the weight of the chains around you.

Lesson #6: Consider putting the cart before the horse.

Sequencing matters. Birmingham's rollout plans were ambitious, especially given the technical levels of its staff. A better business case may have been to begin by migrating applications before operating systems. Designing and implementing a Linux desktop system can be difficult. Yet, adoption of open source applications like Firefox and OpenOffice is often easy for users, as Birmingham learned. Either way, it should be budgeted and managed as a multi-year effort.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

You Want Open ICT? Burn The Boats (or RFPs)

When it comes to technology policies, governments should heed the words of Hernan Cortez … “Burn the boats.” Or, more specifically, burn the RFPs.

Procurement is the real measure of a government’s approach to technology. How “open” a government is toward ICT is not measured by whether or not it buys open source software, but how it procures technology. It's not what you buy, but how you buy it that counts most.

As governments are discovering – most recently in Australia and UK-- tweaking existing procurement policies to encourage more bidding by open source companies will not create more choices, even when specific open source companies are pre-qualified.

Procurement band aids will not lead to increased competitive bidding, ICT choices and access to innovation. Your old procurement rules, evaluation criteria and standard RFPs will not work. They will not level the playing field. They will not break vendor lock-in.

Why? Because conventional government RFPs are structured for big, proprietary vendors. They evaluate bidding companies based on criteria inappropriate for open technologies.

For example, public agencies still focus more on purchasing products, while open source solutions are more about services and support. RFPs often under-value interoperability, and instead focus on system specs and large product suites. Criteria such as minimum annual revenues and established user base disadvantage small companies and tend to proliferate vendor lock-in.

And let’s be honest, too many RFPs are rigged, written in order to buy a specific solution from a specific company with whom the procurement officers have long-standing relationships. Their objective is not best value-for-money, competitive bidding or technology neutrality, but buying a specific system already pre-determined.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Sunday in the Dark with George

I rarely comment on American politics here, restricting my blogging to issues of technology.

However, it is impossible to stand silent on the travesty that is President Bush's war in Iraq.

This entire Iraq fiasco has been a faith-based initiative from the beginning, perpetrated by a President wilfully ignorant of facts and other faiths, bolstered by officials with their own hidden (and deeply flawed) agendas. It is a classic example of presidential followership by a man with little understanding of the world.

To listen to President Bush speak about Iraq only confirms that he remains completely clueless about global politics, history and facts on the ground.

Bush in his own words ...

On the current situation: "Absolutely we're winning." (October 25, 2006).

On the Iraqi government: "We've all been impressed by the Iraqi leaders' commitment to maintain the unity of their country." (April 29, 2006)

On lesson of Vietnam for Iraq: "We'll succeed unless we quit." (November 17, 2006)

On the insurgency: "Those who want to stop the progress of freedom are becoming more and more marginalized." (January 4, 2006)

On Iraqi public opinion: "The Iraqi people are growing in optimism and hope." (June 25, 2005)

On Iraq's effect on the region: "The victory of freedom in Iraq is strengthening a new ally in the war on terror, and inspiring democratic reformers from Beirut to Tehran." (March 19, 2005)

On the current status: "I think we're making good progress." (January 26, 2005)

On the day Saddam was captured: "All Iraqis can now come together and reject violence and build a new Iraq." (December 14, 2003)

On WMD in Iraq: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." (May 29, 2003)

And let us not forget...

"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." (May 1, 2003, as Bush stood below the infamous "Mission Accomplished" sign)

And now?

October 2006: deadliest month ever in Iraq. 3,709 Iraqi civilians killed.

November 22, 2006: Over 100 bodies found, victims of sectarian executions.

November 23, 2006 (one day later): deadliest day ever in Iraq. Over 200 killed in Baghdad alone.

Is it me, or is the trend line pretty clear here?

The Iraqi "unity" government is more oxymoron than government, and helpless to stem the sectarian conflict. A key member of that government, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, has threatened to withdraw support for the Prime Minister should he even meet President Bush later this week. This same Prime Minister accuses factions in his own government of fuelling the conflict. This is the government central to success in Iraq?

There are no signs of democratic reformers awakening in the Middle East. Lebanon's government has collapsed, even before the most recent assassination of a prominent politician. Iran proceeds with its nuclear program. Yesterday in Bahrain, hard-line Islamist candidates swept to victory in parliamentary election. Hezbollah won elections in the Palestinian territories.

Worse, the insurgency, according to a classified report by this Administration, is now a self-financing operation, netting $70 - 200 million a year from illegal activities and ransom payments, aided by corrupt Iraqi officials.

Iraq produces a steady stream of bodies, and Bush ... an endless stream of platitudes.