Technology

Open Sorcerer

A crusade for open standards in technology cost one top official his job in Massachusetts. But the issue isn't going away.
by | May 2006

For years, Massachusetts has had an information technology problem. That's putting it a bit mildly. The state has never had any uniform standards at all for software, systems or data. Agencies have found it difficult to communicate with each other. The condition and accessibility of electronic documents have been appalling; no one could be confident that any specific set of data could be called up or understood. "It ranged from the profound to the ridiculous," recalls Eric Kriss, who spent three years in overall charge of the system as the state's commissioner of administration and finance.

It was to try to bring some order to the state's chaotic technology situation that Kriss hired Peter Quinn as chief information officer in 2002. Quinn, previously a CIO at Boston Financial Data Services, had had a long career in the private sector, acquiring and managing technology. He started slowly in state government, but by the fall of last year, he had made up his mind to try something truly radical: He was going to throw IT wide open--open standards, open documents, open- source software. In other words, the state would employ standards and codes fully available to the public, with no permission needed to use them, from a vendor or anyone else.

Quinn's announcement created a sensation in the IT world, both public and private. Drew Ladner, general manager for government for JBoss, an open-source software company, proclaimed that "if Massachusetts proves it is politically viable to go down that path, a lot of other states could fall like dominoes. The reaction in other states would be, 'Oh my God. It's politically achievable.'"

If Ladner was exaggerating, it was only slightly. A move to open systems by an entire state could herald the beginning of an IT revolution in government. It could--conceivably--do a lot to help those who operate programs ranging from health care to schools to highway construction.

But it didn't do much for Peter Quinn. The state Senate audit committee convened hearings at which the chairman denounced the decision and the way it had been made. An amendment was added to a bill on the Senate floor severely diluting the authority of the CIO's office to make policy. On the executive-branch side, the superintendent of public records, responsible for keeping the state archives, said that an OpenDocument format (ODF), as the only standard, was simply unworkable.

Then the Boston Globe ran a story questioning Quinn's office travel expenses, suggesting there was abuse in the form of unauthorized travel. The charge was later retracted, but by then, the campaign against him had done its job. Last December 29, Quinn resigned from state government, saying the whole battle had become just too ugly. "There was so much noise around it," he says. "The insinuation was we were going to rape and pillage the entire software industry and socialize it all."

Simmering beneath the surface of all this were questions about just what role Microsoft had played in the affair. The company was bitterly opposed to Quinn's idea, lobbying hard against it and trying to get the state to accept its much more limited version of an open standard for documents. Quinn refused to accept what Microsoft proposed. "I have some difficulty thinking that someone can put a patent on our information," he complained. "People would say it's about lock-in."

Among the advocacy groups testifying against the open standard was Citizens Against Government Waste, which had been supported over a long period by Microsoft, and had sided with the company during the Justice Department's litigation against the company several years ago. "They have an excellent lobbying organization," Quinn says of Microsoft. "They have as good tentacles as anybody I've ever met."

Microsoft had genuine reason to be concerned. Up to now in government, the implementation of open source has mostly been at the back end--the servers and the operating systems. With Quinn's proposal, open source was on the verge of demonstrating that it could break into the desktop market in a major state. Microsoft products are used on 90 percent of the desktops in Massachusetts government, all based on proprietary software code.

"They're not the 900-pound gorilla, they're the 1,800-pound gorilla in this marketplace," says John Weathersby, executive director of the Open Source Software Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes adoption of open technology in government. "They own the desktop space. They're going to fight against it tooth and nail, and I expect nothing less."

The open-source movement, needless to say, views Quinn as something of a hero. Since his departure from Massachusetts, the 56-year-old Quinn has been in demand as a public speaker all over Europe and in Australia, where open source has gained traction in a big way. He tells audiences that the choices he made were best for Massachusetts, politics be damned.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts has hired a new CIO, Louis Gutierrez, who says the administration intends to continue its support for the open standard. "I accepted the appointment because I also believe in this policy," Gutierrez says.

Whatever happens in Massachusetts, states and localities cannot ignore the growing debate over open-source software. Open source is moving forward in government, not as fast as in private industry, but moving nevertheless. "It will continue to develop at a very rapid pace," says California CIO Clark Kelso. "It is long past being an interesting little techie counterculture."

Kelso likes to cite all the technical and administrative reasons why he thinks open source is a good idea. Then he adds another one: competition. "I want Bill Gates to feel the heat," he says. "I want Oracle to feel the heat. This keeps the market innovative."

SEMI-FREE

Open-source software and open standards are two different things. Open-source software refers to the code--the letters and numbers that developers use to make an application run. It is developed collaboratively by an ad hoc community of practitioners all over the globe, often with individual free-lance programmers adding and testing new features one at a time. There are no license fees for using it. In a sense, it is "free" software--although there are costs associated with implementing, maintaining and upgrading it, just as with proprietary packages. But there is no mystery to why major corporations providing proprietary software might be nervous about it.

Open standards refers to the protocols and practices that developers adhere to when they write the computer code. The standards prescribe how documents must be stored and retrieved. Open-source software doesn't automatically conform to open standards, but it is an effective development technique for embracing them. It is possible for a company to create and sell proprietary software that can comply with a fully open standard. Microsoft, so far, has not done that.

Quinn's initial plan was to mandate an open approach to both software and standards, but he backed off after hearing complaints from members of a Massachusetts software council. The idea shook too many people, Quinn says. So his department rewrote the plan and focused on open standards, figuring that open-source software could fit in when feasible. "We're not saying wake up tomorrow and redo the world," Quinn says. "The reality is we all refresh our technology every three to five years."

Why does the open-source idea frighten so many people, beyond those with an economic stake in the issue? There are many reasons, including some very legitimate ones. An open-source system is, in a sense, do- it-yourself technology. It raises questions about the skill level of the employees who have to learn to operate in a less structured environment. Technology managers have to decide piece by piece, department by department, whether they have the capability to use it, or whether it is more prudent to stay within the safer confines of a proprietary product. As in politics, all comfort levels are local. "If you go out and say open source is good and try to use it everywhere," open-source advocate Weathersby admits, "it's like chasing rabbits all over."

But the most serious management obstacle to adoption of open source may be the integrators, companies such as EDS, Unisys and CGI-AMS, whose job it is to customize technologies and software applications for governments, pulling in the products of several companies and making them work together.

Integrators deal with multimillion-dollar state and local technology contracts. Computer Sciences Corp. won a $644 million contract in 1999 to overhaul computer systems and telecommunications in San Diego County. Northrop Grumman has a 10-year, $2 billion contract to overhaul and run Virginia's IT infrastructure. "Those are the folks with the least understanding and least real impetus to understand open source," says Andrew Aitken, an open-source management consultant, who did not single out a particular company.

One major integrator, EDS, says it will use open source where it makes sense. "It does have its place, and there are a lot of good products out there," says Joe Jarvis, an EDS enterprise architect. But he adds that his company would never "drop open source into mission- critical applications."

The staffing issues that concern agencies when they consider open- source technology are also an issue for the private companies that provide it. California's Kelso believes tech companies need one to two years to develop staff that can provide service to customers. "You don't magically do it overnight," he warns.

On the other hand, the potential benefits are enormous. Governments in rural areas and others without substantial resources can get, use and share software without paying up front to try it. No agency is locked into a particular product or forced to upgrade when a vendor stops supporting an older version. Governments may be able to support local technology companies that provide services for open-source applications, instead of paying license fees to large corporations based far away.

On the health care front, as the country struggles to link health information electronically, open source could help break down the barriers among the private and public sectors, as well as different levels of government. A report released in March by the California HealthCare Foundation claims that open sourcing "allows different IT systems to operate compatibly, is nonproprietary and widely available at minimal cost and gives health care providers more options and flexibility."

ON THE RISE

While Quinn's move seemed revolutionary to many in the field, the fact is that smaller experiments have been taking place all over the country. In an informal survey at a session held last year by the National Association of State CIOs, nearly 60 percent of information officials in the room said open source was being used in at least a quarter of their operations. There were serious concerns about software support and knowledgeable staff. But when asked whether open source had fulfilled the goals and requirements of those who employed it, 81 percent of the CIOs said yes.

Some jurisdictions have made full-scale commitments. Largo, Florida, has been bringing open-source software into city government slowly over the past 10 to 12 years and now uses it for about 50 percent of the city's technology operations. Even though the software itself costs nothing, the city does pay for software support, just as it would for a proprietary product. But an agency can try a piece of software and reject it without having to pay any license fees to a provider.

The biggest problem right now, says Harold Schomaker, Largo's CIO, is waiting for more open-source products to mature so the city can use them. Recently, Largo installed open-source word processing, presentation, spreadsheet, database and drawing applications. "There's been a mixed reaction," says Schomaker. "Some people love it, some people hate it, like any piece of software we install, whether open or proprietary."

The Oregon Department of Human Services fell into open-source CRM, or customer resource management, out of desperation. The department was trying to implement a Medicaid complaint procedure to meet the federal health care law known as HIPAA. It had been using a variety of spreadsheets and finding it hard to coordinate all the information. Bill Crowell, the department CIO, realized that a CRM system could smooth out the department's work. But he also knew that the office couldn't wait the six to nine months it would take to buy and install a proprietary system.

One night, a department techie went to the Web and searched for open- source solutions. He found a company called SugarCRM and downloaded a free version of its CRM onto the department server. He had a prototype up and running the next day. Within weeks, the Medicaid staff "had exactly what they needed," Crowell says. An enhanced version of the software was available for $25,000, and because the staff liked the product so much, Crowell decided to pay for the upgrade. "I think this will be the new way in 10 years," says Crowell. He likes the idea of a much larger pool of people working on software, amateurs as well as professionals, than even the largest company can deploy.

The California Air Resources Board is deep into exploration of open- source options. Its CIO, Bill Welty, has formed a working group to educate other state departments on the subject. "We run up around 65 percent of our databases on open source," he says. "Our commitment is to be 100 percent." The Air Resources Board looks for a proprietary product only if it can't find an open-source application. Welty believes open-source software is often more secure than proprietary because there has been more scrutiny of the source code before it's used. He says it's less expensive to manage and often less vulnerable to viruses.

In Mississippi, three rural counties are experimenting with an open- source system for public safety information. "Open source used to be a stepchild," says Julian Allen, who directs the project from the University of Southern Mississippi. "In the last five years, open- source operating systems have matured tremendously and are able to support good software applications that compete with anybody's."

LEARNING TO ADJUST

Reaction to these developments from the vendor community hasn't been as uniformly negative as the Massachusetts saga might suggest. Companies from Sun Microsystems to Oracle to IBM have expressed support for open-source systems and pledged to work within them.

IBM says the OpenDocument format is a highly functional and advanced standard that will allow governments to share data regardless of where it originates, where it goes or what system or server is being used. "It's like the English language," says Brad Westphal, IBM's director of government industry programs. "Standards allow a convenient, pre- arranged way to communicate with one another."

Sun Microsystems said the Massachusetts decision to stick with open standards was "enlightened and will pay long-term benefits to the citizens of Massachusetts." Corel, the company that makes WordPerfect software, commended it as "a way for customers to maintain seamless and timeless access to their documents...[and] frees customers from the risk and costs related to reliance on a single vendor."

The holdout on this, and it is a crucial holdout, is Microsoft. It says its products are not designed to use the OpenDocument format, and it is patenting a new standard of its own that it prefers. And that was the core of its dispute with Peter Quinn and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The company intends for its new product to become a worldwide standard that would compete with the OpenDocument standard. "Narrowing the debate to one format doesn't address real-world issues," says Alan Yates, Microsoft's general manager of information- worker business strategy. "Documents come in many formats, and there are many different types of communications other than documents."

But even Microsoft has not been as inflexible as has sometimes been portrayed. When Quinn refused to include the new Microsoft standard in his open-standard plan, on the grounds that it wasn't open enough, Microsoft agreed to make changes for Massachusetts. Quinn said he wanted the changes to be available to all 50 states and the whole world. Microsoft agreed to that as well, but when the company returned with the changes, it was told the standard still wasn't open enough to meet the state's policy. "It doesn't get us where we need to go," says Quinn, holding a thumb and a forefinger an inch apart to show how much Microsoft opened a door that he had asked to be flung wide.

The bottom line is that if Microsoft doesn't meet the open standard set by Massachusetts, state agencies would have to begin moving away from Microsoft products as they upgrade or buy new software. The company says it has been singled out for attack. "Clearly the mandate was to penalize our products," Yates says. Quinn insists that wasn't the case. "The state came up with a standard," he responds. "It is entirely up to them whether they choose to support the standard or not. It's no different from standards set in the home building or any other industry. It's their decision not to do it."

That argument applies only to the issue of open standards. On the question of open-source software, Microsoft professes less concern. It believes it provides a better overall technology solution for governments than anything that will be available for free on the "open" market. Besides, says Yates, "loosely coupled" open-source technology components need specialists to integrate them and provide ongoing maintenance.

Indeed, as open-source systems continue to make inroads into the market, the big vendors may have to adjust from a licensing and sales model to one based on, as Yates puts it, "gluing things together" with services and support. But the adjustment process for traditional technology companies could take a while. "Companies haven't figured out this open-source business model," says Oregon's Bill Crowell. The typical way of doing business is for them to come into Oregon and "modify the heck out of their system to make money." In the future, that may not be a viable approach.

There is another option for the giants of the technology industry: buy up open-source companies and co-opt the product. Some open-source advocates worry that this could end up stifling progress. "You don't want to see the open-source approach be essentially gobbled up and then undermined," says Kelso. But, he and others agree, open source has developed to the point where it's a global, decentralized enterprise that would be difficult for one giant company or even a handful of companies to acquire or co-opt.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, the big question is what will happen to information technology now that Quinn and his most ambitious dreams are gone. The new secretary of administration and finance, Thomas Trimarco, delivered a surprise in November when he announced that Microsoft's standard could, in the end, be made to comply with the state's standard. The company is in the midst of a months-long redesign process that may make a separate Microsoft standard open enough for Massachusetts' requirements. In the meantime, the administration has reasserted its support for the OpenDocument format. So it is far from clear what Massachusetts will end up doing on the standards issue.

But Massachusetts is not the final arbiter of what happens with open standards and software. It will be a laboratory of major importance if and when a substantial open-source initiative takes effect. It likely will set an important precedent as it decides how--or whether--to work with Microsoft in developing its standards. But at the rate things are moving, another such story could pop up from another quarter with new players at any time. As in every aspect of the technology business, public and private, the one constant is change.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

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