If your jurisdiction has not started to look at the potential benefits of using open-source software, it should. The breadth and scope of the open-source projects on the market today are truly staggering. There are open-source products that cover almost every aspect of an organization’s operational needs without high-cost annual license fees. To-date, we have not found any viable open-source accounting systems for the public or private markets. However, this limitation does not diminish the fact that most applications that jurisdictions are paying annual license fees for are available in open-source projects.
Exactly what is open-Source?
Many people do not really know what open-source means: put simply, it means that the license to use the software allows the user to have access to the source code for the software. In most cases, the application does not cost anything to the user and there are no licensing fees. The projects typically benefit from offering paid support services, commercial add-on products, or premium commercial versions of the software. The open-source version of the software is typically maintained by the community of users that are using the application. In some cases the vendor maintains the application and simply posts a version of the source for the user community to have access to. In either case, if the application is not doing what your organization needs, it can be changed without the paying the vendor.
People often think of open-source as being totally “free”, but this is really a misunderstanding of the concept open-source was based on: “free” refers to the freedom of choice. With open-source you have the choice to use the free source version or opt to use the commercial version or other resources the project / vendor has to offer. It provides the using organization with the option of using the product as it is maintained by the user community that is developing it or to take a version of the source code and modify it to meet their specific needs.
The Strength of Open-Source
The real power of the open-source concept is in the base of users that are drawn on to expand the functionality of the application. By utilizing developers and resources from users across the entire scope of users, the product typically gets a much broader range of functionality and in many cases is a far superior product to its commercial counterpart. A prime example is Firefox, an open-source alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE). Firefox provides numerous capabilities that IE does not even begin to provide, it typically serves web pages several times faster than IE, it truly supports the industry standards developed for web browsers, and runs on almost all operating systems.
This is just one of the smallest examples of the power of open-source software. The true benefit in using open-source software to jurisdictions is in the cost savings of licensing and cost of continuously changing vendors for frontline applications. In preliminary studies, it is estimated that local and county jurisdictions across the United States pay over $1 billion in license fees annually for applications. In addition to the license fees, these jurisdictions end up paying two to three times that in changing from one vendor to another every 5-10 years for each major application used in the jurisdiction. This means that each year the amortized cost for software applications ranges between $3-4 billion. This is a major annual cost to local and county jurisdictions that could be dramatically reduced by moving towards the use of open-source applications.
The sections that follow will cover some of the other application areas that have solid open-source applications that can significantly reduce the annual cost of licensing and changing for jurisdictions. Each section provides a description of the potential options available in open-source and some links to sites that offer products that we have researched as being potential replacements for many jurisdictions.
While Windows still very much dominates the desktop operating system environment, Linux has matured to a point of being a viable option. As more frontline applications move to being web-based, the dependence on the desktop operating system disappears. With users mostly needing a solid web browser and a basic office suite as the bulk of their daily software tools, the reliance on Windows is significantly reduced.
- CentOS - www.centos.org
- Ubuntu - www.ubuntu.com
The bulk of most users do not utilize anywhere near the set of features in most desktop applications. In most jurisdictions, the majority of the users can use applications that have basic core functionality and are file level compatible with the major desktop application suites. One very viable alternative to the commercial suites is OpenOffice. It has all the major components of the commercial suites and is able to read most versions of the comparable Microsoft products.
Additionally, Firefox and Thunderbird offer web browser and email applications that are very viable replacements for both IE and Outlook in many cases.
- OpenOffice - www.openoffice.org
- FireFox -/ Thunderbird - www.mozilla.org
Most applications used by Jurisdictions do not require heavy database power to be able to handle the needs of the applications users. Many jurisdictions have database infrastructures that they are paying significant money to maintain, but are not really seeing any benefit from the platform they have installed. MySQL is the dominant open-source database on the market today and provides database to thousands of sites around the world. It was just purchased by Sun Microsystems which means that it will have the backing of a multi-billion dollar company in making it even more dominant in the database arena.
Many smaller jurisdictions have not been able to justify the cost to implement a document imaging system. The most expensive part of most imaging implementations, other than the actual labor to do the imaging, is the cost of the licenses needed for each user. By utilizing open-source document imaging, the licensing issue is eliminated and even the smallest jurisdiction can potentially move forward towards online documents. KnowledgeTree is a solid open-source document imaging system that provides a web-based interface to the imaged documents.
- KnowledgeTree - www.knowledgetree.com
Geographic Information Systems (GIS)
Many jurisdictions are moving towards the world of Geographic Information Systems as an integral part of how they present their information to their users and citizens. In the last couple year, a number of applications for both desktop and web based GIS have been placed in open-source. One of the largest, is the release of Map Guide Open Source. This is an open-source version of the commercial Map Guide GIS web server and this opens up almost any jurisdiction to being able to host their GIS maps on a web server. There are also a number of desktop application options for the creation of GIS maps and layers that make it possible for the creation of the maps to use on the web server.
Web Application Development
In the open-source development community, there really are two dominant development languages, Java and PHP. Both of these languages have strengths and weaknesses, but are very mature languages and both have wide support in the development community and have a wide array of libraries and modules available.
- Java – java.sun.com
- Eclipse - www.eclipse.org
- PHP – www.php.net
Process Management Development
One of the largest licensing costs to jurisdictions is for their front line business applications. Most of these applications manage a process of some sort, like building permits, planning cases, work order tracking, public works improvements, street maintenance, land management, and many more. Most of these applications have a common thread of functionality needed to manage the process, so having a open-source process management development tool is a perfect fit for jurisdictions.
- OpenFACILIS - www.openfacilis.org
- ruote - ruote.rubyforge.org
Stepping on the Open-Source Path
When the benefits of no annual license fees, better products, and more control over the product are considered, open-source offers a significant benefit to many jurisdictions. By adding open-source projects to the list of options when evaluating upgrades and product changes, jurisdictions can potentially start saving a significant amount of revenue and move themselves out of the control of the vendors.
The best way to start this process is to select some of the easier products to implement, like OpenOffice, and put pilot programs in place. This could be done by utilizing OpenOffice in the next set of upgrades to users that are not major power users of commercial office suites and see how well they adapt to the open-source alternative. As these alternatives are accepted and the revenue savings begin to add up, most jurisdictions will find that moving to open-source is an easy and very effective alternative.
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