Originally Published: Sunday, 2 April 2000 Author: Tom Dominico, Jr.
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux: Good Enough for Government Work?

It's no secret that most Linux advocates would like to see their OS dominate both the corporate and consumer markets. While it may be some time before Linux is ready for the mainstream consumer, its adoption in the corporate world seems to be growing at a rapid pace, as it gains legitimacy in the eyes of IT managers, CEOs, and so on. It seems to me, however, that there exists a vast, mostly untapped third market: the government.

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It's no secret that most Linux advocates would like to see their OS dominate both the corporate and consumer markets. While it may be some time before Linux is ready for the mainstream consumer, its adoption in the corporate world seems to be growing at a rapid pace, as it gains legitimacy in the eyes of IT managers, CEOs, and so on. It seems to me, however, that there exists a vast, mostly untapped third market: the government.

In the United States, the government is a huge consumer of goods and services. It is also under increasing pressure to move itself squarely into the 21st century by expanding and improving its technological infrastructure. Additionally, recent reports have revealed that many government systems sorely lack ample security. It seems to me that Open Source software and government would be a perfect match, both practically and ideologically.

Cost

By utilizing Linux as their operating system of choice, the matter of costly licensing fees disappears. Need technical support? The savvy sysadmin can turn to IRC for top-notch, free assistance. Of course, if the situation demands it, many companies are happy to provide Linux support for a fee. Either way, with no licensing fees, a great deal of money has been saved. This is one budget cut that's actually beneficial to everyone!

Flexibility

Open Source software gives you the freedom to customize every aspect of your OS and applications. It seems to me that the government would have a great demand for highly customized software. Applications such as scientific research, statistical analysis, crime databases, and highly secure firewalls come to mind. The best part is that if they chose to modify existing Open Source software, we would all reap the benefits as it is released back to the public.

Security

National security is increasingly becoming synonymous with network security. The US government has already admitted that it has resorted to "cyber warfare" in several recent conflicts. I believe that future warfare will increasingly involve these sorts of attacks. It's not only defense systems that need to be secured, but our entire technological infrastructure. Attacks on non-military systems could have disastrous effects as well.

I firmly believe that Open Source software is more secure than its closed-source counterparts. While this is the subject of much debate, the simple truth is that Open Source software has to be. Since the code is available for the world to see, the developers can't depend on the false sense of security that a "black box" provides. Rather, they must engineer security into the code itself. When security holes are found, as they will be with any operating system, patches are often issued almost immediately. With closed-source operating systems, you may end up waiting a while. I think that the issue of security alone is justification for the adoption of Linux in critical government systems.

Ideology

Linux and the GNU project were founded on the principle of freedom -- namely, the freedom to have quality software, and the freedom to modify the source. Interestingly enough, the U.S. was also created because of a desire to break free from oppression. Ideologically, it seems that a democratic, freedom-loving government should support a free operating system.

From a practical standpoint, it doesn't make sense to be tied to a single, closed-source vendor (such as Microsoft). In that sort of situation, you're at their mercy. With Linux, you can choose from a number of vendors, knowing that none of them "own" Linux. If a vendor disappears, another one could easily step up and take its place.

Conclusion

I firmly believe that the government and Open Source software are a match made in heaven. Everyone benefits -- the government gets better software, and the community gets much-needed support and revenue. Widespread adoption of Linux by government agencies would also help to give additional "legitimacy" to an OS that is still viewed with some skepticism by corporate managers and consumers. Furthermore, while we can't very well "tell" corporations to use Linux (unless you're a stockholder), our elected officials are obligated to listen to our requests. I would urge that you take the time to write or email your elected officials, informing them of the many benefits of Linux and Open Source software. After all, wouldn't you love to see a "Powered by Linux" image at the bottom of www.whitehouse.gov? :-)

Tom Dominico (tomd@linux.com) is a programmer, database administrator, writer, and Linux advocate. He spends most of his spare time reading, chatting on IRC, and tweaking his Linux box.





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