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Massachusetts budget czar bullish on open-source

Margie Semilof

Sounding more like the CEO of a startup company than a government cabinet officer, Massachusetts' top budget official said a new policy to adopt open-source software and standards for state agencies whenever possible will save money and position the state as a model for governments nationwide.

Eric Kriss, Massachusetts' secretary for administration and finance, said that on Monday, the state unveiled a five-year capital plan that includes a commitment to review all future IT projects and consider using open standards and open-source software in all cases where it makes sense. Massachusetts IT officials also want the state to play a leadership role in creating a model for how IT is used across government agencies.

The open-source movement and open standards first took hold with small developers, then corporations, and it makes sense for the states to be involved, too, he said. "I am looking forward to an era when the public goods we create as a state can be shared by other states as well," Kriss said.

"We want Massachusetts to lead this effort," Kriss said. "We think we can. We have some of the best technical thinkers here. The state is technically sophisticated and small enough so we should be able to make the first foray."

Misconceptions refuted

Kriss, whose office oversees the budgets of all state agencies -- including IT spending -- said there are already many misconceptions about the state's intentions. Massachusetts is, after

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all, the only state that is still suing Microsoft over alleged antitrust violations.

"We have heard that we are going to immediately require Linux on all desktops," he said. "That's not going to happen."

There are three issues behind the state's decision, he said. First is the desire to maintain an infrastructure that, by nature, has a long lifespan. The state must safeguard data for many years, and it must protect records that are up to 100 years old. "The state wants a system with long-term robustness of its technical infrastructure, and it wants to base it on common standards," he said.

Second is an interest in cutting licensing costs overall and relying more on free software developed by a large community of peer reviewers.

Finally, as a matter of public policy, the state is vested with the creation of public assets and goods owned by everyone. "It makes sense to operate in an environment that can be given to other states to enhance," Kriss said.

Kriss said the most important thing regarding a move to open-source and open standards is to make sure legacy systems remain in working order while they are properly migrated. All of this will take many months of careful planning. The state is already considering using the open-source Apache as its Web server platform of choice. The state currently only has one Apache Web server. The rest run Microsoft's IIS software, he said.

Massachusetts will also review its core operating systems and investigate all of the choices. It is also looking at the open-source e-mail server, Sendmail.

Overall IT budget of $230 million

The state's IT capital budget is currently about $80 million annually, and it spends about $150 million each year for IT operations and development. It is one of the largest single licensees of Oracle databases and of Microsoft software, Kriss said.

One observer said there are many reasons for governments of all kinds to worry about using proprietary software such as Microsoft's Windows. Some countries, such as China, don't trust it because they think there are CIA back doors into all machines, said Scott Bradner, a senior technical consultant at Harvard University.

There are also cost issues because licensing fees are high for municipalities, Bradner said. And, of course, there are the security concerns. "[Microsoft] is as good as anyone, but they often end up being the target [of attacks]," Bradner said.

Customers have alternatives to Microsoft software, but it's unwise to choose an inferior alternative for the sole purpose of picking something that is open-source, he said.

Bradner also said there could be more to the Bay State's open-source initiative. "Massachusetts' decision could be something very real, or it could be a negotiating point," he said.

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