UK Government Prefers Open Source

March 16, 2013

Those of you who have read this blog from time to time already know that I am a proponent of the open source model of software development.  I’ve talked about its use in a number of different cases, including the development of the Linux operating system, and the development of systems for the US Department of Defense.  Even Microsoft, whose chief executive, Steve Ballmer, once likened open-source software to “a cancer”, seems to have gotten religion; for example, it now uses Hadoop open-source software for “big data” projects, and supports the use of Linux virtual machines in its Azure cloud service.

According to an article at Computer Weekly, the government of the United Kingdom is preparing the launch of a new set of mandatory standards for development of new digital public services.  The new Government Service Design Manual, now in a beta edition, includes a clear preference for open source:

In a section titled “When to use open source”, the manual says: “Use open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.

This strikes me as eminently sensible, especially the last phrase, “in particular for operating systems …”  Considering operating systems as an example, it seems to me extremely improbable that the UK would require unique OS capabilities not needed elsewhere.  Perhaps more bluntly, it seems to me very unlikely that the UK (or the US, or anyone else) has some special, valuable insight into how an OS should be built.  (The evidence seems to suggest that, at least for general purpose computers, the approach initially embodied in the UNIX OS works pretty well; UNIX’s descendents include Linux, of course, as well as Android, OS X, and Google’s Chrome OS.)

The new standards do allow for use of proprietary software in rare cases; but the manual cautions that, in these cases, it is important to specify open interface standards, to avoid vendor lock-in.  The article quotes government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, on the advantages of the open-source approach:

Nobody makes packaged software for digital public services. With the software we are making, we have a preference for open source, because it means other countries can use it too and help make that software better. This approach will also ensure we are not locked in to some mad oligopoly outsource.

The new standards also state that new software developed for the government should be published under an open-source license.  The UK government has also entered into an agreement with Estonia for joint development of some public service systems.

As I’ve said before, the ideas underlying the open-source approach have been around since the early days of computing (and even longer in the natural sciences).  Governments everywhere seem to be struggling with the conundrum of how to do more with less.  Using open source software (and getting rid of the Not Invented Here syndrome) should free up some significant resources now devoted to wheel re-invention.

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