VSJ – October 2001 – Work in Progress

Steve Cumbers, Vice President of the Institution of Analysts & Programmers, Chairman of the Association of Independent Computer Specialists and Director of TopQuark, writes about his vision of eGovernment: Open Source for Open Government

STANDARDS LIBERATE: We take hardware standards for granted. When you last plugged in an electrical appliance, were you grateful for 240V AC at 50Hz via a 3-pin plug? This is an Open standard to which all UK market participants conform. It empowers the consumer. We can all buy different washing machines from different manufacturers. If you get fed up with your machine today then you can buy a different make tomorrow. There are no proprietary lock-ins. Standards are remarkably powerful tools for industry and user alike, and ICT (Information & Communication Technology) is no exception. The debut of the Web in 1991, eCommerce & eBusiness, privacy & encryption, and the interdependent nature of the global critical infrastructure all testify to the importance of non-proprietary standardisation in ICT.

OPEN SYSTEMS: In 1984, a group of ICT vendors concerned about the imposition of closed interfaces by larger companies, developed the concept of Open systems. Such systems meet agreed specifications and conform to common standards. This is achieved by decoupling the specification of the interfaces from their implementation. This in turn allows many systems to support the Open philosophy of small, usually simple, tools that can be combined in many ways to perform tasks of varying complexity. The stability of the core interfaces preserves existing investments and supports an increasingly rich set of diverse software tools. Open Source software extends the concept of Open systems such that not only the interface is visible but also the human-readable program code that implements it.

INTERNET INSPIRED: Software developed on Open standards provides the greatest opportunity for scalability, flexibility and growth. Open standards enable innovation. They made possible the creation of the Internet, which is perhaps the largest single thing mankind has ever built. This involved the efforts of many disparate organisations that were able to collaborate across the globe by adopting Open standards, thereby avoiding incompatibility. The Internet is built on free software and freely distributed ideas, from TCP/IP and BIND, to HTML and Apache. (It is important to understand that Open source is free as in free speech not free beer; it is not charity, it’s just non-proprietary.)

GLOBAL STANDARDS: Standardisation avoids what might be monopolistic or antitrust market situations. Placing the interface definitions in the public domain permits a specification to be implemented by competing suppliers, thus giving the procurer not only the initial choice, but also the ongoing option to change. International non-proprietary standards, whether de facto or de jure, are the essence of interoperability, portability, and reusability. Interoperability enables seamless integration of both in-house and external systems; portability enables platform scalability and avoids proprietary lock-in; and reusability obviates expensive redevelopment.

DEMONSTRABLE SECURITY: It is often argued by suppliers of closed systems that Open source systems are insecure. Quite the reverse is true. Consider the 7-lever deadlock. A diagram showing how to make one is publicly available at any good Reference Library, so it is Open Source. Indeed, such locks are used on security doors precisely because experts can see from the design that deadlocks are almost impenetrable. The closed systems maxim ‘security by obscurity’ is a myth that is promulgated to hide the defects of a flawed design.

BUSINESS RISK: An executive who allows his company to become dependent on single-source proprietary systems – the internals of which he is not permitted to see, let alone change – has lost control of the enabling technology upon which his business depends. He has locked himself into a closed architecture, which places him on the wrong side of a monopolistic relationship. However, with non-proprietary standards and Open Source software, business risk is reduced and the executive is firmly in control. No business should ever be locked into a single-source supplier.

GOVERNMENT WEBSITES: The Government’s new electronic Gateway (www.gateway.gov.uk) has been implemented out of single-source proprietary systems. This is an unfortunate consequence of the Government following the current fashion among large organisations for outsourcing ICT. Companies following this policy eventually regret the disappearance of in-house technical know-how, but the senior managers who championed the policy are usually reluctant to reverse it. Ironically, the Government’s original sites, run by the now-defunct CCTA, were exemplary: well designed, uncluttered, fast, efficient, and standards compliant. The CCTA sites, including GCHQ and MI5, ran on Linux. And they were probably designed and maintained at a fraction of the cost of their closed-system replacements. The CCTA was assimilated, à la Borg, into the Office of Government Commerce on April 1st this year.

MAJOR PROJECTS: The Open approach levels the playing field, making it easier for SMEs to compete for public sector projects (or components thereof) instead of the Government relying on the big ‘preferred’ bidders that have presided over so many failures in the past. The Open approach would enable groups of SMEs to collaborate on major projects: a ‘Mission Impossible’ scenario where each brings a specialist capability to the overall requirement. The components are then assembled – like building an Airbus – to create the target system. This network-business model would turn the challenges of eGovernment into business opportunities for the UK’s wealth of innovative SMEs, in a similar way to the collaboration that built and maintains the Internet.

SYSTEMS INTEGRATION: Unless one has the luxury of a green-field site, the first objective is to integrate disparate in-house platforms and heterogeneous databases. This is achieved by developing wrappers and using middleware to shield legacy systems during the transition to a fully Open environment. And by deploying interstitial hubs that provide multi-way connectivity and facilitate real-time data mapping at the required throughput. Seamless integration of mission-critical systems requires robust & secure Web-enabled technology that is platform independent and vendor neutral. This enables the competitive provision of high-performance systems that have high-reliability and interoperability built-in. And it offers unrestricted scalability to meet future demand.

Advantages of Open Source based on Non-Proprietary Standards

  • Empowers the user & procurer by preventing proprietary lock-ins
  • Permits independent verification of both functionality and security
  • Manifests security precisely because the source is open to scrutiny
  • Interconnects readily to other Open systems using Open protocols
  • Facilitates interoperability, which expedites systems integration
  • Allows users to mix the best components from different vendors
  • Levels the playing field so that SMEs can compete with Corporates
  • Promotes inclusivity (firms disbar themselves by non-conformance)
  • Encourages conformant suppliers to focus on adding value not veneer
  • Counters ‘Balkanisation’ of the Web by providing a common framework
  • Supports robust, secure, vendor-neutral eGovernment and eCommerce
  • Eliminates recurrent licensing costs by ‘copyleft’ distribution
  • Combats the growing disparities in access to information technology
  • Engenders a culture of innovation in which creativity can flourish
  • Prepares students for the world of rapidly changing technology
  • Elevates Open systems to their logical and most elegant conclusion

INTRODUCING LINUX: Linux is an Open Source clone of the UNIX operating system. Academia, governments and the private sector have used UNIX to develop many of the technologies that are today part of the ICT landscape. Computer aided design, manufacturing control systems, real-time simulations, even the Internet itself, all began life with and because of UNIX. The thirty-two years of continual UNIX R&D has created a powerful Open platform for the development, implementation and management of mission-critical computer systems. Linux users benefit greatly from this rich inheritance.

LINUX USERS: The high performance Google search engine runs on Linux. NASA and Shell do supercomputing on Linux (Beowulf) clusters. Action Aide is changing to Linux in all its offices throughout the world because it can no longer afford to protect its Microsoft systems from viruses. The German and French governments use Linux, as does the European Union. Other well-known users include Amazon.com, Mercedes-Benz, and Her Majesty The Queen. Linux traditionally enters a business under the radar, smuggled in by frustrated administrators to replace unreliable print, file, and Web servers. Indeed, many ‘users’ are using Linux indirectly without realising it. If you use email or the Web then you are almost certainly an indirect Linux user.

LINUX SUPPORT: Linux support is available from freelance specialists through to big corporates including IBM, SGI, and Compaq. Sceptical organisations can hire experts on to their own staff, precluding the need for external support. Much of Linux system administration can be done automatically or remotely, so fewer staff are needed, which reduces the total cost of ownership. The GNU General Public Licence (GPL) encourages shared development between multiple hardware manufacturers and the Linux community. The resultant sharing of ideas & resources transcends the innovative possibilities of any single company, and massively reduces development costs. In an Open Source future, software development is not the province of one vendor; it belongs to the computing industry and computer users as a whole. Much like the Internet, which is the property of no one (i.e., it is the property of us all) and is more productive for that reason.

Advantages of Linux (Open Source clone of the UNIX operating system)

  • Linux is UNIX done properly (it benefits from the maturity of UNIX)
  • Extremely reliable (due to robust main-memory & process management)
  • Inherently secure (a transmissible virus has not been demonstrated)
  • Conforms to Open standards (no problematic proprietary extensions)
  • Zero price tag with unlimited total copying permitted (copyleft)
  • Independent – obviates the risk of reliance upon a single vendor
  • Highly integrateable – indeed Linux is the ideal integration hub
  • Linux talks natively to Apple, to Windows, to UNIX, to ‘mainframe’
  • Samba (also Open) on Linux is the fastest ‘NT-server’ available
  • Portable – deployment is not dictated by hardware limitations
  • Now ported across most architectures from ’embedded’ to mainframe
  • Scalable to symmetric multiprocessors and clustered configurations
  • Clustering with Linux can produce awesome speed at a modest price
  • Stability of the kernel interface preserves software investments
  • High availability (rarely crashes) reduces total cost of ownership
  • Needs little maintenance (few staff) so it is cheap to operate
  • Low cost attraction for local authorities and developing countries
  • Linux becomes increasingly attractive during an economic slowdown
  • Delivers on the promise of stable, truly Open, any-to-any computing

OPEN SOCIETY: Just as UNIX epitomises Open systems, Linux epitomises Open Source. However, an Open Source solution does not mandate the use of Linux and there are many other Open Source products. For example, Apache is the most widely deployed Web server; MySQL is a fast database management system; PostgreSQL is a full-featured DBMS; Python and PERL are powerful scripting languages; GNU Hurd is a forthcoming [alternative] kernel; and GNOME is a secure desktop environment. For secure communications, a vendor-neutral PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) can be built using Open LDAP, MIT Kerberos, and GNU Privacy Guard. Moreover, the pivotal Internet protocols and mark-up languages are Open. These include TCP/IP/IPv6, DNS & BIND, Telnet & ftp, http, HTML and XML. All net-deployed systems, whether closed or open, depend upon these freely distributed ideas and the free software that implements them.

OPEN GOVERNMENT: Open (non-proprietary) global standards underpin our modern technological economy. Open Source provides a rational foundation upon which to build our national ICT infrastructure. In short, Open Source for Open Government.

Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!

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