Tim O’Reilly comments on the Whitehouse.gov shift to Drupal

Of course, it’s easy to imagine that the use of open source software will slash the government’s IT budget. After all, this software is freely downloadable. I have a feeling it’s quite a bit more complicated than that.

First off, government has a huge number of special requirements (remember the flap over President Obama’s blackberry?) Second, don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing business in Washington. Procurement is done through a complex ballet understood by few open source companies. Third, a big IT deployment like this requires coordination between many companies, each providing a piece of the puzzle. According to techpresident.com, no fewer than five firms were involved in the switch: prime contractor General Dynamics Information Systems, Drupal specialists Phase 2 and Acquia, hosting provider Terremark, and CDN-supplier Akamai. (Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Acquia.)

The special nature of the government marketplace is one of the reasons why I launched the Gov 2.0 Expo, which will be held in Washington DC next May. There are huge opportunities for open source, web 2.0, and new media companies in government, but there are also challenges reaching that market. One of my goals for the event is to increase the visibility of cutting edge technology firms not just to government agencies, but also to the prime contractors who are putting together these complex procurements.

The net-net is that I suspect that simply using open source software won’t slash government IT budgets, at least not right away. What it will do is increase the amount of value we get for our money and the speed with which new technology can be adopted. Features that would have cost millions of dollars and years of development to add will now be rolled into the scope of current contracts.

It’s also important to realize that using open source is very different from contributing to open source. Despite the exaggerated claims in the AP story, that “the programming language is written in public view, available for public use and able for people to edit”, the White House has not yet released any of the modifications they made to Drupal or its operating environment back to the open source community. The source code for Drupal (and the rest of the LAMP stack) is indeed available, but the modifications that were made to meet government security, scalability, and hosting requirements have not yet been shared. In my conversations with the new media team at the White House, it is clear that they are exploring this option.

Giving modifications back to the Drupal community is the next breakthrough announcement that I’ll be looking for.

Personally I think there is way too much emphasis on ‘free as in beer’ when it comes to stories about governments using open source. Glad to see Tim O’Reilly bringing some reality back to the conversation.