Linux vendors push for government customers

Linux vendors push their products at a government trade show.

Linux vendors say they're gaining ground in the U.S. government, even though a session on open-source software in government drew a small crowd at the FOSE trade show in Washington, D.C., Thursday.

Linux and government seem to be natural allies, as governments around the world move to open more information up to citizens, said Basil Harris Jr., director of Linux solutions marketing at Novell Inc."There's this movement toward open government, and this movement toward open software, and it would seem to be a good fit," Harris said at a FOSE session titled, Open Source, Open Government: A Match Made in Heaven?

This is the first year that Linux vendors have had their own pavilion and theater on the showroom floor at FOSE, a technology-in-government trade show that draws more than 25,000 attendees a year. While Linux vendors and user groups have exhibited at FOSE in the past, this year's conference featured more than a dozen sessions focusing on using open-source software in government.

Harris said a significant amount of Novell's business is with federal, state and local governments, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) although he couldn't give an exact figure. Penguin Computing, another exhibitor in the Linux section at FOSE, counts about 35 percent of its sales from the U.S. government, said Matt Jacobs, vice president of sales for the hardware and Linux-based clustering software vendor.

Penguin Computing has about 2,000 customers, a growth of about 25 percent in the past year, according to the company. The number of federal government customers has kept up with that growth, staying at about 35 percent of the total number, the company said.

This year was the first for Penguin Computing at FOSE, Jacobs said, and the company is working at establishing a bigger Washington, D.C., presence. "We need to be out in front of the agencies that have been [customers] for years," he said.

While other governments, including Brazil, Thailand and Canada, have embraced open-source software, the U.S. government has been slower to adopt it, Harris said. Linux and other open-source software has found its way into many U.S. government agencies, including parts of the National Security Agency and the DOD, where research firm MITRE, in a paper published in October 2002, found significant use.

But Harris asked attendees of his session why more government agencies weren't looking to open-source software as a way to save licensing costs and avoid one-vendor lock-in. Of about 20 people at the session, none raised their hands when Harris asked if their agencies are using open-source software, and only two said their organizations are considering it.

David Burkhart, a user support specialist at CHF International, said he was trying to push open-source software as a way to end monitoring of software licenses at the organization's branch offices in 35 countries. CHF International, which receives U.S. government funding to work on antipoverty programs worldwide, could avoid licensing costs and keeping track of software licenses by switching, he said.

One problem is that the organization has a software finance package that doesn't run on Linux, and users don't want to change to a new finance package, Burkhart said. "When I try to get headquarters and the field offices to change, my head just spins," he said.

Harris noted that Microsoft's Windows operating system still has more applications that run on it than run on Linux. "The general purpose desktop, very frankly, is Microsoft territory," he said.

But he also noted that about 60 percent of Novell's 6,000 employees run Linux on their desktops, and the company's goal by the end of the year is to have Linux on every worker desktop, either as a stand-alone operating system or as a dual-boot operating system with Windows.

For workers who need limited desktop functions, for kiosk-style machines and for handhelds, Linux is competitive, he added.

Another obstacle to adoption is that people in his organization say their technology workers don't know Linux, Burkhart said. But Harris said many top executives, especially at government agencies, don't realize that their technology workers have used Linux to solve problems without asking for additional funding.

"At many organizations, the CIO has no idea that Linux has infiltrated in, and people are getting work done," Harris said.

Harris also pushed Linux as a secure option compared to Windows, repeating the often-voiced belief in the open-source community that the open-source development model allows many worldwide developers to find security holes quicker than in closed, proprietary development models.

"Linux, like Unix, did a lot from the very beginning to make sure it was secure," he said. "Microsoft, on the other hand, focused on ease of use."

A Microsoft representative wasn't available for comment Thursday afternoon. Microsoft has disputed claims that open source software is more secure and cheaper in the long term.

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