State's bill touts open-source option

Frustrated by budget woes and incompatible IT systems among state agencies, an Oregon legislator has introduced a bill requiring the agencies to at least consider open-source software when making future IT purchases.

The idea, said Democratic State Rep. Phil Barnhart, is to offer cheaper and more flexible options to government agencies through the use of open-source, standards-based software rather than proprietary applications.

Barnhart said he introduced the Open Source Software for Oregon bill, officially known as House Bill 2892, in an effort to reduce costs and lessen the state's dependence on expensive and proprietary IT systems. The bill doesn't mandate that open-source alternatives be chosen. "What it really does is say, Please think about it as you do your procurement," Barnhart said in an interview with Computerworld.

The introduction of the bill is only the first step in what could be a lengthy process before passage by state legislators. The next step is assignment to a House committee, which could then hold hearings and discuss the merits of the proposal. If it's eventually passed, Oregon would be the first state to recognize open-source software in its statutes, according to Barnhart.

Some federal government agencies are already using or exploring open-source alternatives, he said. The state of Rhode Island is moving toward open-source software, and other states are considering similar options. "I think other states are probably in similar boats," Barnhart said, referring to budgetary problems and incompatible IT systems.

In Oregon, there are at least seven different IT systems used by seven state agencies, none of which can communicate directly with each other, he said. "What we've got to do is have a set of standards" so the systems can communicate seamlessly, Barnhart said. "We've got to have a system so that over the long haul, we don't have that kind of problem. I don't think that proprietary systems will do that for us.

"It isn't just making the computers more efficient in their operations, it's making the whole system better," he said. "The people of Oregon have told us they want us to be more efficient and this is one way of doing that."

At least one state agency, the Department of Administrative Services, has been trying recently to move in that direction, Barnhart said.

The idea behind the legislation came from Ken Barber, a network administrator from Eugene, Ore., who contacted Barnhart and talked with him at length about the issue. Barber eventually drafted the legislation Barnhart introduced.

The rationale, according to Barber, is that expensive proprietary applications and operating systems cost more to buy and maintain than similar open-source alternatives, while providing few additional benefits.

"All we want right now is to make them take a look," Barber said. "I'm thinking of all the taxpayer money that's being wasted on maintaining" applications and other software from Microsoft Corp. and others.

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