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AGIMO advocates for open source software

by Kristen Hammond •
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The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) has once again demonstrated an ‘open’ attitude to towards open source software, releasing its updated draft ‘Guide to Open Source Software for Australian Government Agencies’ on 30 March 2011.

According to a blog post by Glenn Archer, First Assistant Secretary, Policy and Planning at AGIMO, the release of the draft Guide is intended to complement the government’s revised policy on open source software, released in January 2011.

As Intermedium reported at the time, the Open Source Software Principles require agencies to consider open source options when purchasing software, providing three principles which must be adhered to for all software procurements after 1 March 2011:

  • Principle 1: Active and fair consideration of all software options by purchasers;
  • Principle 2: Active and fair consideration of all software options by suppliers; and
  • Principle 3: Agencies to participate in open source software communities.

In keeping with these principles, AGIMO’s Guide to Open Source Software outlines the benefits, risks and issues government agencies must be aware of when procuring open source software.

Australian Government CIO Ann Steward writes in her foreword to the Guide that “open source software can offer benefits to both the Australian Government and wider community, such as improving interoperability and possible cost savings”.

The Guide outlines the benefits of open source software, which include:

  • Reduced expenditure, though agencies should consider the total cost of ownership (including all support services) of the software over its lifetime;
  • Encouraging a competitive support service market, given the availability of the source code;
  • Encouraging a collaborative approach, such as the open exchange of ideas as to how the software may be improved;
  • Placing fewer restrictions on users of the software;
  • Providing the opportunity for users to take direct control of the maintenance and support of the software;
  • Reducing vendor lock-in and instead allowing individuals or groups to further develop the software without the obligation to support other users;
  • Allowing users to view and modify the source code and thus increase stability and security; and
  • Allowing users to take advantage of the improved functionalities more rapidly.

However, there is also a range of risks and additional considerations that will face agencies opting for the open source option, which could well impact on its take up.

Two issues of particular concern for government agencies when implementing open source software are ‘code forking’ and reciprocity, the Guide states.

Code forking occurs when agencies modify the code of open source software without publishing it back to the software development community. A ‘fork’ then develops between the agency’s version of the software and the version published by the community, which increases exponentially as changes are made by both sides.  Such a process creates difficulties for agency’s wishing to upgrade to a new published version, as all changes made would have to be reapplied.

To manage this, the Guide suggests, agencies must be aware of the benefits, costs and risks of customising open source software and ensure employees have appropriate skills to manage the development and ongoing maintenance of the forked software.

Reciprocity within open source software refers to an agency’s potential obligation to make any modified codes publicly available to the software community. The degree of reciprocity in open source software is dependent on the terms of the licence, which must be followed under copyright laws.

According to the Guide, complexity arises in this area when it comes to the boundaries of distribution of the open source software modification. For example, if a modified source code is used only within one agency, it is unlikely reciprocity will be triggered. Agencies are strongly advised to seek legal advice when modifying open source software.

Other key issues government agencies should take into account when determining whether to adopt an open source, as opposed to proprietary, software model include:

  • Capital expenditure;
  • Customisation and innovation;
  • Governance;
  • Intellectual property issues;
  • Licensing obligations;
  • ‘Lock-in’ to one type of software;
  • Maturity, portability and reliability;
  • Restrictions on use;
  • Security; and
  • Ongoing support and maintenance.    

AGIMO has invited feedback on the draft Guide until 15 April 2011.


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  • Federal
  • Software
  • Treasury
  • Ann Steward
  • Glen Clarke
  • Glenn Archer
  • Open Source Software