Blog post

Are the US Obsessed with Cloud as much as Europe was with Open Source?

By Andrea Di Maio | June 23, 2010 | 5 Comments

open source in governmentcloud

Over the last month or so there have been a couple of worthwhile events about the US Federal Government’s cloud computing activities.

The first one has been the publication of an interesting report, authored by the federal CIO Vivek Kundra, on the State of Public Sector Cloud Computing. This is a compendium of what the federal government is doing as well as a list of actual and announced projects at federal, state and local level. The purpose of this report is to boost confidence in the progress of the cloud computing agenda and to show to reluctant agencies how several government organizations are making or considering the move.

The second one has been the launch of a request for proposals by the General Services Administration (GSA) for cloud-based email and collaboration services. This is probably the highest profile move to email as a service after the one undertaken by the City of LA. According to Vivek’s report, also the Department of Interior would have announced an agency-wide e-mail as a service program, but ironically their CIO, Sonny Bhagowalia has been hired by the GSA Office of Citizen Services to deal with – guess what? – the cloud portfolio.

Taken at face value, these events witness the unstoppable force of cloud computing in the US government. Indeed I and my colleagues who cover cloud computing receive an increasing number of inquiries and requests to help frame RFPs for cloud-based services. Therefore reality seems to be matching perception.

However, it is interesting to note that Vivek’s report contains quite a few “announced projects”, where no contract has been awarded yet, nor is there any evidence that savings have been accrued or value created. One of the oldest GSA projects, the move of to cloud, is still on-going and I guess it will take some time before one can assess total cost of ownership and savings (this was a subject of debate after a wrong statement about expected savings a few months ago).

Vivek’s report also mentions interesting development spearheaded by NIST, such as SAJACC (Standards Acceleration to Jumpstart Adoption of Cloud Computing) and FedRAMP (Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program), both of which are deemed essential to overcome some of the residual skepticism about using cloud computing in government. Unfortunately all it says about both is the general goal and what NIST role is, but does not say what the progress is nor to what extent either or both are going to make life easier.

While there is increasing awareness about cloud computing, and the offerings are rapidly maturing, all this buzz keeps reminding me about the excitement of European, South American and Asian governments about open source (see here for an article from 2001). This was complemented and reinforced by the well-justified interest for open formats (see Belgium and Denmark ruling in favor of ODF, and the never-ending debate about whether Microsoft-backed OOXML is good enough).

While the use of open formats and open standards is becoming a requirements in most system and software public procurements in Europe and elsewhere, there are also some governments that actively push for open source or mandate that open source alternatives are considered for any procurement. However, with few exceptions, the advice is always to use open source where it demonstrably delivers value for money (see the UK latest open source policy).

What Vivek’s report says about the federal budget planning reminds me of those positive discriminations forcing agencies to think about the use of open source and somewhat prove why it can’t be used. In fact the text says:

By September 2011 – all newly planned or performing major IT investments acquisitions must complete an alternatives analysis that includes a cloud computing based alternative as part of their budget submissions.

By September 2012 – all IT investments making enhancements to an existing investment must complete an alternatives analysis that includes a cloud computing based alternative as part of their budget submissions.

By September 2013 – all IT investments in steady-state must complete an alternatives analysis that includes a cloud computing based alternative as part of their budget submissions

I almost feel I could replace “cloud computing” with “open source” and things would still look the same.

I have raised a few times (see here) the intriguing relations between open source and cloud computing.

But I find quite ironic that governments use the same mechanisms (hype and pilots) for both, as they actually serve different purposes and benefit different audiences. Indeed, one could say that both help save costs (although this must be demonstrated on a case by case basis). But while open source (together with open standards) aimed at reducing and preventing vendor lock-in. cloud computing is all about being locked-in with vendors.

Indeed, as Vivek says, there are standardization activities going on, but they are still far from being well articulated, let alone produce any actual result. If there is anything to learn from the ODF vs OOXML battle, standardization processes may be difficult and adoption of standards by vendors is not a straightforward task.

I am not sure that those who are pushing for massive cloud computing adoption today are putting enough thought into the total cost of ownership of cloud computing solutions, including their exit cost.

Exactly like for open source, the right approach is in the middle. Cloud computing is one possible sourcing option to consider, alongside traditional outsourcing, remote hosting, infrastructure utility, on-premises software and so forth. It is not end, but a means to an end (cost-effective IT).

It would be great if the cloud “knights” in the US federal administration would study the recent history of open source and open standards in European governments. They may conclude that they need more caution in promoting vendor solutions, a more heavy hand on standardization and interoperability and a less religious approach to the cloud as THE solution to all the IT evils.

Comments are closed


  • Rebentisch says:

    I am an open source realist. We face the situation that there is a grotesque gap between market realities and government activities, and the reason for that is unreasonable lobbying from third nation players against open source for European government use, an attempt of shooting in the cradle to defend established market positions and ideological positioning. As a result Europe is lacking behind and fails to reape the full benefit from its digital policies. However, all parties understand that you get open standards policies for free when you aim for open source, and that anti-open source lobbying doesn’t stop with that objective and moves the goal post to combat open standards. As of cloud services it is a bit holding the lobby horses that convinced the governments that this was the future.

    “If there is anything to learn from the ODF vs OOXML battle, standardization processes may be difficult and adoption of standards by vendors is not a straightforward task.”

    How about that:
    – participants in standard development need to be independent from their sponsors to enable a proper technical review. It is abusive to fire professionals who failed to get a technically immature standard accepted. The IEEE ethics code is a model.
    – we need new tools for crowdsourcing standard review and editing, web based standards meeting and more access to the standard institutions
    – License models have to be universally accepted and enable legal confidence in multiple jurisdictions, whether it is RF or FRAND. We need model licenses for both, just like the EU did with their EUPL process for code licensing.

  • I’m not sure I agree with the comparison of US cloud computing “obsession” and the European one with open source.

    I mean, I can see your points, but I also believe that open source (and not because I am or am not an open source evangelist) was (or actually is) way more strategic for Europe than cloud computing can be for anyone.

    Besides the widely referred to issues of open source about one not being locked in (specially a government), security, customization, flexibility, interoperability, data ownership and a long etcetera, there are two aspects of open source that make it worth the “obsession” for European politicians, which actually are the two sides of the same coin:
    – to stop the huge and expensive imports of software from overseas (mainly from the US), and their direct impact on the balance of payments
    – and to help developing a national/local software industry, with its direct and indirect impact on jobs, R+D+i outcomes and their multiplier effects, etc.

    So, while I share your observations on the US obsession with cloud computing, I think that European obsession with open source was more than justified — especially in comparison with US’s 🙂


  • @Rebentisch – I am not sure that this dramatic picture you provide about bad corporation shooting the open source baby in the cradle is entirely accurate. What has happened over the last 8 or 9 years after the start of European governments hype on open source, is that many vendors (and mostly non-European ones) have come up with open source offerings or provide services to support / integrate open source.
    If the battle was to secure a market for European players, I would argue that it was lost. Clearly open source has benefited some of the European-based service players, but I am not sure it has been great for the European software industry as such

  • @ismal – There is a difference between perception and reality. What you say makes perfect sense from the strategic perspective, but it seems to me that reality is that government organizations still buy from vendors, and many of these vendors are headquartered outside the EU or rely on resources (i.e. create jobs) outside the EU.
    This is why I believe that sourcing choices should be purely based on value for money, considering elements such as TCO, including exit cost from whichever product or service.

  • You mean the European Parliament buying iPads and the Spanish Parliament buying iPhone 4s for their MPs, for instance? 😉