OPEN TO OPEN SOURCE

FEDS’ ON­LINE RE­VAMP PITS DRU­PAL COM­MU­NITY AGAINST PRO­PRI­ETARY SOFT­WARE GI­ANTS.

Ottawa Business Journal - Techopia - - Front Page - BY ADAM FEIBEL

The Gov­ern­ment of Canada is cur­rently un­der con­struc­tion — or at least, its web­site is.

Last year, in an ef­fort to con­sol­i­date the more than 1,500 fed­er­ally owned URLs span­ning some 100 de­part­ments, the Trea­sury Board an­nounced it would be re­vamp­ing the gov­ern­ment’s web pres­ence by lim­it­ing and stan­dard­iz­ing the plat­forms and tools used to power its web­sites.

Now, we have Canada.ca – but not com­pletely. The gov­ern­ment de­buted a pro­to­type of the new web­site last De­cem­ber. With only a small per­cent­age of its web pages moved over to the new ad­dress, it’s re­ally a teaser of what’s to come. Most links still lead to ex­ist­ing de­part­men­tal pages, but the point is to even­tu­ally elim­i­nate the mul­ti­tudi­nous gc.ca ad­dresses and in­stead nes­tle them all un­der Canada.ca over the next four years.

First, they’ll have to pick a con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem (CMS) provider to carry out the task.

The gov­ern­ment put out a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion on Aug. 1 to gather in­for­ma­tion about what po­ten­tial sup­pli­ers are able and un­able to pro­vide, whether there’s any­thing the gov­ern­ment missed in its plan and whether com­pa­nies would re­spond to a fu­ture re­quest for pro­pos­als ( RFP).

Mul­ti­ple ven­dors re­sponded to the re­quest for in­for­ma­tion, and the depart­ment is now in the process of ag­gre­gat­ing and an­a­lyz­ing it ahead of a full RFP, ex­pected to come in the next few months.

The process is ex­pected to draw pro­pos­als from tech gi­ants such as Adobe and Or­a­cle, but sev­eral smaller com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing on an open-source con­tent man­age­ment plat­form called Dru­pal are hop­ing they can un­der­cut the pro­pri­etary bid­ders.

FOR­EIGN ADOP­TION

Un­like pro­pri­etary soft­ware, which is cre­ated and de­vel­oped by a limited and rel­a­tively small team of pro­gram­mers, open-source soft­ware is re­dis­tributed and con­stantly im­proved upon by a vast com­mu­nity of pro­gram­mers who use the soft­ware un­der a free li­cense.

Dru­pal is an open-source frame­work used as the back- end for roughly seven per cent of web­sites world­wide (the third most popular be­hind Word­Press and Joomla), ac­cord­ing to Open Source CMS.

It’s also be­come the CMS of choice for many of the world’s gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, pow­er­ing the web­sites of the White House, the Gov­ern­ment of On­tario, the City of Ot­tawa, and a smat­ter­ing of out­go­ing gc.ca ad­dresses.

“It’s hard to­day to ar­gue that Dru­pal is not the de facto stan­dard world­wide for gov­ern­ment web­sites,” said Mathieu We­ber, the Cana­dian di­rec­tor of Ac­quia, a Dru­pal soft­ware-as-a-ser­vice provider.

In Septem­ber, the Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment an­nounced that it had cho­sen Ac­quia to han­dle a con­sol­i­da­tion process very sim­i­lar to Canada’s cur­rent project. The United King­dom also went open source in 2012 with the con­sol­i­dated gov.uk web­site.

Those in the lo­cal open-source sec­tor have their fin­gers crossed that the Cana­dian fed­eral gov­ern­ment will of­fi­cially join the Dru­pal ranks.

“If it’s not enough that it’s free, and ( that) it’s more lead­ing- edge than pro­pri­etary, then at least

“If it’s not enough that it’s free, and (that) it’s more lead­ing-edge than pro­pri­etary, then at least we can say that all our neigh­bours are do­ing it.”

– Chris Smith, chief ex­ec­u­tive, OPIN

we can say that all our neigh­bours are do­ing it,” said Chris Smith, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of OPIN, an Ot­tawa-based en­ter­prise con­tent man­age­ment sys­tems provider that Mr. Smith said part­nered with “one of the larger sys­tem in­te­gra­tors” and a support company to re­spond to the RFI this sum­mer.

LAY­ING THE GROUND­WORK

When the fed­eral Trea­sury Board an­nounced the gov­ern­ment’s web con­sol­i­da­tion plans last year, Ac­quia said it was pre­pared to lead the open­source com­mu­nity when the gov­ern­ment asked for pro­pos­als.

Ac­quia sub­mit­ted a re­sponse to the RFI, pro­vided in­put on a draft RFP, and “re­mains ac­tively in­volved with the na­tional Dru­pal com­mu­nity in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the fi­nal RFP,” said Mr. We­ber.

The Mas­sachusetts-based company hasn’t been bang­ing on Canada’s door ev­ery day, but the company has been steadily push­ing Dru­pal lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

“Ac­quia has in­vested se­lec­tively in a hand­ful of mar­kets where there’s a huge op­por­tu­nity to leapfrog,” said Mr. We­ber. “Canada is one of those coun­tries.”

There are about a half- dozen Dru­pal-based com­pa­nies in Ot­tawa alone. The com­mu­nity is strong, with reg­u­larly oc­cur­ring events such as the an­nual Dru­palCamp Ot­tawa, largely spon­sored by Ac­quia, and the monthly Dru­palYOW mee­tups.

Pro­gram­mers cite a num­ber of ben­e­fits, and some draw­backs, of run­ning on Dru­pal and other open-source soft­ware. One of the main ad­van­tages is that prob­lems have an easy fix, ac­cord­ing to Steven Muegge, a pro­fes­sor with Car­leton Univer­sity’s tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion man­age­ment pro­gram.

“All soft­ware has de­fects when it’s first writ­ten,” said Mr. Muegge. “When the source is avail­able, it’s eas­ier to de­tect those de­fects and do some­thing about them. Oth­ers from the com­mu­nity can pro­pose patches to cor­rect those, and they get fixed faster.”

Open-source sys­tems also mean there’s less lock-in to any par­tic­u­lar ven­dor, he said. Mr. We­ber added that a Dru­pal-based so­lu­tion is “bar none the most se­cure and has the most eyes watch­ing it,” to help avoid gov­ern­ment web se­cu­rity crises. Per­haps above all else is the cost sav­ings and lo­cal econ­omy boost that come with open source.

“As a tax­payer, I very much want my gov­ern­ment to be build­ing sys­tems on top of open source soft­ware,” said Mr. Muegge. “I be­lieve it’s good for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment, it opens the business up to smaller com­pa­nies and en­trepreneurs, and that’s a very im­por­tant source for in­no­va­tion in our econ­omy.”

PRO­PRI­ETARY PULL

Dru­pal de­trac­tors tend to cite a steep learn­ing curve, a lack of “back­ward com­pat­i­bil­ity” – the abil­ity of a mod­ern sys­tem to read files gen­er­ated by its pre­de­ces­sors – and some po­ten­tial us­abil­ity headaches de­pen­dent upon one’s needs and specs, such as mem­ory us­age and cod­ing type.

Those in favour of pro­pri­etary CMS ar­gue that de­vel­op­ers and man­agers whose jobs and rev­enues

“It’s hard to­day to ar­gue that Dru­pal is not the de facto stan­dard world­wide for gov­ern­ment web­sites.” – Mathieu We­ber, Cana­dian di­rec­tor, Ac­quia

de­pend on the pro­gram are more ac­count­able than open-source users in terms of con­sumer sat­is­fac­tion, and that an open source CMS isn’t as worry-free as its pro­po­nents claim.

Shawn Cruise, vice-pres­i­dent of Adobe Sys­tems Canada’s pub­lic sec­tor, said in an e-mailed state­ment that “or­ga­ni­za­tions should choose the tech­nol­ogy that best fits their spe­cific needs,” and that its pro­pri­etary CMS so­lu­tion of­fers “the best choice for cus­tomers in both pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tors for web ex­pe­ri­ence man­age­ment, help­ing them con­trol costs while keep­ing fo­cus on their core business and mis­sion.” Adobe did not in­di­cate whether the company would be sub­mit­ting a pro­posal for Canada.ca.

Asked whether Pub­lic Works and Gov­ern­ment Ser­vices Canada, the con­tract­ing au­thor­ity for the RFP, will be look­ing into an open source frame­work for the new web­site, a spokesper­son said in an e-mailed state­ment that the Gov­ern­ment of Canada will “con­sider all vi­able op­tions.” The gov­ern­ment won’t di­vulge in­for­ma­tion about ven­dors, but sources say both open-source and pro­pri­etary providers have re­sponded to the re­quest for in­for­ma­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to open-source de­vel­op­ers, the fu­ture at Canada.ca looks good for them.

“The odds are pretty high, based on the way that other gov­ern­ments have re­al­ized the cost ben­e­fit,” said Mr. Smith.

“I think if our gov­ern­ment were to choose pro­pri­etary, it would be a sur­prise.”

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