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UK Government Open Source Policy: All Talk, No Action?

By Bill Roth, Vice President, Nexenta

The UK government has been talking about open source and open standards yet again, but is it all just talk and no action?

It was back in January 2011 when the Cabinet Office first launched the open standards policy as part of the government’s G-Cloud initiative. The idea behind it being that this new ICT strategy will help cut costs across the board and bring the government’s IT infrastructure into the 21st century. In addition it would help create a more level playing field for open source and proprietary software vendors and provide SMBs with a clear opportunity to sell into the public sector.

However, they haven’t really made much progress since the actual launch, which begs the question of how committed they are to this policy. The BBC recently revealed that most government departments are still spending the majority of their IT budgets on software from legacy big-name vendors, rather than seeking cheaper open source alternatives. This could be because the policy itself remains unclear and many are still unsure of the definition of ‘open standard’.

The lack of progress in part can be linked to the natural opposition the policy has received from those with vested interests in maintaining the dominance of proprietary systems, i.e. the legacy storage vendors. More surprisingly though, even the British Standards Institution and the International Standards Organisation have shown concern, highlighting the confusion over the policy itself and what it stipulates.

Government departments like the rest of us are faced with a rapid growth in data and are even more burdened with having to store it for the long-term. Partly in order to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. The rapidly growing cost of maintaining and expanding on their legacy storage systems is proving too expensive, a fact that the Government is finally waking up too. The problem facing many departments is that they are tied in to expensive contracts with vendors that can be extremely expensive to break.

The best solution would be an enterprise storage solution that would not be subject to ‘hardware tax’ imposed by legacy vendors but would leave public sector organisations free to add cheaper industry standard products while continuing to use their existing assets.

It is important to realize that the legacy vendors like NetApp and EMC have proprietary disk formats, meaning you can't use them with any other vendor. With the legacy vendors, a disk is not a disk is not a disk. Once they write it, its locked to their formats.  Moreover, there is no reason why the legacy vendors can not change their format in the future, thereby forcing added expense onto their customers in the name of technological progess. OpenStorage vendors, based on ZFS, will all be interoperable, since the formats AND the source code are public. (See http://illumos.org).

As the government has rightly recognised, a solution that is based on open source software could help break away from proprietary hardware and software to more agile systems. In many instances this can help reduce storage costs by as much as 70-80% and still offer superior functionality and flexibility. An open solution can work seamlessly in heterogeneous storage environments and provide unparalleled storage management and data quality. It’s also compatible with the latest IT trends and is cloud ready and virtualisation ready.

As promising as it is to see  the UK government stamping its mark on the use of open standards, it really needs to act now. It needs to show that it is serious about implementing open source. Launching the open source consultation processes shows its willingness to get everyone on board, but it needs to make this a priority for 2012 as the results could really impact UK’s climb out of the economic crisis.

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More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.