Should public sector organisations be thinking open-source?

“I’ve been thinking…, what could the future of government IT estates look like? 🤔

Although this may seem like a vague and broad question, answers are beginning to appear. Open-Source Software (OSS) is presenting itself to be that potential future for IT estates. With private sector organisations taking full advantage of OSS, this article will look at the opportunities OSS could bring to the public sector.

In 2021, public sector organisations have the choice available to them to make the move away from legacy. Low risk ‘lift and shift’ cloud technologies from the likes of VMware and Oracle backed up by Zerto and Ark Data Centres have allowed many organisations to take the first steps in their cloud journeys.

The next logical step is to develop an open and flexible platform for cloud native applications. These cloud native workloads are namely designed for the cloud, making them dynamic and elastic to changes in demand. And that’s where open-source technology fits in. OSS means that the source code can be inspected, modified and enhanced by anyone. Programmers that have access to the source code of OSS can add features or fix parts of a system to improve a program.

Perhaps, the future of government and wider public sector IT estates will be led by open-source technology?

 

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“How is open-source different to normal ways of working?”

Traditionally, organisations inspect and edit their own software in a ‘closed-source’ format: when only the original author/s are the only ones to have control over the software. Closed source comes as a ‘paid-for’ software bundle, that organisations buy and install on their systems. There are hundreds of closed source Software as a Service (SaaS) examples ranging from Skype to Microsoft Windows, to the recently discontinued Adobe Flash Player. We all use closed-source software in our everyday lives – it is the solution with which everyone is familiar.

Alternatively, OSS, an evolution on traditional processes, is enabling new ways of thinking and working. Unlike closed-source technology, open-source is code that is freely available on the internet. Because of its availability, code can be copied, modified or deleted by various users (in real time!), meaning that the code is constantly updated, improved and expanded. Popular examples of OSS include WordPress, sound editor systems like Audacity, and 3D content creation suit Blender.

Open-source is an innovative way of working that contrasts the traditional way of close-source working.

 

“So, with these big differences surely there must be a difference in price between the two technologies?”

The most discussed advantage of OSS has to be the associated cost. Open-source is often referred to as ‘free of cost software’ as the source code has a £0.00 price tag to download. However, the £0.00 price tag doesn’t include various costs that surround open-source technology, as with OSS you have to pay for any added extras on top of the software. This includes skills training and support. OSS gives you access a plethora of code; however the code can be incomplete and it might not always do the task you want it to do. It can take time and money to train employees to effectively use OSS. However, in developing in-house capabilities and technical expertise, open-source can boost the capabilities of your organisation and prove to be a cost-effective and worthwhile investment.

Closed-source technology prices will often vary, but ultimately the more complex the software, the more it will cost.

A very familiar story.

In the case of closed-source software, you will be paying for a complete packaged product that includes things like full support and functionality. On top of this, the software is generally familiar to most people, this means that training costs can be kept to a minimum.

Both solutions have their benefits and drawbacks regarding prices – but cost is conditional and should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

 

“Okay that’s understandable, but open-source doesn’t sound secure if anyone can access the code. It sounds like a whole heap of compliance risks and with the data I hold, it’s not something I can consider.”

It’s funny you should ask, because in fact many people consider it to be more secure than closed-source technology. OSS can be accessed by anyone, but that doesn’t mean that its security is weak. Due to its open nature, anyone can go into source code and fix bugs; the code is kept up to date. Furthermore, vendors like Red Hat are critical to improving the security of OSS. The vendor adds a level of security where they ‘test, harden and support OSS’ giving customers a level of assurance on their software (which you can read here). Open-source communities are generally active, so the systems are constantly evolving, making it hard for hackers to breach a company’s data. Active communities continuously improve and develop code which means that source code is constantly being innovated.

On the other hand, security with closed-source is a topic that is already well established. I’m sure you are familiar with the security on your Microsoft Windows systems. These systems are already established so security will be installed however, when bugs or problems occur you have to request and wait for support. Compared to open-source’s active community and constant evolution, issues and bugs with closed-source can take a couple of days to get fixed. Days which the public sector cannot afford to lose.

There is always a give and take with security for any software. We all know of many examples of closed-source software being compromised, in both recent and distant memory. The main take-away here is despite it’s ‘open’ nature, organisations should not be too quick to dismiss open-source from a security point of view.

 

“So, knowing that open-source has robust security, can I assume that support will be somewhat similar?”

Yes, open-source support is much like its security. With OSS, support is available through communities, articles, experts and user guides that are aimed at developers. If you have a problem, you will have to post on a forum and get feedback on what you post. Generally, forums are quite active (especially with more popular software), so problems are solved timely and effectively. Articles are also another support item used by the open-source community (like the one you are reading now 😉).

However, the open way of working means there are fewer standards and structure is fragmented. As you can imagine, posting on a community forum isn’t the most structured approach and this is similar with user guides – they simply haven’t been fully established. With less structured user guides, the usability of the software is hindered. To overcome this, experts are needed – however getting experts in can be costly. This is a key consideration, especially if your organisation doesn’t have a high level of in-house technological expertise.

As with security, closed-source support is structured and can be purchased, or often given free, with the software package. When problems arise, there is usually a well-structed process for identifying, managing, and solving the issue. A support team will likely get back to you within a certain time frame. Otherwise, published guides and documents can be used to ‘DIY’-fix problems, and unlike open-source forums, these documents are official, well organised, and comply with regulations. These familiar closed source systems and platforms enable better usability too, as there are prewritten guides and standards, so organisations don’t need to get experts in to train staff.

Organisations might see support as a big inhibitor to adopting open-source technology. It’s a good idea to check out what kind of support your solution provides, and have your staff be active in their engagement on technology forums to truly get the most out of the software.

 

“I’m beginning to understand what open-source technology is all about, but apart from the £0.00 price tag I’m struggling to see any real benefits of using it 🤔

This is where we come to the ‘holy grail’ of open-source technology – its cloud native capabilities.

Scalability, flexibility and most importantly innovation.

OSS allows for a high degree of flexibility; users can modify and edit software specifically to fit their needs. Then, because of the code’s flexibility, it becomes easy for developers to scale the software to changes in demand. Cloud native applications benefit from containerisation; operating system virtualisation, through which apps are run isolated in containers. This allows for the individual applications to be edited, which is what makes open-source so flexible. This flexibility enables developers to modify their software and boost innovation.

Innovation doesn’t just come from developers. As aforementioned, the source code is accessible to everyone meaning there are constant improvements made to the code. With less time spent worrying about bug fixes, developers can spend more time improving the code leading to regular, perhaps even daily incremental innovations.

This isn’t the case for closed-source software. Features and code is fixed within the system and the owners of the software are the only ones who can make changes. Much like if you ran Windows 10 on your laptop, you wouldn’t be able to change the code for it. Even though this limits flexibility and scalability, it does make the software easy to handle. Beginner developers can spin up Windows 10 on any laptop easily, without having to worry about development of any code. Innovation will happen in closed-source technology, but it is not down to you as a business, it depends on the owner of the system. It can take time for innovations to emerge and, on the flip side of improving the software, if the software is discontinued you will have to buy new software, as support and maintenance will cease for the service.

There is much to be said for the ease of use of closed-source software. No hassle, no frills. But if innovation is your game, perhaps open-source is the way forward for you 😎.

 

“So, all in all, I can see the benefits of both software types. As a public sector organisation, should I be considering open-source?”

It is apparent that both technology types have their benefits and drawbacks. The flexibility and scalability of open-source enables opportunities for innovation – beneficial for organisations looking to optimise their systems and workloads to extract more from their data. On top of that users can control every aspect of their system’s design, allowing instances and workloads to be specialised to your individual needs. Finally, due to the scalability of OSS, fluctuations in demand won’t have an adverse impact on systems. They can be up and running even with sudden increases in demand.

All in all, it’s a really innovative way to work.

However, your ability to fully utilise OSS will depend on your in-house skills. With an established IT team who are trained to use various technologies, picking up open-source technologies would likely be the right step for your organisation. With ever-tightening government budgets, the open-source associated costs become a real factor to consider. While it can be costly to train staff, in the long run you will have developed cloud native applications which will assist you on your cloud journey (the journey from legacy systems to cloud native applications is a story for another blog.) Finally, the improved security of OSS should be big head turner for public sector organisations. When considering OSS you should first research vendors, like Red Hat, to learn more about the actual risk of multiple people having access to your source code. Red Hat, for example, are able to add an increased level of security on top of the constant bug fixes discussed before. For all those organisations who have sensitive workloads, there is no need to shy away from OSS when choosing software solutions.

On the other hand, you shouldn’t disregard closed-source technology. Being able to spin up pre-existing systems that come with complete support packages and user guides has it’s advantages. It means developers don’t have to worry about maintaining code, and there is no worry if you are unsure about what to do. On top of this, closed-source systems are familiar to people; IT personnel are trained on how to use these systems so there is no worry about training costs or having to get experts in. Closed-source technology is perfect for those with less established IT teams or for those who don’t need a ‘heavy’ innovation approach to their applications and sites. Smaller organisations may consider closed-source more especially when they don’t have the time and funding to create an IT team.

Organisations can utilise a mix of both CSS and OSS to reap the benefits of each software. Tech teams can set up their end points on Windows Server 10 systems (generally most people already do!) and then they can use OSS like GitHub to enable the innovation in their customer facing website. With the increased flexibility and scalability, the use case for OSS for websites is strong.

 

“Mr Blog writer, where can I find out more in-depth information on whether OSS technology is right for me?”

I’m sure I can help with this one. An important conversation to have before you embark on the OSS journey would be to discuss it with a multi-cloud expert. As Red Hat technology partners, UKCloud are renowned for our cloud expertise and commitment to the public sector. Our experts will be able to advise you along the path of OSS, and if it’s not a conversation you’re currently having, I would expect it to become a conversation in the next couple of years. To learn more about OSS and how you could fully utilise it have a look at our cloud solutions, or talk to one of our cloud experts.