Massachusetts IT Acquisition Policy Gets It Right

The state has done a good job of defining a workable litmus test for supporting open standards.

As a resident of Massachusetts, its not often that I feel enthusiasm for a policy created by the commonwealth bureaucrats.

However, I greatly admire the IT acquisition policy recently enacted by the states Information Technology Division, and I strongly recommend that corporations consider it as a model for their IT purchases.

Sure, there are big differences between how corporations and government agencies operate, and there are lots of small details in the policy that wont carry over to business environments. But the main idea behind the new Massachusetts policy is that of choosing the best option for a given task, whether its commercial software or open source. Also stipulated is support for open standards to avoid product lock-in.

As Massachusetts Administration and Finance Secretary Eric Kriss said in announcing the policy, "Our intent is to ensure fair competition between all possible solutions so that the Commonwealth will get the best value for its IT investments."

That doesnt seem like too radical an idea—trying to get the best value for IT investments—but in the world of corporate IT buying, it almost qualifies as subversive ideology. For many companies, the guiding philosophy for IT buying is to get as much as you can from one IT vendor. The perceived benefits are that you have to deal with only one vendor contact and that by being a big customer, you will receive better treatment.

But just because lots of companies do this doesnt mean its right. How can the benefits of getting better value out of better products from competing vendors and open-source providers be superseded by the convenience of not having to deal with multiple vendor contacts? Just how much productivity do you lose by having to talk to more than one vendor? Many readers Ive heard from over the years have made it clear that being heavily invested in one vendors platforms can turn you into a kind of prisoner, unable to escape from a vendor that knows you are locked in to its products.

Its common sense. Which is a better bargaining position: "If you dont take care of our needs, we have no problem moving to one of your competitors" or "We cant stop using your products because were so locked in that it would be disastrous to move to something else, but we do spend a lot of money with you, so please be nice to us"?

This is why I like the new Massachusetts IT acquisition policy. It makes a lot of sense, especially compared with earlier statements from the same group saying that it would give open-source options priority. There are a lot of open-source products that are among the best in their fields, but there are also a lot that arent even close. As Ive said before in this column, companies should always go for the best product for their needs no matter where it comes from— open source, small vendor or big vendor.

I also like the Massachusetts IT policys requirement of support for open standards. Lots of people pay lip service to open standards without reaping their benefits. Massachusetts has done a good job of defining a workable litmus test for supporting open standards.

The policy states that products must be interchangeable. For example, if a Java application server, such as BEAs, is purchased, the applications built on it must also work on IBM WebSphere or Tomcat.

Above all, the approach is designed to avoid lock-in. By following the same policy, companies should be able to avoid situations where the systems they build work with only one vendors products. If enough IT buyers were to follow this policy, we would see much better standards support from all software vendors.

So lets raise a glass to the people at the Massachusetts Information Technology Division who came up with this plan. But come to think of it, by showing such good common sense in coming up with this policy, how long will they be able to last in state government? Lets hope its quite a while.

eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at