Whether its determining what constitutes a milk quality grade or finding out when you can dig for clams in Narragansett Bay, the citizens of Rhode Island are some of the first in the nation who can find their government-issued dictates on systems created with open-source tools.
Rhode Island put itself on the cutting edge of hot-technology uptake last year when it became one of the first state governments to get beyond traditional government conservatism and implement open-source technology. The gamble is paying off: The bill for the states rules and regulations database came in at $40,000—only $6,000 of which was hardware costs—and took one consultant four months working only two days a week to complete.
The project entailed putting a long-awaited rules and regulations database online with MySQL, the open-source database from MySQL AB, of Uppsala, Sweden. The implementation followed a model for open-source deployments called LAMP that includes the Linux operating system, Apache Web server, MySQL database and any of three development languages—PHP, Perl or Python.
The portal, which is available to anyone through the states Web site, runs under Red Hat Inc.s Linux 7.2 and sits on a Dell Computer Corp. PowerEdge server that came with a MySQL database pre-installed.
The idea of using open-source software was proposed by Jim Willis, who put forward the plan when working as an independent consultant for Rhode Islands secretary of state and who was named director of e-government services for that department last month.
Willis had to overcome more than a little skepticism to push open source into the state government. The sticking point for many government IT officials boiled down to the fact that, simply, they had never heard of the open-source technologies and didnt trust them to be enterprise-worthy applications, Willis said. “They were fearful that they had never heard of any of this,” said Willis, in Providence. “Theres a lot to be said for name recognition. When I mentioned using Perl or Apache or PHP, people associated it with freeware, not with being robust tools that people had been working with for years.”
The database isnt large, containing about 300MB of data. It received about 28,000 visitors in its first nine months of operation and is regularly accessed by more than 90 state agencies, some of which file regulatory changes two or three times a week.
: Road to Open Source”>
But the fact that open source has even a toe in government waters is a big deal, experts say, and could lead to larger projects if this modest foray proves stable—which, so far, it has.
“We have been consistently impressed with MySQLs stability and performance,” Willis said. “The file server has had 100 percent uptime since it was launched.”
The initial resistance does not surprise Andrew Binstock, an analyst for Pacific Data Works LLC, who said governments are conservative when it comes to new technology. “Especially for portals, failures are highly visible,” said Binstock, in San Carlos, Calif. “Nobody wants to take the risk of choosing software when they might have the prospect of having some problem” thats experienced by any citizen visiting the portal, he said.
But its visibility makes the Rhode Island installation more potent a demonstration of what open source can accomplish when used by state governments, Binstock said. “This particular project probably is going to usher in other governments exploring these types of open-source solutions,” he said.
Indeed, database administrators for other state governments have been contacting Willis. The state of Hawaii, for example, is working on an intranet that will serve state government employees and that uses open-source components such as Apache, Linux, MySQL, PHP and Python.
Cost savings played a large part in Willis decision to use open source for the database. Before he got involved in computer consulting, Willis was involved in social activism and had done volunteer work to set up community technology access centers so that people with mental illness could get off the street and learn how to use computers. Such work made it clear to Willis that nonprofits had Spartan budgets—something, it turns out, they have in common with governments.
“There can be a lot of idealism in government to do the right thing, but sometimes, theres not the budget to bring the right thing to fruition,” Willis said.
Willis has more open-source schemes cooking but was hesitant to give details. For now, hell steer the state into building on what it has, including a MySQL database listing the members of state boards and commissions thats designed to help throw a spotlight on conflict of interest and separation of powers, he said. Also high on his priority list is to become the point person for other states delving into open source.
“We proved it can work,” Willis said. “Now we dont have that battle anymore. We can just do the cool things we want to do.”