OSDV’s own Anne O’Flaherty presented at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) last week to a workshop on common data formats for election data interchange. As readers will know, we did a pile of work with Virginia State Board of Elections (SBE) this past year. Anne led that project, and her presentation was about it, for the audience of data standards folks. But today I wanted to comment on a question from the audience.

Q: Was there any trouble with the open source nature of the software that SBE adopted? And the cloud deployment? Don’t government IT people often have problems with that?

A: No problems at all! SBE specifically required open source software when they applied for the Federal grant for this project, and specifically wanted cloud deployments.

But the complete answer explains why SBE made those choices, and why differently than other government IT people who have problems with open source or cloud. I can only provide my personal reflections on this of course, but I think that they are instructive.

Common Mis-conception on Open Source

On open source, government IT people often have the wrong problem, thinking that open source means whacked together by volunteers, and you have to deploy and support it yourself. Often true, but not in every case. In this case, the software was available under an open source license that very carefully and specifically addressed the usual concerns of government adopters. And in this case, SBE had an application hosting provider company that they contract with to do cloud deployments of web applications, and provide service and support.

Common Mis-calculation on Cloud Hosting

On cloud, there is a similar mis-understanding, very well illustrated by I.T. procurement options in the VA state government.

  • One option for deploying a new application is to work with the large system integrator to whom VA has outsourced their data center operations for some years now. That is, VA is responsible for the facilities and procurement, and the SI is responsible for deploying application software, supporting the servers and networks, etc.
  • Then there is the cloud option. In that option, it is the hosting company that is responsible for facilities and hardware, and also does everything the SI does in the first approach.

That’s “cloud” — your provider has the physical infrastructure, and you don’t. Once a government IT group has already outsourced data center operations to a for-profit company, then that is really the only difference.

Oh, wait, there is an important difference — cloud providers nowadays are significantly less expensive than is typical of the cost structure defined years ago during a government procurement process for data center outsourcing.

Heres’s a Good Fit

With those mis-conceptions cleared up, consider the opportunity.

  • The cloud is preferable for cost and/or service.
  • The cloud provider is happy to deploy and maintain either or both of
    • commercial software from a vendor,
    • an open-source application from a public software repository.
  • The open-source application has a license (without fee required) that neatly takes care of a number of numbing details of license law particular to governments.

That’s not all there is to it, of course, and cloud deployment isn’t right for everything — for example, the voter record database really does need to be in the state’s datacenter under the direct control of state I.T. people. But in the case of the open-source applications SBE deployed in 2012, both open-source and cloud proved to be a good fit.

— EJS