by Rodney Gedda

NSW Office of State Revenue CIO reflects on five successful years of open source

Oct 01, 2009
Business IntelligenceGovernmentGovernment IT

With open source software running core parts of its internal IT systems for at least five years, the NSW Office of State Revenue is no tenderfoot when it comes to open alternatives. CIO David Kennedy recently spoke to CIO to reflect on the challenges and achievements the government agency has had with open source technology and to offer advice to other CIOs on how to develop a successful open source strategy.

Kennedy says open source technology is here to stay and the real challenge facing CIOs lies in delivering services around them.

“Not all open source coders are fanatics,” Kennedy says. “Open source is worth considering because if it fits the purpose in the whole ‘value-for-money’ equation, entertain the idea. Look at Web servers — Apache is ahead and so too is Firefox with Web browsers.”

The OSR is one of the principal revenue collection agencies of the NSW government and processes about $15 billion a year in taxes. According to Kennedy, a focus on modernising the agency’s core systems from proprietary platforms to Java-based, Web-enabled systems has given rise to an open-framed environment, from backend to front end, using a mixture of Windows and Linux. Much of OSR’s backend infrastructure currently runs on Linux, and a great deal of development work has been done on the “open” infrastructure.

“Everyone thinks open source is free but nothing is ever free,” Kennedy says. “We apply the same rigour to open source that we do to commercial products.”

Kennedy strategy is to evaluate the merit of all software on its capability to address a business need, as well as its cost, regardless of whether it is open source or proprietary. For example, OSR’s enterprise service bus (ESB) was built on open source, but when the agency went looking for a product it investigated an offering from Cognos as well as open source alternatives.

“Our core focus is to move from being a technology provider to being a service provider,” Kennedy says. “We will do what is best and open source is high as a strategic direction, as is virtualization. [Open source] should be treated as no differently, but not ignored.” The OSR’s information management strategy has three pillars — simplification, rationalisation and modernisation – and Kennedy claims that open source software has become a key enablement technology in maintaining that strategic approach.

While the OSR’s official open source strategy has been in place for some time, there are indicators that suggest adoption was driven by activity at the coalface as much as it was a top-down directive. Some five years ago, NSW OSR’s then-CIO Mike Kennedy told lt;igt;Computerworldlt;/igt; the agency was using commodity hardware running Linux, which it has continued to do ever since. At first Debian GNU/Linux was used, but in 2002 the system was migrated to the commercially-supported Red Hat Enterprise. This makes the OSR a very early adopter for an organisation of its size and complexity.

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Over the past five years the OSR’s open source strategy has become more formally recognised within the agency, but the Kennedy says the role the technology depends largely on where organisations intend to deploy it.

“On the backend Linux is not high risk — if you want to have a go, it’s a very minimal risk,” Kennedy says.

“For us, open technology gave us the ability to easily look at the capability versus risk. Also, the speed to market in the Java environment we have enables us to make changes and keep our systems flexible.”

Kennedy also praises the open source Java space, saying “you don’t have to write everything from scratch”, as compared to commercial application environments where “once you want something else, you have to build or buy it”.

“We’re always looking to optimise costs,” Kennedy says. “Open source won’t ever be free, but the ROI from a productivity and efficiency gain perspective is what drives it.”

“Open source provides another avenue to meet the business need. From the business perspective, they don’t care — they have accepted that we make the decisions.”

Kennedy believes that if any CIO were asked if they believe in open standards and open systems, they will say yes — “as long as it is on a mainframe”, he says.

“You may as well ask the CIO if the Internet is the way forward,” Kennedy says, adding that most organisations have been flirting with open source and open standards for quite some time.

“If Microsoft brought out a version of Linux no one would bat an eyelid. Vendors are happy to leverage open source, but the question is whether CIOs will do the same.”

In addition to Linux, the OSR’s mix of open source software includes MySQL, PostgreSQL, Xen, Firefox and, which Kennedy says “competes well” with Microsoft Office since version 3.0 was released.

“The last thing you would get rid of is Windows on the desktop, but since XP has been stationary for nearly 10 years a lot of people will look at an alternative,” Kennedy says.

Kennedy says that according to OSR’s developers, running Linux and Firefox on the desktop “makes their lives easier”, especially when it comes to Web application testing.

“When we develop for the Web browser we can’t really debug IE in the same way we can debug an open source browser. Firefox gives a strategic advantage, for free.”

Moreover, the OSR is a supporter of open source penetration testing tools, which Kennedy believes are more user-friendly than their commercial counterparts because “thousands of people are looking at the code”.

Recently, Kennedy has been overseeing an ESB integration layer and enterprise reporting with BI based on an open source Pentaho backend.

“Now we are getting a lot of traction with the business, because it is realising the benefits,” he says.