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Managing content and cost: government agencies opening up to open source.

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Cost-cutting and operational efficiencies are requirements in most industries, regardless of economic conditions. Yet, given constant budget constraints and taxpayer push back, there are arguably few sectors that have quite as strong a mandate for the implementation of such initiatives as in the government sector.

However, neither companies nor government bodies can run so lean that work can't get done. Additionally, infrastructure such as content management systems must be kept up-to-date to handle a growing vast amount of content. Government entities certainly don't lack content that needs managing. With so many pages of web content necessary to provide their constituents with all of the information they need, government agencies require a system that can easily manage the flow of immense content generated by a variety of bureaus and departments.

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Then, there's also a branding issue of sorts that these government entities must be capable of addressing when the time comes. When public sector companies choose to rebrand themselves because of a new product release or service focus, such a shift will oftentimes require some level of redesign of their websites. This task can be much greater for government websites, which typically need a complete rebranding effort with every new change to the administration.

Thus, the government sector finds itself pinched between two pressure points: the public's demand for content access and up-to-date information and that same public's demand for costs to be kept down.

ENTER OPEN SOURCE

As a result of these technological and economic requirements, open source technology--which allows source code to be publicly available--has quietly become the solution of choice for government entities at the national, state, and local level.

"Until recently, most non-IT types within the government simply didn't know what was running behind the scenes," says John Weathersby, executive director of the Open Source Software Institute (OSSI). "In many documented cases, open source solutions were quietly plugging away, filling gaps and serving as mission critical components for a wide variety of systems."

Such initiatives and the push to widen these solutions' use and appeal have combined to bring more attention to open source as an ideal solution for the government sector. Organizations such as the OSSI are working to expand that userbase even more. The main goal of the OSSI, which was founded in 2001, is to promote the adoption and implementation of open source software solutions within the U.S.--in federal, state, and municipal agencies, says Weathersby. He says much of the focus the past 10 years has been on adoption within the defense and homeland security agencies. OSSI also helped to create Open Source for America (OSFA) a couple of years ago with the mission to promote open source adoption throughout the government sector.

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Of course, technology vendors are also contributing to the movement toward open source. Terry Erisman is director of marketing for DotNetNuke, a company that provides a web content management platform for Microsoft.NET. He says that the company sees the government sector as an emerging market; it currently serves customers in federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. and also has government customers overseas. He says that some of the main reasons government entities turn to open source solutions include the low cost and the ability to eliminate the need for additional IT support, which is also crucial since many don't have the luxury of large IT departments.

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"Today, open source is being recognized for its benefits of technical efficiency, security and program manageability, as well as potential cost savings," explains Weathersby. "The increased exposure of open source is encouraging government IT decision makers to ask, if not require, that an open source option at least be considered as part of new systems or upgrades."

SAVING TIME AND MONEY

Entities at all levels of government are considering it and are having much success implementing the technology. For Whitehouse.gov, the ability to implement the features required in a timely manner was a main reason for selecting Drupal, an open source platform. Rob Klause, who served as web manager to the Executive Office of the President and was responsible for Whitehouse.gov until last December, says a new content management solution was sought when the Obama administration came into office. "As the administration moved more toward that transparency posture and we wanted to make a lot of that happen, the timeline for getting those features developed was too long," explains Klause. "There was a lot of development time involved." The Drupal platform enabled Klause's team to quickly launch the features they wanted without the long development time.

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While a change in administration was the impetus behind Whitehouse.gov moving to open source, for some local governments, the goal to solve inefficiencies in an economical manner was the driving force.

Coleen Cason, webmaster for York County, Va., says that money was one of the main issues that led to her decision to select an open source technology solution. "With state cuts and the economy, we are in the same financial situation as every other jurisdiction around us," explains Cason. "For years, the cost of our website was virtually my salary and the cost of software licenses and that was it." She says she knew a request for about $300,000 for a new content management system would be denied. "I've worked for the local government for 20 years, and when the budget gets tight, we hear 'do more with less.' But now with the current economy, it's become a mandate. I knew that we had to do more with less, and I decided open source was the way to achieve that goal."

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A REALLOCATION OF RESOURCES

For Bryan Weis, chief architect and development manager for Lehigh County, Pa., operational efficiencies as well as a need for an economical solution prompted the motivation behind the implementation of an open source system that could manage the Lehigh County website and provide a better web experience for site visitors. Weis says that he wanted to remove the task of maintaining website content from IT staff members so they could focus more on application development.

"There are times and have been times when new leaders have been put into place, and they wanted to revamp the public image drastically, such as something as minor as it may seem--like changing fonts, colors, or graphics on the website--but do it across the board to 650 pages," explains Weis. "We now have the capability of doing that easily because we've instituted a platform that allows us to get underneath the actual program." The open source platform provides Weis and his staff access to the source code, so changes can be made quickly and easily. He says that more staff would have been required to accomplish the same goal before the DotNetNuke platform was put in place.

For Cason, managing the site's content had become an increasingly large task over time, with more than 20,000 pages and files. At that point, there were about 40 content contributors and only one web-dedicated resource in Cason. "Each time there was a change to a page or a new file had to be added, I was the one who updated the site," she says. "That meant I had to be at a PC that had the software loaded on it, which sometimes caused a delay in getting the new information on the site, especially if I was out of the office." She, like Weis, chose DotNetNuke's free community edition product.

Cason says that it was important that the county's content management solution be easy to learn and easy to use, especially since she had to lead the implementation and training processes. This was especially crucial since she wanted to shift the responsibility of updating content to the individual departments and agencies within the county. "I wanted something that would be familiar to them," and since DotNetNuke is a Microsoft product, "if they can use Word, they can use [DotNetNuke]," says Cason.

Now, the content management processes are completely in the hands of the content creators, which have increased in number from about 40 to about 70. "If someone is responsible for one page, I can give them access to that one page or one module on that page," says Cason.

Cason says that this came in handy during a recent storm. The county's PIO officer was unable to get to the office, but she could still update storm and closing information from her home. "They don't have to wait for me to publish," says Cason of the content contributors. "These are people with little web experience. But they do know their content, and they keep it up-to-date. They know the priority, what needs to go up and when, much sooner than I would."

CREATIVITY NOT AMONG THE CUTS

While these government entities are saving money by using open source to power their content management systems, this direction is not costing them their creativity, users say. They're actually enabling more freedom and creativity to accomplish goals that were previously out of reach.

Klause says that one of the most prominent benefits Drupal yielded was improved search functionality on Whitehouse.gov. Search results are now "faceted, sliceable, and diceable across all different content types. You can filter them by blog entries, press releases, certain dates. They are sortable and filterable, and that is a powerful thing." Klause says the site is set to launch mobile features in the near future.

Cason notes how she can now easily update the look and feel of the website and enable her content contributors to do the same. DotNetNuke customers have access to Snowcovered.com, an online marketplace from which they can purchase more than 6,000 skins and modules from almost 800 different vendors.

Cason says after she downloaded the DotNetNuke system (which took just minutes and was free of charge), she purchased the skin for less than $30, and the site was up and running in 1 day. Cason says she can purchase modules, such as calendars and document modules, photo galleries, and subscription email modules at a low cost (less than $40 each) and provide such features and functionality to all of the site's content contributors without having to do any coding herself. "It's given me new ways to provide the content or the vehicle for their content by way of these modules," adds Cason. "Someone can call me and say they want photos up of an event. I can give them a couple of choices of photo galleries. It's opened up the vehicle by which we present the content to the user."

"Other benefits of open source include the fact that the development and distribution model encourages transparency and interoperability," explains Weathersby. "A cornerstone of the 'open source concept' is your ability as a user or developer to have access to the human-readable source code. With this access, an open source license grants you the right to change or fix the code to meet your specific needs."

Weis says that since his team is able to access the source code, they can easily reprogram certain aspects of the site. For instance, they now can offer a seamless single sign-on for site visitors who previously had different usernames and passwords for each database or service they used. "Because we can control the source code, we can control authentication and provide a single sign-on experience, which also reduces our support overhead," explains Weis. "It's great for a user to only have to remember one username and password. That is one or two fewer phone calls to our help desk when people forget their passwords, so there are some soft savings we've realized as well."

However, experts stress that a viable, fully featured open source will not be free. Community versions are free, but vendors offer more robust offerings for a fee that some entities opt to implement because they also want the security of such add-ons as telephone and online technical support.

Both Weis and Cason upgraded their free systems to DotNetNuke's paid professional edition shortly after their initial launches in order to gain additional features and functionality, such as access to DotNetNuke's knowledgebase and technical support. However, both say that the solution is still more affordable than other products available in the market. Erisman says that 75% of DotNetNuke's customers use the free version before they upgrade to paid services.

Now, Weis and his team have more control over elements of security on the site's webpages. They can grant individual permissions to users or groups of users who need to edit specific portions of a webpage or segments of the site. "We can centrally manage security but also distribute the management and editing of the content," says Weis.

"That, in particular, is not something specific to open source, but some of the packages out there that offer the same power are pretty expensive. And our goal was to offer the functionality and also minimize the cost."

Klause also notes how, overall, open source provided the foundation for increased functionality, which can be used to offer features today and in the future. Once the new Whitehouse.gov content management system launched, Klause says it signified "an open road in front of us. We were finally putting in features we want to put in and are starting to entertain the idea of having a two-way conversation on the website and the idea of user participation."

Klause started working with Whitehouse.gov in 2006, under the Bush administration. He left for 1 year before returning to work on the Obama transition. He says that when the next new administration enters office, in either 3 or 7 years, it will have a solid content management platform on which to further develop its web presence.

Overall, Klause says that the decision to select and implement an open source solution resembles the process involved in bringing in any new technology project. "A lot of agencies asked how we got open source in the door," he says. "It's really no different than an off-the-shelf solution. We followed the same methodology. We defined our requirements and found a solution that met those requirements. From that point on, you do the same thing you do with an off-the-shelf solution with the due diligence."

AN INNOVATIVE FUTURE

Experts predict that as open source technology continues to enable such innovation and provide these solutions in a cost-effective manner, use within the government sector will also expand.

"In this current phase, open source is regarded as 'novel,' even 'trendy.' As vendors offer more open source options to government users, the adoption will continue to grow," says Weathersby. "As open source becomes more ubiquitous in government systems, the novelty of the term will fade, but the benefits realized through wisely deploying open source solutions will guarantee that it will continue to grow and evolve to meet IT needs in government and industry IT systems."

Erisman says that DotNetNuke will continue to work to make its solutions even easier for those government users to deploy. He says that the company is currently exploring cloud computing solutions.

In January, Klause joined Siteworx, an interactive agency that helps clients build strong web and mobile presences, where he continues to help further the use of open source technology in the government sector. In his new role as an open source practice manager, Klause says he helps determine if clients (from government to the private sector) can be helped by an open source solution, and how they can build the best solution for their needs. It's that empowerment of the user that will likely keep momentum for open source going.

As a programmer himself, Weis says he appreciates the whole open source movement because it enables the availability and accessibility of creative solutions to solve a variety of content management problems. "Because of that, it really spawns creativity and advancement in technology specific to the web," he says. "That whole approach is what's going to move us forward as far as technology goes. It's no longer a few major players that control the industry and where the market is going, but now we've got outlets where individual creativity and expression can perhaps advance all of us."

Companies Featured In This Article

DotNetNuke

www.dotnetnuke.com

Drupal

www.drupal.org

Open Source for America

www.opensourceforamerica.org

Open Source Software Institute

www.oss-institute.org

Siteworx, Inc.

www.siteworx.com

MARJI MCCLURE (marjimcclure@sbcglobal.net) is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.
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Author:McClure, Marji
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Date:Jul 1, 2010
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