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HUD software disaster - open source the answer?

The spin on the street is that open source will save the government from future software boondoggles. Expect to see lots more of these articles, all with a common solution suggested.

>HUD's Financial Woes Continue

> n 1999 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was unable to account for $59 billion and, at the time, placed much of the blame on the federal agency's financial-management computer systems. Four years later, despite hundreds of millions of dollars being paid to federal contractors to fix the problem, HUD still cannot rely on these systems to account for its funds.
>HUD is totally dependent upon the vendor for software modifications, maintenance, and enhancements because the vendor owns the source code for the system. ... despite the fact that the HUDCAPS financial system is "outdated technology," and no longer even available, the taxpayers will continue to pay for it because the contractor owns the source codes.

open and shut?
Thursday, April 24, 2003

Theres two issues with this:-

Firstly open source is very useful for software where large numbers of people will use it and where the sum of the parts is far greater than the bits each person adds to it. Mysql is the perfect example of this, because of the quality of the core product companies are willing to support or even supply enhancements (transactions, replication) as they only need to pay for the missing bits they really need leaving the rest to others.

Custom software is different. If no one else wants it or is interested in it you are not going to gain anything by open sourcing it. To solve the problems all you need is access to the source code and people that really understand it. While access is to the source code is usually available (at a price) access to people that understand it may not be. Lets be honest here who is going to leave $100,000 or so at EDS, Accenture or IBM for a government role.

The second issue is a simply one. Poorly specced systems lead to systems that work poorly (or don't work at all). Because of the size of most government software projects (large, ambitious) the amount of time required to write the system means that its requirements will have changed 2-4 times during development due to changes made from on high. The solution to this is not open source but making systems smaller (with shorter development time and a shorter life cycle) with common interfaces between their bits. Open source is not a solution in this world, web services are.

Ben Thompson
Thursday, April 24, 2003

In terms of pie-in-the-sky thinking, there should be a social process where people can see the status of these projects.  Obviously there is more to project success than just code, but shining a flashlight into these places never hurts.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Well said Ben.

WebServices might not be the answer that many have claimed but for projects like this they are the best architecture available.

By using WebServices not only do you get smaller systems that are easier to maintain, but more than one system can rely on them. So if HUD needs "Function X" and FDA also needs "Function X", it need only be written once. It also means that when the laws change that effect "Function X", they need only be changed in one place.

The other upside to WebServices is that they can be exposed to the public. This would benefit companies in the private sector that write systems that use tax tables, HUD forms, etc.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

"Available source" may be more appropriate for software written for a specific entity.

Before signing the contract, the HUD should have ensured that the vendors would supply the source code.

Thursday, April 24, 2003

Open source won't make a skerrick of difference to this sort of scenario.

The same large consulting firms will still be in there gouging the taxpayer for tens of millions, delivering shoddy work and holding the customer to ransom.

Do you really think, that in a complex business system like this, the availability of the source code will magically clean up the mess? Who's going to do it?

Government analyst
Thursday, April 24, 2003

I should have made it clearer.

1) IBM / EDS and so will somehow or other tie you in for the long haul. As I said before even if you have access to the source code that doesn't mean you will have access to anyone that knows it and can help you.

2) In largescale developments requirements and specs are going to change during development. Large companies love this as it means they need to keep their expensive architects on the project all the time (along with the service manager, site liaison manager, team lead project manager, multiple project managers)..

3) The solution to this is not access to source code or programmers but simplification and separation (writing one program that does task X, another for task Y). Web services and the elk means that this is now saleable in areas that dcom and corba were not. Of course its also the things that large consultancys will hate more than anything else (small programs, short development time, short life cycle = less time to get claws in and feast).

Ben Thompson
Thursday, April 24, 2003

No, this is just a disaster, and open source is not a band aid solution here.

However, Open Source is certainly a solution to many government software projects.

People are getting confused between the fact of Open Source will NOT create such a application, but in fact can help the government use more standards.

Simply put, the solution is for companies (and governments) to insist that vendors supply the source code. This does not require open source.

Most of the time, my clients do NOT insist on source code, but some do.

Anyway, lets get back to how open source can help the governments.

A very good example of using open source is the UK government needed a encryption system for about 10,000 PC’s in the government. At $100 per pc, that adds up real quick to 1 million dollars for this small package.

So, what did they do? They hired two developers, and those developers used a open source encryption product with ALMOST the features they needed. Less then $250,000 later those developers added the need features to the open source product, and the government thus saved $750,000.

However, the above is not the real kicker, fact is now the French government is thinking of using that package, and it will cost them nothing!

Once governments figure out that projects can be shared among themselves, then this open source model will turn into a flood.

Imagine if the French government puts together a system to manage all the schools  (student marks, student registrations, Human resources etc etc etc).

By using open source, then England, Canada, US, Italy and on down the line can now benefit from that system. Further, perhaps the Canada schools might have budget left over, and now web enable the system. Once again, all parties and governments involved now get a web component for free.

Note that all private schools, and even those commercial “IT” training schools around the world would also benefit from being able to use the School management system. Thus, many people, and even commercial business/private schools will benefit from the government spending. After all, everyone is supposed to benefit from government spending.

Once governments realize that open source is much like building libraries, and roads, they will quickly realize the savings to be had. While the government need roads, so does commercial business.

Note that by open souring these kinds of projects, none of these systems will be built by developers for free, or out of the goodness of their heart. Developers on open projects tend to higher paid then average anyway.

Thus, the open source model for governments around the world to share software expenses is a very powerful concept indeed. Governments are just starting to learn this concept of shared benefits with open source, and that each government that invests money and time into these projects benefits all people using the system around the world.

So, yes, next time HUD might be able to use open source, since then all who need that system can benefit.

Albert D. Kallal
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Albert D. Kallal
Thursday, April 24, 2003

Disclaimer: I have sincere issues with the quality of work your average "alphabet soup" contract house delivers.

let me also point out that it takes two to tango, and train wrecks aren't always solely the fault of the contractor - if the government agency in question refuses to delegate authority for program management but does not have the talent to manage the program themselves, the contractor ends up in the position of trying their best or walking away. And I don't think you get to walk away from too many jobs in this town before you're in bankruptcyville.


Thursday, April 24, 2003

Canadian schools with a budget surplus, Albert?

I guess you really must be from Alberta.

The Word
Thursday, April 24, 2003

Well local systems are just too dissimilar in different countries to imagine a 'standard' open source for something like managing the education system, or any other system.

Certainly in the UK the lack of paper standards in open source is unlikely to promote its use in real systems, let alone the existing contractor relationships with organisations such as EDS and ITNet.  Those relationships restrict innovation by their very nature.

There are other idiocies that could be fixed, like not imposing employment taxes on government funded organisations so that a 10% increase in national insurance doesn't erode basic funds which end up back in the Treasury.

Simon Lucy
Friday, April 25, 2003

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