The federal Treasury Board plans to massively consolidate the number of websites it operates, prompting Ottawa’s open source industry to push for wider government adoption of a free platform that would unlock greater contracting opportunities for those tech service providers.
© Cole Burston
Opin CEO Chris Smith.
There are currently more than 1,500 Government of Canada-owned URLS, according to an e-mailed statement from Matthew Conway, a spokesperson for Treasury Board president Tony Clement.
Officials want to reduce that to six or fewer websites as part of a broader modernization effort aimed at making it easier for citizens to digitally navigate their way through federal services.
At the same time, Mr. Conway said the government intends to consolidate and standardize the many platforms and tools used to support the federal government’s vast web presence.
Without providing specific details, Mr. Conway said the Conservatives would select their standardized set of tools through an open competitive process. That’s something industry observers say could pit the proprietary web content management systems developed by tech heavyweights such as Microsoft, IBM, HP and Adobe against not just one another, but also a network of open source developers pushing a platform known as Drupal.
Unlike “closed” systems, open source software can be freely redistributed and improved upon. Proponents argue this translates into financial savings for users and a higher-quality product, since it’s theoretically been produced by a community of thousands of developers, rather than a comparatively small team within a company.
The challenge is that unlike companies that stand to collect licensing revenues from enterprise users such as the federal government, by definition there’s no one business that will directly profit from the adoption of open source software and thus no default organization to lead a response to a federal tender.
“It’s not easy to sew together an (open source) proposal to compete against Microsoft, or another large corporation,” said Christopher Smith, the CEO of Opin, an Ottawa-based enterprise content management systems provider.
If, however, the government does select Drupal as one of its official platforms, it would open lucrative contracting opportunities to open source developers.
That’s caught the attention of companies such as Massachusetts-based Acquia, which sells products and services to support and implement Drupal-based systems and was the lead sponsor of the inaugural Ottawa Drupal Camp, a two-day session held late last month at the University of Ottawa.
In an interview, Acquia CEO Tom Erickson said his company is prepared to lead a response on behalf of the open source community when the government asks the industry for information or formal proposals.
“That’s exactly what we’ve done with other governments around the world,” said Mr. Erickson, who was joined in Ottawa by Todd Akers, vice-president of Acquia’s public sector department
Indeed, various U.S. states, the White House, the Ontario government and the City of Ottawa are all reported to be using open source software to power their websites.
What’s expected to make the Government of Canada project different is the massive consolidation effort that’s to take place alongside the migration to a new platform, said Mr. Erickson.
Some industry observers noted they expect the federal government will publish a request for information from the proponents of both proprietary and open source content management systems.
Federal officials are expected to be looking for proof that a platform can meet its technical requirements, as well as evidence of a sufficient pool of reliable companies capable of building, hosting and maintaining Drupal websites.
Any team of references is likely to include big IT integrators like CGI that have a large consulting base. Offered as an example, Mr. Erickson said Acquia has worked with CGI on projects in Canada and the U.S. in the past.
As open source companies await a formal government invitation to submit ideas and proposals, people such as Mr. Akers say they’ll be meeting with federal officials to highlight open source case studies.
“We’re making sure … that the government is aware of what can be done, and that Drupal is enterprise-ready and that there is government-wide adoption in other countries,” he said.
“It’s not a single event. It’s a campaign.”
SIDEBAR: What is Drupal?
Started as a message board in 1999 by Dries Buytaert before becoming an open source platform and content management system for building websites
Free to download and share
This model means developers are constantly collaborating to build new and improved modules.
Drupal enables a marketplace of companies that sell web design, development, hosting, training and other services.
Name is derived from English pronunciation of the Dutch word druppel, which means “drop.”