WhiteHouse.gov now runs Drupal. What took it so long?

Given the U.S. federal government's widespread adoption of open source, the amazing thing is that it took so long.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

There's a lot of buzz today on the Obama Administration's decision to run WhiteHouse.gov on Drupal, the popular open-source Web publishing system. Given the U.S. federal government's widespread adoption of open source, however, the amazing thing is that it took so long.

After all, other areas of the U.S. federal government have been involved with open source for years. From the Department of Defense to the Small Business Administration to the OSHA, U.S. federal adoption of open source is remarkably strong.

It is now, anyway. This is a big shift in the federal attitude toward open source.

Back in 2004, I worked in the Linux Business Office at Novell and met with the CIO for the U.S. Senate. He knew about open source and admitted that other departments were dipping their toes in it, but the Senate was a decidedly Microsoft shop and had no plans to change.

While I don't have an update on the U.S. Senate's adoption of open source, the rest of the government seems to have gone far beyond "toe dipping." Open-source adoption throughout the U.S. federal government is rampant, and started long before President Obama took office.

NASA's Nebula platform is just one example of how the government is actively using open-source technologies (like Apache SOLR, RabbitMQ, MySQL, and Eucalyptus), but also contributing back.

Unlike other geographies, which have relied on government mandates and preferences to accelerate open-source uptake, the U.S. government hasn't been the driving force in open-source adoption, or even the primary force. U.S. public and private sectors have been equally enthusiastic about open source.

For example, it's nice that WhiteHouse.gov runs Drupal, but adoption in the private sector by FedEx, Sony Music, and many others precedes President Obama's choice of Drupal.

The open-source train has left the building. Even companies like Qualcomm, the patent powerhouse that has traditionally disdained open source, are making open source a core business strategy. Qualcomm is setting up a subsidiary to focus on mobile open-source platforms.

Yes, pigs can fly.

What's driving this adoption? It's not necessarily open source's price tag. After all, in the short term, open source isn't necessarily less expensive, once you factor in migration costs, retraining, etc. (Note: you'd hit these same costs even if you moved to a different proprietary system.)

Of course, proprietary software is no bargain-basement cost saver, either. Even Windows 7, that no-brainer IT decision in the wake of Vista's pain, could cost enterprises as much as $1,930 per instance, according to Gartner.

No, in my experience, open source is winning converts because it gives CIOs more control of their destiny.

In part such control stems from the nature of competition itself. As open source proves itself a viable contender for CIO dollars and thereby spark price competition, CIOs save, as Novell CMO John Dragoon notes.

But open source's superior value proposition goes deeper. Open source calls into question the highly profitable maintenance fees that Oracle, SAP, and traditional software vendors use to juice their earnings, but which do little to help customers.

In fact, the traditional software economy can be downright hostile to buyers, as Ingres CEO Roger Burkhardt opines.

Open source is different. Because the code is open, open-source vendors are forced to deliver a constant stream of value to justify subscription renewals. ZDNet's Dana Blankenhorn captures this well:

When you can see the code you have a different relationship with it. You're no longer asking what it can do. You're asking how you can adapt it to your needs.

With code visibility, you and your vendors become partners in trying to make something work. The vendor can't over-promise, but you can't over-assume either. This may be one of main hidden reasons for IT failure, the two sides of the transaction not being on the same page.

It's not surprising, therefore, that Red Hat continues to be the CIO's darling for lowering costs and delivering value. It's also not surprising that the Obama Administration adopted Drupal for WhiteHouse.gov.

No, what is surprising is that it took so long.