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NHIN, GlassFish ESB, Open Source, and Federal Technology Procurement Protocols

Posted by editor on October 27, 2009 at 5:40 AM PDT

Back in April, I reported on the National Health Information Network's (NHIN) application of OpenESB as a component of its new software infrastructure. In his Aquarium post yesterday, peligri provided an update on the progress that's being made.

Sun's Bill Vass posted Sun's Open Source Curing Health Care Woes the day after Barack Obama was inaugurated, noting:

The key to any eHealth reform program (no matter the price tag) is to facilitate information sharing across multiple agencies and to eliminate the information silos that exist today, allow the government to reduce costs and errors and to better serve our veterans, senior citizens and disabled.

Figure 1. HIEOS architecture diagram

peligri writes that

Within the HHS, the
is the main entity that coordinates these efforts and it just
has [chosen]
Health Information Exchange Open Source (HIEOS)
as a key portion of NHIN Connect. And,
HIEOS - developed by
Vangent -
is using several of our OpenSource components - see
Architectural Diagram - including OpenESB and GlassFish,
and MySQL.

Can open source save the government money?

peligri added a late note pointing us to Tim O'Reilly's Thoughts on the switch to Drupal. is now running on Drupal, on a Red Hat Linux platform, along with Apache and MySQL. While Tim considers the embracement of open source software by government as "a big win for open source," he also has some doubts about whether adopting open source will significantly reduce government spending on IT:

Of course, it's easy to imagine that the use of open source software will slash the government's IT budget. After all, this software is freely downloadable. I have a feeling it's quite a bit more complicated than that.

First off, government has a huge number of special requirements (remember the flap over President Obama's blackberry?) Second, don't underestimate the difficulty of doing business in Washington. Procurement is done through a complex ballet understood by few open source companies. Third, a big IT deployment like this requires coordination between many companies, each providing a piece of the puzzle.

Still, there's nothing quite like integration into systems in the Federal Government to secure an open source project's future. The Federal Government is the biggest customer/user an open source project can find.

Technology procurement protocols: changes coming soon?

Having worked in a government contracting environment for decades (I'm among those who actually have seen the "procurement ballet" up close), I do see some possible issues that may soon arise. Take, for example, GlassFish ESB. This is an open source project, but it receives a lot of support from Sun. A big part of procurement rules is avoiding conflicts of interest, or the appearance of conflicts of interest. For example, I, as a contractor, cannot buy lunch for the government person who contracts with me to do some work.

Consider requests from the government for enhancements to an open source project that receives significant support from a corporation. Now, consider also that corporation bidding for a different contract (for example, to provide servers to a government agency). If the corporation quickly brings the government's requested enhancements to the top of the list, and provides extra development resources to get those changes completed as soon as possible, while at the same time it is bidding for a contract to sell hardware to perhaps the same agency -- isn't that going to give the appearance of a conflict of interest? That could be construed as giving someone in government quite a big free lunch.

So, while it's great that government is beginning to adopt open source software, I think there are some issues, involving the interaction between corporations that support open source projects and also seek to sell servers or other technology to the government, that are going to have to be worked out somewhere down the line. The government's adoption of open source software ultimately necessitates a new set of technology procurement protocols. Until these protocols are in place, open source is open to being perceived by some as a tool that corporations can use to game the government technology procurement process.

In Java Today, peligri reports on NHIN Connect Using GlassFish and OpenESB:

The importance of information exchange in Health Care will continue to grow
and the Federal Goverment has several projects to improve it, while also trying to reduce costs.
as Bill wrote earlier in the year,
Sun's Open Source has been
actively engaged in this. Added - Just noticed Tim O'Reilly's note on
WhiteHouse.GOV's stack. They use MySQL, Drupal and Apache...

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