Open source code could save money, spur tech growth

Published 10:04 am Tuesday, February 14, 2017

By Wyatt Emmerich

Oxford entrepreneur Harley Garrett has an intriguing idea that deserves consideration by our state leaders: Use a portion of Mississippi’s technology budget to promote university-based start-ups using open source code.

Mississippi spends $250 million a year on software to run its government. Much of this software is proprietary code with big national companies. We get locked into the software. Switching becomes impossible. Steep price increases follow. Taxpayers lose.

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Garrett proposes a better way. Working with our university computer departments, the Legislature should create a Center for Collaborative Software Development. A portion of our state IT spending should be set aside to support this. Student teams could design and compete for state software contracts using open source under university supervision. The winners could go on to found successful software companies based in Mississippi.

By using open source software, competition will always be assured and state agencies will save money. The money would stay in the state and fund Mississippi technology companies that could then expand nationwide.

We have brilliant computer gurus at our top universities. But the employment opportunities are greatly limited in Mississippi. So we suffer brain drain. Our best students have to leave the state and work elsewhere for somebody else. Imagine if we could harness this talent, fund Mississippi-based software companies, and lower Mississippi’s massive and inflating IT expenditures all at the same time.

This would require cooperation of state and university leaders, but it can be done with leadership. Other states have done this. We should too.

In the early days of software, everything was proprietary. The software company owned the code. Once you got locked in, it was almost impossible to switch without massive re-training costs. This allowed big proprietary software companies to impose steep price increases.

That situation has been changing with the advent of open source software. Open source software is not proprietary. A new company can acquire the code and compete with the old company. The result is more innovation at a much lower cost.

Last year the federal government began requiring 20 percent of new software to be open source. The policy statement states, “This collaborative atmosphere makes it easier to conduct software peer reviews and security testing, to reuse existing solutions and share technical knowledge.”

I can give you a personal example. Emmerich Newspapers used to buy proprietary software for our websites. Every time we wanted a minor change, we had to pay through the nose. We had big annual software fees. Innovation was slow.

Several years ago, an open source website software came into existence. It’s called Drupal. The software is free. It is modular. We can buy features from thousands of programmers and just plug them into the Drupal framework. We own our own servers and have complete control. Competition is maximized. Innovation is maximized. Costs are minimized.

Even better, we can now employ Mississippi programmers instead of paying some big out-of-state company. It’s a win-win.

This same scenario can be played out on a gigantic scale using the $250 million Mississippi IT budget. Top computer programmers at our universities can compete to write state software as part of their education. Upon graduation they can bid and win state contracts and found new companies. They won’t have to leave the state to get a job.

The first step would be for the Legislature to pass enacting legislation to establish this collaborative center. The center should include the computer department heads of our major universities, Mississippi software experts and state agency heads. State agencies could be directed to allocate 10 percent of their software budget to this collaborative open source software initiative.

All software budgets would be open source. Special efforts would be made to link our skilled programmers on university campuses to the tasks at hand. It would be an incubator.

Virginia offers Mississippi a model. The Virginia Economic Development Partnership coordinates with the state’s 21 two-year and four-year colleges to promote technology start-ups.

Oregon State is another leader. Its Open Source Lab is a nonprofit organization working for the advancement of open source technologies.

I challenge our university and state leaders to create a similar open source lab in Mississippi, working in conjunction with our state agencies.

Wyatt Emmerich is a Mississippi publisher.