This blog comments on a variety of technology news, trends, and products and how they connect. I'm in Red Hat's cloud product strategy group in my day job although I cover a broader set of topics here. This is a personal blog; the opinions are mine alone.
Mark Bohannon is the VP for Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at Red Hat. He was in our Westford facility recently to give a talk and I was able to grab him for a few minutes and sit him down in front of a microphone. Mark has a lot of great insights about how government procures and uses software. In this podcast, he talks about how government attitudes toward open source have changed, the role of government in open source and open standards, and why governments are taking open approaches as they adopt cloud computing.
Gordon Haff: Hello, everyone. This is
Gordon Haff, cloud evangelist with Red Hat. I'm sitting here with Mark
Bohannon, who is the VP for Global Public Policy and Government Affairs at Red
Hat. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Bohannon: It's great to be here,
Gordon. Thank you.
Mark, first of all, tell us a little bit about your background.
been at Red Hat about two and a half years. Prior to joining Red Hat, I was the
General Counsel and Senior Vice President for one of the largest associations
of software companies, working with not only open source but a wide variety of
proprietary as well. Did that for about 10 years, and then I spent much of the
1990s working as an official at the US Department of Commerce on technology,
security, intellectual property issues.
That's great. In this podcast, we'd like to talk about open source and
government ‑‑ and not just US government. I think we sometimes maybe get
focused on one country, but as you know, there are a lot of differences around
also about how some things ‑‑ like cloud computing ‑‑ are developing in
me start off with a big‑picture question. Historically, when I think about
government, they were kind of known for everything was proprietary. A lot of it
was project, one‑off‑based. And yet today it seems that, in a lot of cases,
government is maybe even out in front around open source. What's changed and
how has this evolution come about?
That's a great insight, Gordon. I think that, certainly 10 years ago,
government was still the heavy recipient of fear, uncertainty and doubt about
what open source was. I remember the first time, in 1997, when across my desk
there was a request to review an open‑source license and everyone was like,
"What is this, and what are we going to do with it?" I think, by
contrast today, open source has become very mainstream inside the government. I
think the way to think about government, first of all, there is not one entity.
As you said, we're talking about this globally. We can certainly talk about
governments in general, but it's really going to vary depending on the state of
IT investment that a country has in its government services. Obviously, some
countries are way ahead. Some are still trying to figure out how to modernize
their IT systems to deliver online services to their citizens.
It's important to talk about open source in different
contexts. We can certainly start with the US, where for decades the approach
was to do big, customized, large projects as the way to do IT investment for
the government. But much like the private sector, which saw that as a deep
sinkhole of financial and technical commitment, the government began changing its
One of the ironies is, while the US government may be,
abroad in its trade and intellectual‑property policies, one of the biggest
supporters of proprietary software, which does create jobs in the US, the irony
is I think the US government was probably one of the earliest adopters of open‑source
technology. As you well know, the whole history of SELinux has to do with
collaboration with US government. The US government was one of the first to
say, "We're going to stop doing the big projects and start looking at
things that are more modular, that can be reused, that can be customized and
componentized, in order to benefit from the value that things like open‑source
software and open‑source products provide in terms of that flexibility of
modularity and reuse."
Government is obviously a big consumer of software, big user of software,
but the government also plays a role over and above what, say, a large company
would play in terms of open source and open standards. What do you see the government's
role as being there?
think the government plays a number of roles, and your point about the
government being a big IT user is very important. Keep in mind that the US
government is the largest ICT [Information and Communications Technology]
market in the world. Conservatively, the estimate is they spend about $80
billion a year on ICT. That eclipses almost any other market globally, whether
it is financial, transportation, or anything else. Their decision about the
kinds of technology they will take up through procurement is obviously going to
affect markets, the availability of products, help in the mainstreaming of it.
The second thing that governments can do is make sure that there's not
discrimination. We now have either de facto
or de‑jure policies in over 40
countries that make sure that there is no discrimination based on the kind of
license or the kind of technology that government agencies can use when they're
making choices. It's really about looking at which software is the best value,
the best for the need, and which can achieve long‑term objectives about
modularity and reuse.
At minimum, the role of government is to make sure there's
nondiscrimination, make sure there's a level playing field ‑‑ and, quite
frankly, as they've done in many cases, to address the fear, uncertainty and
doubt about open‑source software that comes from a lot of the large proprietary
do you see things playing out around open standards? There have been a number
of controversies ‑‑ which certainly are, by no means, over – with… I might call
them pseudo‑open standards, perhaps, to be generous. How do you see that
That's a great question. We need to make sure that everyone understands
the difference between open source software and open standards. Open source
software is a model of development of software that has a particular license
that is associated with it, whereas an open standard is a very formal
definition of a standard that has worked its way through an accredited
standards process and which is unencumbered by patent claims or by demands for
royalties or moneys to be able to use it. The most classic examples are many of
the standards we use on the Internet. There may have been at one time patents
associated with them, but we've made sure that there are no patents associated
with those standards so that they can be freely used and adopted without having
to pay royalties.
The issue of open standards has gotten complicated. There
are some recent positive developments and there are recent not‑so‑positive
One of the more positive developments was in the United
Kingdom, which issued its open standards policy in November of last year, after
a three‑year consultation process, that Red Hat and our team in the UK, working
with others, were very active in promoting. It's one of the most progressive
open standards policies that says the government will use, for software
interoperability, standards that do not have patents associated with royalties
or encumbrances so that they can be freely used by any vendor to implement into
their products and grow the vendor base of potential purchases that the UK
government can provide.
On the other hand, we have efforts by some software
companies who want to have more FRAND‑associated standards in the standards
process. We're active in trying to educate that this is not a model that is
good for the software industry. It comes out of the telecom model, which is not
the same as the software model. We're actively working to help educate that
encumbering standards with patents that require royalties or limits on use are
really not where the future of innovation in software is going, and we're very
active in working on that.
Could you just explain FRAND briefly for our listeners?
FRAND, for those who do not know, stands for "fair, reasonable, and
nondiscriminatory." It is a technical term of art in the standards
community, which says that if you do have a patent that's associated with a
standard, you will license it on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory
[terms]. There have actually been antitrust cases recently about what is FRAND.
It's a murky area, because there is no recognized, consistent definition of
what is FRAND. When Red Hat looks at these issues, we think that standards, to
fulfill their role in the software industry, need to be unencumbered by
patents. We're pleased to see that groups like W3C have a no‑patent policy for
their standards, and in fact, we're pleased to see that, on the whole, most
standards in the software industry don't have patents associated with them for
this reason; but it's one thing we have to be vigilant with.
Open standards are important to open source because many of
our customers want things to work together. They want environments to work
together. Open source and open standards are often talked about in the same
breath because they try to get at the same goals of interoperability, being
able to reuse, without being locked into a particular technological approach
which down the road may prove more expensive or less adaptable as missions and
course, open source also essentially gives you this reference platform for an
open standard, which has been another issue, on occasion, with standards that
were ostensibly open but were so complex that nobody outside the original
vendor could actually build them.
Exactly. When you look at it from our customer base, what do our
customers want? They want things to work together. Things work best together
when, in fact, standards are freely usable as they were designed, so that many
vendors can take advantage of those published standards technology to help have
everything work together. It's ultimately in the customers' best interest that
they are not taxed by standards that may have patents associated with them.
What are some of ‑‑ from your perspective ‑‑ the more important dynamics
and developments going on right now? Put another way, what should our listeners
be really keeping their eyes and ears open for?
That's a great question, Gordon. I think there are a lot of things that
they should be keeping their eyes and ears open for in this context, depending
on where they live. If a government is still at the early stages of modernization
‑‑ that is, using IT to deliver more effective and consistent services to its
citizens through the Web ‑‑ there's really a very high likelihood that that
will usually be done based on open source. I was down in Chile in November, and
it was great to see the Chilean government really make a commitment to its
online services. They're using Red Hat Linux and JBoss to actually deliver that
open platform so that services can be delivered. Really, as it was explained to
me, their goal is to make sure that no citizen ever has to stand in line for a
government service. When you see countries starting to talk about
modernization, I think that's a key place where the opportunity for open source
and the likelihood that open source is going to be used is going to be very
In other places I think we're seeing more interesting
developments that really get past the traditional understanding of open source
as operating system or middleware. I'm really excited about where things like
the cloud are going and the desire by many governments, many of whom are at the
more developed level of IT evolution in their systems, looking at cloud and
wanting to make sure that the clouds that they are using ‑‑ which probably in
the government space are going to be private or some kind of hybrid‑private ‑‑
are in fact open, because they want to avoid the vendor lock‑in that occurred
with the old, custom‑built large projects. Cloud is an opportunity to really
make sure they continue to have that message.
The US government "cloud first" policy, for
example, which has been in effect now for about three or four years and which
was really kind of the playbook for where the government wanted to go, really
emphasizes openness, modularity, open source and open standards. Even the current
CIO of the US has really said our policy needs to be default to open and that's
how we need to evolve in terms of cloud, use of APIs, with delivery by mobile,
as well as other systems that they are investigating, to make sure that they
are as open and open source is a key component of agencies looking at what the
That's, of course, been one of the concerns around cloud computing, to
use the term broadly, is that it really [can be] this new mechanism for
centralization of control, for vendor lock‑in, for creating a new proprietary
of all, I think that governments around the world are at different stages of
gaining an understanding of what the cloud is. I think it really depends on
which governments we're talking about and where they are in their investigation
of this. In the US, I think the perspective on cloud is probably a little more
advanced. They were pretty candid about why they went to the cloud. Cloud was
their way of doing two things – data center consolidation, which was taking a
big part of the US ICT budget. Early on, the current administration wanted to
reduce that by several billion dollars, and they've achieved part of their
goal, not all of it.
The second is, as one CIO said, "I've got a problem in
my agency where I have 16 different email systems. How am I going to get around
those legacy barriers? Cloud is the way to do that."
Cloud achieves a lot of IT reform goals that have been the
nub of many government policymakers and budget‑meisters. But they also know
that unless the cloud remains an open platform available to all kinds of
applications, there's a risk that it could repeat itself. I know it's very much
in the forefront of the consciousness of government policymakers who are
working on this. I think the challenge is putting rubber to the road when it
implements the policy.
Predictions. I know predictions are always hard about the future, but
what do you see over the next year or two? We talked in a macro sense about
developments, but in the next year or two, what do you think a hot button or
two is going to be in the open area, the cloud area, the regulatory area?
That's a great question, Gordon. It's important, as we answer that
question, to realize there are a lot of big issues on the minds of policymakers
these days, from, in the US, how do we keep jobs and the economy growing, to
what are we going to do about the fiscal cliff. It's important to understand
there are a lot of big policy issues on the minds of policymakers. As many of
these issues get focused on and take time and attention, I think we'll continue
to see the growing desire, that when government invests in IT, much like the
private sector has done, they do it in a way that is more modular, more reusable,
more effective at scaling and quickly adapting to mission changes. We'll still
always see, from time to time, the big, large‑scale IT projects; but I think
those days are over. And I think that, as we see the growing mainstreaming of
open source in government, we're starting to see it expand to areas like
Increasingly we see, in government procurements, not only
reference to proprietary virtualization products but also saying, "Make
sure KVM is a key component of that." Even, interestingly, the AMQP
standard, which Red Hat has been very involved in developing, we're starting to
see Customs and Border Patrol in the US use AMQP as a key component of, really,
some of their Big Data cloud elements as they try to manage just tons of data
that they have.
I think we're going to start seeing growth in other areas
besides operating systems and middleware, into other areas that we're starting
to see the enterprises go, getting more niche, getting into more refined
implementation environments and therefore starting to see a lot of broader use.
Certainly, the area of Big Data is one where the government has, across the
board, been an active player ‑‑ they just haven't known it ‑‑ for many years.
It starts with the tremendous work of, based on the science, R&D, the
Weather Service, NASA. They've all been Big Data players for years.
I think we're going to start seeing more engagement by the
government in Big Data, and inherently that's going to be more open‑source
discussion, open formats in terms of data, and I'm very excited to see the
government moving into that area.
interesting thing about Big Data is, as you know, in many cases, open source
came onto the scene as a cheaper alternative to proprietary software and then
subsequently increased in functionality and surpassed proprietary software in
around the Big Data space, it's really almost all open source.
You're the expert, Gordon, on this. As I understand it ‑‑ but for open
source, Big Data would not exist. I think that right now what is going on is
the government's really focusing on what can be the kind of tools that enable a
broad base of users to take advantage of Big Data. I expect we'll start seeing
more efforts to do app contests, do the kind of things that, once again,
reinforce open source, but at a different level of the IT stack, at the end‑user
level. I think, inevitably, the focus on open source will continue, I think
it'll become more mainstream. It doesn't mean that those who are worried about
the dynamic innovation of open source won't be worried and try to create fear,
uncertainty and doubt, but I think we have a very positive message and one that
has a lot of positive attributes for the future.
you, Mark. Anything else you'd like to add?
this is great. It's always great to be with my colleagues here in Westford.
Thank you for taking the time.
I'm in the cloud product strategy group at Red Hat. Prior to Red Hat, I wrote hundreds of research notes, was frequently quoted in publications like The New York Times on a wide range of IT topics, and advised clients on product and marketing strategies. Earlier in my career, I was responsible for bringing a wide range of computer systems, from minicomputers to large UNIX servers, to market while at Data General. Among other hobbies, I do a lot of photography and enjoy the outdoors.