As originally published in Ottawa Technology
By Adam Feibel
A massive revamp of the federal government’s online presence is expected to pit proprietary software giants against a growing number of open-source competitors.
The Government of Canada is currently under construction — or at least, its website is.
Last year, in an effort to consolidate the more than 1,500 federally owned URLs spanning some 100 departments, the Treasury Board announced it would be revamping the government’s web presence by limiting and standardizing the platforms and tools used to power its websites.
Now, we have Canada.ca – but not completely. The government debuted a prototype of the new website last December. With only a small percentage of its web pages moved over to the new address, it’s really a teaser of what’s to come. Most links still lead to existing departmental pages, but the point is to eventually eliminate the multitudinous gc.ca addresses and instead nestle them all under Canada.ca over the next four years.
First, they’ll have to pick a content management system (CMS) provider to carry out the task.
The government put out a request for information on Aug. 1 to gather information about what potential suppliers are able and unable to provide, whether there’s anything the government missed in its plan and whether companies would respond to a future request for proposals (RFP).
Multiple vendors responded to the request for information, and the department is now in the process of aggregating and analyzing it ahead of a full RFP, expected to come in the next few months.
The process is expected to draw proposals from tech giants such as Adobe and Oracle, but several smaller companies operating on an open-source content management platform called Drupal are hoping they can undercut the proprietary bidders.
Unlike proprietary software, which is created and developed by a limited and relatively small team of programmers, open-source software is redistributed and constantly improved upon by a vast community of programmers who use the software under a free license.
Drupal is an open-source framework used as the back- end for roughly seven per cent of websites worldwide (the third most popular behind WordPress and Joomla), according to Open Source CMS.
It’s also become the CMS of choice for many of the world’s government organizations, powering the websites of the White House, the Government of Ontario, the City of Ottawa, and a smattering of outgoing gc.ca addresses.
“It’s hard today to argue that Drupal is not the de facto standard worldwide for government websites,” said Mathieu Weber, the Canadian director of Acquia, a Drupal software-as-a-service provider.
In September, the Australian government announced that it had chosen Acquia to handle a consolidation process very similar to Canada’s current project. The United Kingdom also went open source in 2012 with the consolidated gov.uk website.
Those in the local open-source sector have their fingers crossed that the Canadian federal government will officially join the Drupal ranks.
“If it’s not enough that it’s free, and ( that) it’s more leading- edge than proprietary, then at least we can say that all our neighbours are doing it,” said Chris Smith, chief executive officer of OPIN, an Ottawa-based enterprise content management systems provider that Mr. Smith said partnered with “one of the larger system integrators” and a support company to respond to the RFI this summer.
LAYING THE GROUNDWORK
When the federal Treasury Board announced the government’s web consolidation plans last year, Acquia said it was prepared to lead the opensource community when the government asked for proposals.
Acquia submitted a response to the RFI, provided input on a draft RFP, and “remains actively involved with the national Drupal community in anticipation of the final RFP,” said Mr. Weber.
The Massachusetts-based company hasn’t been banging on Canada’s door every day, but the company has been steadily pushing Drupal locally and internationally.
“Acquia has invested selectively in a handful of markets where there’s a huge opportunity to leapfrog,” said Mr. Weber. “Canada is one of those countries.”
There are about a half- dozen Drupal-based companies in Ottawa alone. The community is strong, with regularly occurring events such as the annual DrupalCamp Ottawa, largely sponsored by Acquia, and the monthly DrupalYOW meetups.
Programmers cite a number of benefits, and some drawbacks, of running on Drupal and other open-source software. One of the main advantages is that problems have an easy fix, according to Steven Muegge, a professor with Carleton University’s technology innovation management program.
“All software has defects when it’s first written,” said Mr. Muegge. “When the source is available, it’s easier to detect those defects and do something about them. Others from the community can propose patches to correct those, and they get fixed faster.”
Open-source systems also mean there’s less lock-in to any particular vendor, he said. Mr. Weber added that a Drupal-based solution is “bar none the most secure and has the most eyes watching it,” to help avoid government web security crises. Perhaps above all else is the cost savings and local economy boost that come with open source.
“As a taxpayer, I very much want my government to be building systems on top of open source software,” said Mr. Muegge. “I believe it’s good for economic development, it opens the business up to smaller companies and entrepreneurs, and that’s a very important source for innovation in our economy.”
Drupal detractors tend to cite a steep learning curve, a lack of “backward compatibility” – the ability of a modern system to read files generated by its predecessors – and some potential usability headaches dependent upon one’s needs and specs, such as memory usage and coding type.
Those in favour of proprietary CMS argue that developers and managers whose jobs and revenues depend on the program are more accountable than open-source users in terms of consumer satisfaction, and that an open source CMS isn’t as worry-free as its proponents claim.
Shawn Cruise, vice-president of Adobe Systems Canada’s public sector, said in an e-mailed statement that “organizations should choose the technology that best fits their specific needs,” and that its proprietary CMS solution offers “the best choice for customers in both public and private sectors for web experience management, helping them control costs while keeping focus on their core business and mission.” Adobe did not indicate whether the company would be submitting a proposal for Canada.ca.
Asked whether Public Works and Government Services Canada, the contracting authority for the RFP, will be looking into an open source framework for the new website, a spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement that the Government of Canada will “consider all viable options.” The government won’t divulge information about vendors, but sources say both open-source and proprietary providers have responded to the request for information.
According to open-source developers, the future at Canada.ca looks good for them.
“The odds are pretty high, based on the way that other governments have realized the cost benefit,” said Mr. Smith. “I think if our government were to choose proprietary, it would be a surprise.”