Managing Content and Cost: Government Agencies Opening Up to Open Source

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Creativity Not Among the Cuts
While these government entities are saving money by using open source to power their content management systems, this direction is not costing them their creativity, users say. They're actually enabling more freedom and creativity to accomplish goals that were previously out of reach.

Klause says that one of the most prominent benefits Drupal yielded was improved search functionality on Whitehouse.gov. Search results are now "faceted, sliceable, and diceable across all different content types. You can filter them by blog entries, press releases, certain dates. They are sortable and filterable, and that is a powerful thing." Klause says the site is set to launch mobile features in the near future.

Cason notes how she can now easily update the look and feel of the website and enable her content contributors to do the same. DotNetNuke customers have access to Snowcovered.com, an online marketplace from which they can purchase more than 6,000 skins and modules from almost 800 different vendors. Cason says after she downloaded the DotNetNuke system (which took just minutes and was free of charge), she purchased the skin for less than $30, and the site was up and running in 1 day. Cason says she can purchase modules, such as calendars and document modules, photo galleries, and subscription email modules at a low cost (less than $40 each) and provide such features and functionality to all of the site's content contributors without having to do any coding herself. "It's given me new ways to provide the content or the vehicle for their content by way of these modules," adds Cason. "Someone can call me and say they want photos up of an event. I can give them a couple of choices of photo galleries. It's opened up the vehicle by which we present the content to the user."

"Other benefits of open source include the fact that the development and distribution model encourages transparency and interoperability," explains Weathersby. "A cornerstone of the ‘open source concept' is your ability as a user or developer to have access to the human-readable source code. With this access, an open source license grants you the right to change or fix the code to meet your specific needs."

Weis says that since his team is able to access the source code, they can easily reprogram certain aspects of the site. For instance, they now can offer a seamless single sign-on for site visitors who previously had different usernames and passwords for each database or service they used. "Because we can control the source code, we can control authentication and provide a single sign-on experience, which also reduces our support overhead," explains Weis. "It's great for a user to only have to remember one username and password. That is one or two fewer phone calls to our help desk when people forget their passwords, so there are some soft savings we've realized as well."

However, experts stress that a viable, fully featured open source will not be free. Community versions are free, but vendors offer more robust offerings for a fee that some entities opt to implement because they also want the security of such add-ons as telephone and online technical support.

Both Weis and Cason upgraded their free systems to DotNetNuke's paid professional edition shortly after their initial launches in order to gain additional features and functionality, such as access to DotNetNuke's knowledgebase and technical support. However, both say that the solution is still more affordable than other products available in the market. Erisman says that 75% of DotNetNuke's customers use the free version before they upgrade to paid services.

Now, Weis and his team have more control over elements of security on the site's webpages. They can grant individual permissions to users or groups of users who need to edit specific portions of a webpage or segments of the site. "We can centrally manage security but also distribute the management and editing of the content," says Weis. "That, in particular, is not something specific to open source, but some of the packages out there that offer the same power are pretty expensive. And our goal was to offer the functionality and also minimize the cost."

Klause also notes how, overall, open source provided the foundation for increased functionality, which can be used to offer features today and in the future. Once the new Whitehouse.gov content management system launched, Klause says it signified "an open road in front of us. We were finally putting in features we want to put in and are starting to entertain the idea of having a two-way conversation on the website and the idea of user participation."

Klause started working with Whitehouse.gov in 2006, under the Bush administration. He left for 1 year before returning to work on the Obama transition. He says that when the next new administration enters office, in either 3 or 7 years, it will have a solid content management platform on which to further develop its web presence.

Overall, Klause says that the decision to select and implement an open source solution resembles the process involved in bringing in any new technology project. "A lot of agencies asked how we got open source in the door," he says. "It's really no different than an off-the-shelf solution. We followed the same methodology. We defined our requirements and found a solution that met those requirements. From that point on, you do the same thing you do with an off-the-shelf solution with the due diligence."

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