July 2009

Open and Secure Solutions for Empowering Governments

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Introduction

Governments of developing nations, like India are investing time and resources to enable e-Governance and online citizen services. This is an important and mandatory aspect for e-enabling these nations. However, the challenges of interoperability and standardisation of Information Technology (IT) infrastructure still needs to be addressed. Lack of standards and interoperable solutions between various government IT departments both at the central and State level, remains one of the biggest hurdle. This article discusses the issues around interoperability and possible open and secure solutions for empowering governments.

Most of the present and upcoming IT projects of the Government of India are implemented independently. Various government departments, both at Centre and State level, come out with their specific requirements and requests for IT. As an example, one department may go for a solution based on Windows operating system, others may opt for Unix. There is no clear cut guideline or standards around architecture or solutions. Different departments, both at the central and state level, having customised requirements set up IT infrastructure and services in an independent way and specific to their immediate requirements. This leads to usage of different technologies with different standards and design. This results in non-standard implementations, leading to interoperability issues, which is further responsible for administrative, management and security issues. Addressing interoperability and standardisation issues is the need of the hour.

Issues around Interoperability

Interoperability is the ability of different systems and different organisations to work together or inter-operate. In terms of IT, interoperability is the ability of various systems, which includes systems, storage, software and network, to inter-operate and talk to each other. If IT systems do not inter-operate, they will work in silos and sharing and collaboration will not be possible.

Interoperability challenges include issues like vendor lock-in and barrier to exit. A solution which is proprietary and vendor specific ties the user to that particular vendor, creating a barrier to exit and, possibly leads to higher costs of managing, sustaining and operations. There is heavy dependence on a particular vendor in terms of upgrades, technology refresh, support and management.

Interoperability challenges and issues can be best addressed by adopting and following solutions based on Open Standards, Open Source and Open Format. Such solutions give choice to the users, do not tie the user into a particular technology or a vendor, are not proprietary and most importantly inter-operate with each other. These solutions are much more cost effective. Governments of developing nations like India, should go in for such solutions and technologies.

Figure 1: Open Solutions

Open Solutions

Governments should deploy solutions and infrastructures based on Open Architectures, Open Standards, Open Source and Open Format. Open technologies should be the foundation of these solutions (see Figure 1). The IT solutions based on Open Standards, Open Source and Open Format ensure seamless integration, flexibility, modularity and easy scalability. Such solutions give choice and comfort to the users, in this case the government departments.

Open Source refers to the approach to make the products source code available to the community. Open Source software and infrastructure creates opportunities, avoids vendor lock-in and barriers to exit. It increases technical literacy, and is an output of community effort and contribution. It helps train the new generation of programmers, innovators and developers and promotes indigenous technology industry, leading to participation, sharing and collaboration. This further spurs growth in the economy.

Open Source solutions can help governments and their e-Governance projects in ensuring seamless integration, participation, sharing and collaboration , exchange data and information without any problem and finally help save overall cost of projects.

Open Standard is a specification whose description is publicly available, which are platform independent and developed collaboratively. Open Standards lead to choice. Following an Open Standard helps in standardising the solutions, which further ensures inter-operability. Inter-operable solutions with Open Standards can help in arriving at service oriented enterprise architectures. Open Standards helps in avoiding vendor lock-in, drive competition and further helps in lowering the overall costs.

An Open Format are published specifications for storing digital data, which basically can be used and implemented by anyone. Open Format is another very important factor to be seriously considered by the government departments. Open Format helps in providing seamless access to information, by improving stewardship of public records, which includes both present and future data records. It leads to better IT governance through inter-operability, also improved quality and accessibility of information and services. It helps eliminate information stove pipes and move to an integrated environment.

With stove pipes, there is no integration of data across different departments. Data may be created and stored by different departments in different manner, leading to different formats. Sharing of such data across departments, an absolutely essential requirement, can be a challenge. This challenge can be addressed by using Open Format Data which can help the government departments to arrive at a one stop single-citizen-view government.

Secure and Open Infrastructure

Government departments should deploy an IT infrastructure to ensure inter-operability, avoiding vendor lock-in and should thrive for a modular, flexible and easily manageable solution. The architecture and technology, should be such, that it should be available from various vendors, or should have Open Source code base.

This approach helps provide platform freedom, be it for a single or multiple departments, and ensures flexible, heterogeneous, and interoperable solution with zero barrier to exit. Governments should go in for such solution stacks. Any IT Solution is generally based on the following stack, and there are Open Source, secure and inter-operable solutions available around each of these layers.

The underlying hardware infrastructure, including servers, storage and network.

  • Operating System
  • Virtualisation for optimisation and consolidation
  • Middleware stack with applications, web services, and access
  • Database Stack
  • User accessibility

The architecture chosen, for the proposed solutions should be independent of the vendor, should preferably be open source, should be able to run multiple flavours of Operating Systems and applications, ultimately providing full freedom and choice to the user. Government users and decision makers may choose from Intel, AMD or OpenSPARC platforms. Intel and AMD platforms will run any flavour of Operating System, be it Windows, Linux or Unix. The choice is left to the user and the type of application, the best part is one can switch from one operating environment to another as on need basis.

Figure 2: Open Infrastructure Solutions

For Mission critical back end, secure applications Chip multi-threaded OpenSPARC platforms are highly recommended. The source code of the OpenSPARC processor is Open Source and if need be, government departments can use the same to develop their own processors and architectures. This can be very useful for highly sensitive, secure government requirements. Another innovative approach, towards a complete end-to-end open systems approach is the evolution of Open Storage systems. Open Storage is an approach that uses Open Software (like the open source Zettabyte filesystem), Open Architecture with industry standard common components and Open inter-operability.

Open Storage uses industry standard hardware and Open Source software to implement storage solutions that scale better and lead to an overall lower total cost of ownership, compared to close proprietary alternatives. This innovative, open and inter-operable approach is strongly recommended for government enterprises. The underlying network infrastructure should also be based on Open Network technology, that utilises common components, open source software which help in seamless integration with existing and future environments.

The next layer, above the infrastructure architecture is the Operating System. Operating System is one of the most important parameters in this stack and its choice is very crucial. Operating System is the interface between the user and the underlying hardware. The ease of use of the system, its security, availability, reliability and management depends on the type of Operating System environment. Users have a choice of choosing Windows, Linux or Unix. It is however, strongly recommended to opt for an Open Source operating system. This gives freedom and choice to the user, which is actually a must for government enterprises. Open Solaris is one such Open Source operating system with unmatchable feature set. It provides highest availability, reliability, maximum security and easy manageability. The good part is it runs across variety of platforms and architecture which includes Intel, AMD or SPARC platforms. It runs across variety of systems from various vendors. Solaris is supported on over 1000 platforms from various leading vendors, which includes Sun, IBM, HP, Dell, etc.

This again gives complete freedom and choice to the customers and avoids any vendor lock-in.

Next to the Operating System is the Virtualisation layer. Virtualisation is a key technical innovation, which is being seriously considered by various IT enterprises for optimisation and consolidation requirements. Virtualisation  is available at system, storage and network level. System level virtualisation helps create  multiple partitions on same hardware platform, each running same or different version of operating environment. Commercial and free version of Virtualisation softwares are available. Choosing a Open Source version is recommended. Some of the Open Source operating systems like Open Solaris have integrated virtualisation capabilities, which should definitely be utilised for most optimal utilisation of resources.

References and Success Stories

  • Liverpool Direct Limited (LDL) has a vision for 'Joined up Government' to enable shared services around citizen contact centers, benefit services, human resources, payroll and revenue. It is helping transform the way citizens in this British city access public services. They have used T2000 system and Solaris 10 technologies to implement these services. Solaris 10 has an Open Source code base for most of its components and so is the processor technology in T2000. Most of the governments across the globe have the vision of 'Joined up Government' and can take cue from this success story for their implementations.
  • The Instituto Nacional De Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), or the National Institute for Space Research, of the Brazilian Government's Ministry of Science and Technology has adopted Open Storage technology for its research around Space and atmospheric sciences.
  • Leeds City Council, West Yorkshire, England delivers effective and efficient public services to its citizen base on the Infrastructure running on Solaris 10.
  • The Japanese Overseas Migration Museum, in Yokohama, Japan, uses Ultra Thin Clients, Chip Multithreaded Servers and Solaris 10 to support its content management system, which provided information to both museum visitors and online inquirers. These terminals are platform independent, terminals, which can be used to display and use variety of different Operating environments.
  • Slovak National Library, a body under the Slovak Ministry of Culture, uses Ultra Thin inter-operable clients, Solaris 10 and Open Office to access and print content around Slovak literature, foreign publications and historical documents.
  • Government of Norway, through its e-Norway initiative, provides personalised portal interface to its 4.5 million citizens, using Java Enterprise system with some of the Open Source components and modules, running on x64 systems.
  • The US Census Bureau has a FedStats portal to track economic and population trends, health care costs, aviation safety, foreign trade etc. They are using the Open Source LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack to achieve this functionality.
  • NASA Jet Propulsion laboratory used open source software components to develop a software system designed to control and communicate with the Rovers as they drive around the surface of Mars. Java Expression parser and MySQL database has been used for the same.
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory used MySQL Open source database to build secure robust database of 55 million scientific journals and articles.
  • The City of Munich, Brazilian Government, French Government and People's Republic of China are amongst many of the government agencies who are evaluating and implementing Open Source based desktop solutions, to save on licensing costs and to move away from the proprietary and closed solutions. Back home, in India, many of the government departments are already involved in implementing and evaluating Open Source Stack, for their projects. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat government projects are few amongst the many.

Application infrastructure, is the next. This layer comprises of the application, web, access, identity and any corresponding middleware application software. Again options are available from various vendors. It is strongly recommended to go for a vendor independent, Open Source, Open Standards based stack, which avoids vendor lock-in and provides choice and freedom. Java which is a vendor independent development platform is strongly recommended. Today, there are 5 million Java developers and more than 4 billion Java devices. There are over 1 million subscribers to Java Enterprise system. The middleware stack which includes Application Server, Web Server, Identity, Access Management server and the Portal Server etc,  should be based on such vendor independent, community supported open platform.

The middleware stack should be vendor independent, hardware independent and should run on variety of operating systems, including Windows, linux, and other flavors of unix. Sun Java Enterprise System is one such stack which is open source,  based on open standards and runs on variety of platforms including Sun, IBM, HP and Microsoft.

The data from most of these applications is stored in back end databases. Most government applications are citizen centric web applications. The citizen specific data is captured and stored in various databases. Today there is choice of enterprise class open source data bases. MySQL is one such platform. It is open source database, providing most of major functionalities at fraction of the cost of commercially available databases, and is strongly recommended for the government projects.    

Apart from the core infrastructure stack, the client access devices should also be open, heterogeneous, inter-operable and should be able to run variety of operating systems and applications. The Ultra Thin Clients are recommended as the client access devices. These Thin Clients do not have any embedded operating system and can run any flavour of Operating System or application. They take minimal power, space and least administrative and management overheads.

Concluding Remarks

Governments across the globe are going in for IT enabled citizen services. There are various sub organisations within the government departments of various countries. Each department has its specific requirement and a mission, which ultimately ties into Governments vision. To ensure seamless integration and interoperability of applications and data, across various departments, they should have solutions and infrastructure based on Open Source, Open Standards and Open Format.

Figure 3: Secure and Open Solution Stack for empowering governments

Such open platform, secure and inter-operable solutions around the complete stack are available today. Some such stacks have been discussed in this article and are strongly recommended for the government enterprises. These stacks are supported and endorsed by the community and enable participation, sharing and collaboration, at the same time avoiding vendor lock-in, and providing zero barrier to exit.

This provides complete choice, freedom and flexibility to the government enterprises.

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