Australian gov"t portal finds savings in open source

Von Rodney Gedda

Australian federal government health portal, HealthInsite has been gradually adopting open source software as the best way to fix point problems, and pocket huge savings in the process.

Launched five years ago by the Department of Health and Ageing, delivers health information to the public by linking to "quality information".

Speaking at this year"s Australian Unix User"s Group Open Computing in Government conference in Canberra today, HealthInsite senior IT consultant Stephen McInerney said it is essentially an Internet gateway that doesn"t house a lot of content.

"It just grew," McInerney said. "The best tools to fix problems were open source and open source is the best fit for our system."

The site consists of 800 health topics with some 12,000 resource links, across 77 information partners. In 2004 the site registered about 1.4 million visitors, or 8,000 to 9,000 per day. This generated between 40,000 and 50,000 page views per day. Its e-mail alert lists have 1,400 subscribers.

Although the site"s infrastructure is based on an Oracle on Solaris backend with a ColdFusion application environment, McInerney said the "vast majority" of software products are open source.

"There are eight to 14 packages that aren"t open source out of the thousands that are," he said, adding that equivalent commercial software would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Now, HealthInsite lays claim to a smorgasbord of open source applications, from e-mail infrastructure to network monitoring tools.

"For our e-mail infrastructure we use all open source tools, including Postfix as the transfer agent, Mailman for mailing lists, Courier-IMAP for IMAP access, and SquirrelMail for Web-based access," he said. "We do have Linux and Windows workstations, but a lot of systems are mandated."

Unlike the rest of the department, HealthInsite is not outsourced to IBM, but rather does its "own thing".

"With open source, one simple tool builds up on three or four others," McInerney said. "When you have a complex system you need to automate it [and] maximize the goal of system availability."

McInerney stressed the importance of monitoring and evaluation when running a large Web site.

"We need to know when failures occur, [and] not working does equal not working fast enough," he said. "If your site is not fast enough, people will go somewhere else."

For this, HealthInsite uses log check to monitor system activity, Nagios for availability and e-mail alerts, and Apan for generating graphs from Nagios. Other tools include Orca for system usage and reporting, Arpwatch and Argus for network monitoring, and Webalizer for general usage statistics in graphical form. "Management loves pretty graphs," McInerney said.

Local open source content management vendor"s Canberra implementation specialist Avi Miller said it is only perception that government departments have been slow to adopt open source.

"They"re not really tentative, governments just move slowly," Miller said, adding "I can"t believe [now] they are moving so quickly." has had success selling development services around its open source MySource CMS to a variety of government departments, including DCITA, the Sports Commission, Defence Housing, the Tasmanian government, and the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries.

"They take fit-for-purpose and value for money very seriously and "free as in beer" is the least of their consideration," he said.