David Graham Provides Glimpse into FOSS in Canada's Government

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 11, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Ordinarily, free and open source software receives little attention in the government of Canada. A rare exception occurred on Thursday, March 10 when David Graham, the Liberal Member of Parliament for Laurentides—Labelle (Québec) began asking questions before the Standing Committee On Government Operations and Estimates (Shared Services). The exchange was less than seven minutes long, but provided the sort of detailed information that is usually unavailable.

If David Graham sounds familiar, you might know him  better as cdlu (short for "confused debian linux user"). For years, cdlu was my colleague at Linux.com and Newsforge and well-known in Debian circles as well. Since then, he has been a presence in the back rooms of the Liberal Party until, in the federal election in October 2015, he was elected for the first time. He now describes himself (no doubt correctly) as "the only Member of Parliament to be in the Debian web of trust."

Graham's questions range over a variety of technical issues centering on FOSS. Even though his questions are general, of the several dozen people in the room, only a couple seem to understand his questions. At one point, One of his audience members comments that "I'm looking for some translation here, while at the end of Graham's questions, the chair jokes that the next speaker  is "someone who's still trying to figure out how a fax machine works."

Graham himself tells  Patrice Rondeau (Assistant, ADM, Data Center Services, Shared Services Canada), the bureaucrat who is his main informant, that "we can have a nice long conversation and nobody will have a clue what we're talking about it." In passing Graham also mentions that "on the Hill I cannot use anything but Internet Explorer because we are told that it is the only browser that meets our security standards, which anyone who has been in the industry more than a few hours knows is kind of funny."

Such exchanges, as much as any of the details revealed, speak volumes about the levels of technical knowledge in the Canadian federal government.

Seven Minutes of Questions

Graham begins by asking, "of the 23,000 servers across 485 data centres that the minister referred to, how many of them run on open-source software, and are we exploring significant migration away from proprietary software models toward open-source software options as you transition towards seven data centres?"

Rondeau replies that, "on the data centre side, we have 26,000 physical servers, but we have up to 74,000 OS instances so we have virtual servers sitting on physical servers, and I would say approximately 15% are running Linux." Of the rest, most are running Windows or "all flavours of Unix," including HP-UX, Solaris, and IBM AIX. He adds that, "the larger departments still rely heavily on mainframe computers and "a lot of RISC-based environments."

Before moving on, Graham remarks that, "I'm always surprised to hear RISCs still exist" --and is received with the silence of (apparently) general incomprehension.

Graham moves quickly on to asking "if government employees will be encouraged to adopt PGP key signatures trust rings or other cryptographic authentication systems." Rondeau has no figures, and promises to get back to the committee with some information, but the exchange gives Graham a chance to lecture those in attendance on PGP, ending with, "I'd like to at least have the government explore that if that's possible."

The final question is, "Are we moving, or have we moved, to full IPv6 support across the network?" According to Rondeau, "We have initiatives underway mostly with our network area or our network branch. They have been implementing and looking at implementing IPv6, but I couldn't give you all the details. I would have to go back to our network branch specialists."

Asked what hardware is being used for networks and servers, Rondeau replies,"On the server side, we're running all existing hardware probably for the last 15 years.We probably have in our 400 or so data centres right now, but the newer platforms are mainly blade type servers."

At that point, Graham runs out of time and the session moves on to the next speaker, having provided tantalizing evidence of what most people with technical knowledge would have guessed, but leaving many more questions unanswered.

We will have to wait and see if Graham returns to this line of questioning. As a member of the Liberal Party, he is subject to party discipline, and as a first time MP, he seems eager to avoid being identified as a one-issue politician; his comments in Parliament concern a variety of questions, ranging from changes to the Citizen Act and combating ISIL.

However, whatever else comes of the exchange, free and open source software now appears to have at least a part-time ally in Parliament.

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