Why Agencies Should Avoid Open-source Training Software

With nearly 20 years on the market and a list of registered users three times greater than California’s population, the Moodle learning management system (LMS) is effectively a household name within the eLearning industry. Open-sourced and licensed under the GNU General Purpose License, the software offers free basic licensing with features commonly found in commercial products.

What is good enough for general eLearning, however, isn’t up to the demands of public safety or other government agencies. The strengths provided by a system like Moodle are rarely the ones public service organizations need when they choose solutions that rank among the most important they will ever buy.

Pros and cons

In some ways, open-source software offers benefits beyond its low cost. The methodology can promote experimentation and innovation. It can benefit from the collective support and problem-solving ability of a large group as opposed to an individual company or a single person.

Though it is written in the context of building websites and intended for a business audience, Sam Saltis’ comprehensive Here’s What They’re Not Telling You still applies quite well to a public safety and government security. To paraphrase a few of the points made in Saltis’piece:

  • Open-source saves on licensing but can double costs when it comes to customization. Just as every agency has unique needs, few can take an open-source product out of the box and use it without extensive customization. Updating and hosting can also require unexpected costs.
  • Service and support aren’t always there. As Saltis says: “Once you have customized the [software], it is no longer a standard one.” In other words, no amount of support from vendors or fellow users may be able to help an agency with a truly one-of-a-kind software deployment, because the changes were implemented by the agency.
  • For small agencies, commercial products can often do the same as open-source alternatives, and their price is generally less than the hidden costs of open-source. Medium and large agencies, meanwhile, get the benefit of strong service level agreements and support when they purchase a closed-source product—a significant benefit when problems do arise.
  • The technical requirements for use are often steep, and they tend to be exacerbated by the unusual frequency of updates that come with open-source tools.

In all, Saltis’ article indicates that open-source is sometimes as good as closed—but sometimes and as good as are rarely enough to satisfy the crucial everyday needs of public service.

Technical support

Depending on an agency’s size, purpose, overseeing government, budget, and numerous other factors, it might not have dedicated technical personnel. It may instead borrow them from the overseeing agency; purchase vendor support or outsourced IT services; or employ a full staff of specialized IT experts, all of whom carry specific roles and responsibilities. Moodle affords its users a solid resource in the form of community support, but it is hard to imagine that this would make up for the benefits of full, official IT service for an agency-specific product in any of these situations.

The uncertainty of support availability for issues that arise— whether caused by the software or the user’s customizations to it—is a leading concern when considering open-source products. In the extreme case of a never-before-seen problem or flaw, the public safety organization with a commercial LMS has a clear avenue to seek support—the vendor is committed to the success of the product. In Moodle’s case, the road to help is not so well defined. Will help be available when user modifications break the system? How much will it ultimately cost to seek help from an outside consultant? Overall, the uncertainty is a major drawback, given the importance and cost of public safety training and the high degree of coordination it requires in order to be effective. When the main link in the chain goes down, responder agencies need some assurance that it can quickly be recovered.

A question of security

Finally, responder agencies must consider security. When everyone writes the code, no one person can vet it, or be held accountable if something goes wrong. Malicious foreign actors will go to extreme lengths in their efforts to compromise technological systems; the 2019 Operation Shadowhammer, which involved compromised digital signatures from hardware maker ASUS, is one example of such a dangerous incursion. It is not hard to imagine such attackers submitting compromised code, which can be highly sophisticated and undetectable to all but the most advanced users, in a project that is largely open to contributions from anyone.

There’s a reason that Federal agencies require so many specific measures under the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP)—they want to protect vital data. Such protection has never been more important to public safety agencies of any scope or size.

More reliable options

Trusting valuable employee training data to open-source software leaves agencies vulnerable to breaches, and support for technical issues may be hard to find. Especially in these challenging times, Federal-level security and easily accessible support must not be sacrificed in the name of cost cutting.

Envisage has worked with public safety organizations and government agencies for two decades. For a solution that will continue to help vital personnel for decades to come, with comprehensive user training, ongoing support and regular updates, consider a Training Management System like Acadis.

Unlike other products, you can choose a selection of modules that fits your needs, and help-desk support and custom configuration are included. It’s FedRAMP-authorized, as well, so as your security needs expand, you’ll know you are covered.

And if you’re a smaller agency wanting a free or low-cost option, ask about FirstForward, which delivers certified fire and police training courses in an easy-to-use online LMS format. It’s free for individuals, and available for agencies for as little as $10 per person each year.

Speak with a specialist to design a solution specifically for you.

Posted on Dec 17, 2020