Public sector opens up its systems

29 Jan 2004

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In the past few years, Linux and other open source products have been steadily gaining market share at the expense of proprietary software from the established vendors such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM, particularly in the public sector where budgets have been tight. The response of the establishment has been the adoption of open standards such as extensible markup language. It was no surprise then when it was recently reported that BearingPoint will use open standards software on the contract to build Reach’s Public Service Broker — one of the biggest e-government initiatives this country has seen.

Sun Microsystems has decided to tackle Microsoft’s Windows and Office dominance on the desktop with the release of the open source Java Desktop, much of which was developed in Ireland. In its first couple of months on the market it is already finding traction with large government agencies in the UK and China. So what is the attraction of open source software for the public sector — a love affair that runs so deep that some European administrations are considering introducing legislation that would favour open source in government tenders?

At first glance cost would seem to be the driver. Public agencies are under intense scrutiny about how they invest our taxes and because the initial purchase cost of open source software tends to be much lower than competing proprietary products it is generally considered as a cost-saving measure. But as any IT manager will tell you the initial purchase price is only the tip of the iceberg.

Robert O’Dea (pictured) is director of engineering with Sun Microsystems’ Desktop Software Group who oversaw the development of the Java Desktop System (JDS). He claims that open source products such as JDS prolong hardware life, have lower service costs and have less downtime than competing products from Microsoft.

Braun Brelin of open source developers OpenApp says that cost is the hook that gets people interested but that this is not the primary advantage for public sector bodies. He cites last year’s high-profile decision by the City of Munich Council to go with Linux rather than Microsoft even though it was more expensive. “According to their consultants strategically open source was the way to go for them,” he says. “It’s more flexible and they are not locked into a single vendor.”

The proprietary software companies have been quick to respond to this criticism and point to their support for open standards in initiatives such as web services. Maurice Martin, lead developer and platform, Microsoft Ireland, says that the advantages of a web services approach is that it allows proprietary and open source technologies to interoperate thanks to independent standards organisations such as WS-I. “There’s great maturity happening in the industry — and remember it is still a young one,” he says. “For all of us to move forward it is crucial that it is easy for the customer to bring technology together from a number of vendors.”

IBM is one of the established software companies that has managed to adopt open source while still maintaining its own proprietary products. “IT is just an enabler,” says Rebecca George, director of UK public sector business with IBM. “The public sector needs to be clear about what it is trying to achieve and underneath that install IT as an enabler. It’s very hard to tell what your needs will be in two to three years’ time so your IT has to be flexible.”

OpenApp works with one of the most high-profile public sector organisations that has adopted source software — Beaumont Hospital. Brelin says that while Beaumont has been the poster child for open source supporters there are other hotspots of activity in the public sector that haven’t been talked about. The Oasis website runs on a FreeBSD machine, while the Department of Enterprise Trade and Employment’s new financial system is based on Oracle applications running on a Linux box.

Meanwhile, big players such as Microsoft caution that the economics of open source don’t stack up. They ask if there’s no big licence fees for the software how is money going to be re-invested for future innovations. “If there are organisations making money out of software they can continue with research and development [R&D],” says Derrick McCourt, public sector group manager with Microsoft Ireland. “Microsoft spends US$5bn on R&D each year. If we weren’t operating under the commercial software model we couldn’t do that.” He also points out with the public sector under budget pressures innovation has to come from the commercial software sector.

McCourt also criticises what he calls the “hard preference legislation” being proposed by some European governments. “All we want is for them to procure software on its merits rather than on a categorical preference,” he explains. “Governments should have policy neutrality and give us a level playing field.”

Although Brelin is upbeat about the potential for open source in the Irish public sector he believes it will be 2005 before widespread adoption takes place, while this year will primarily be about pilot implementations.

It has been suggested in some quarters that the reluctance to adopt open source is a government sop to Microsoft, which has made a considerable investment in its European operations based in this country. But even open source supporters dismiss this as a conspiracy theory. “I think it’s a truism,” says Brelin. “It might be a consideration at the Bertie Ahern or Mary Harney level but to the civil servants it doesn’t matter much. Do you think an IT manager in one of the departments with a limited budget actually considers that Microsoft might pull out if he doesn’t buy their software?”

Brelin believes the desktop will take longer to crack and we are likely to see open source move up the stack to be used for higher end applications such as content management, enterprise resource management and customer relationship management as they can be installed with less disruption than desktops.

In contrast, George suggests that open source is more suitable for use in applications that everyone needs such as operating systems. “Everyone needs an operating system and needs similar functionality so open source is the way to go for that,” she expands. “For things like finance and security it’s very different. As it becomes more customised and one off it’s less and less likely that you’ll be able to manage it using open source.”

Clearly this is one debate that has a long way to run. Just don’t be surprised if the big boys of the technology scene start to lose more contracts to the minnows of the open source world.

By John Collins