Open for change, open for business


27 Nov 2003

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Who says techies have no sense of humour? A new European Commission report on open source migration, published last month, contains what looks very like an IT in-joke on the part of the authors; the document is dubbed ‘Version 1.0’ and is designed to be continually updated, much like open source software (OSS) itself!

Joking aside, a read of the report actually reveals a very thorough examination of the ‘hows and whys’ involved in migrating an IT infrastructure to OSS. Aimed at IT managers working in public administrations in Europe, the 148-page report was compiled by the UK consultancy Netproject. It is clear and well written; realistic in the goals it sets and the means to achieve them. Better yet, the content is refreshingly free of the kind of simplistic ‘open source good, Microsoft bad’ debate this subject has a tendency to provoke.

The report outlines several sensible reasons for administrations to migrate to OSS. These include: the need for open standards for e-government; the level of security that OSS provides; the elimination of forced change; and the cost (or the lack of it). All these benefits result in far lower IT costs, the report claims.

The table of contents alone runs to four pages. Server and desktop environments both get the full treatment; for the latter section, there’s a checklist of most major application types, from office tools to email, calendaring and groupware, web access, document management and databases.

Netproject recommends that server computing is the best place to start; this trend happens already and will come as little surprise to anyone in an organisation where servers running applications such as mail are often converted to Linux or an open source variant. It makes the least disruption to users’ working lives and is easier to manage. Budget-conscious organisations will pay close attention to the authors’ argument that deploying OSS on the desktop actually offers much greater potential for cost savings.

Although the report is written with the assumption that the changeover to OSS will be complete, the authors offer no hostages to fortune. They acknowledge that a mixed environment is far more likely, not least because migrating hundreds of desktop systems is a slow process. Also, certain OSS applications may not be available or suitable for certain tasks, such as replacing the groupware function in Microsoft Exchange. On the other hand, “there are enough OSS applications of sufficient quality to make migration compelling”, the report points out. It refers to at least three good quality OSS spreadsheets currently available.

The hype-free approach is summed up in the statement on page 13: “OSS is a disruptive technology. It enables a fundamental change to the way organisations provide IT services. It is a move away from a product to a service-based industry. OSS software costs nothing to install. The issue is where to get support. There are a number of third-party support companies as well as the distribution vendors. However, if your attitude to IT is ‘Who do I sue when things go wrong?’, then perhaps OSS is not for you. An understanding of the dynamics of the OSS movement is necessary. Knowing how to relate to the OSS community is advisable.”

For those concerned about inconsistent file formats between different software types, the authors observe that much of what needs to be done is the same for any migration, such as from Windows NT to 2000. “Even in such single-vendor moves it cannot be assumed that file formats, for instance, will be portable,” they say.

Getting to grips with OSS, its base architecture and the choices it offers requires existing staff to be trained, new employees to be recruited or the use of consultants – all of which involves some initial cost. “There is sometimes an expectation that software which is free can be understood and used without cost. This is not the case,” the report states. This recalls the words of one open source sage who once quipped, “Linux is free if your time has no value”.

Netproject’s thinking is founded on examples born of practical experience rather than airy-fairy theory; that can only be a good thing. However, the authors admit that there is a dearth of real-world examples and pointedly refer to the “limited number of publicly available case studies” (there are none from Ireland). The open source movement may have its champions in the press and the development community, but many organisations don’t seem to share their enthusiasm for nailing colours to masts so openly.

In Ireland, there have been cases of public and private sector firms that have come tantalisingly close to coming out and admitting, “yes, we use open source software”, only to get cold feet and withdraw (they still use it, of course, they’d just prefer not to tell anyone about it). These projects are going on, but I can’t help feeling that a great opportunity is being lost to evangelise the wider public sector.

We’re still at very early days in the open source movement in Ireland, but perception can play a critical role here, for good or for ill. In the meantime though, Netproject’s report is an excellent addition to the debate. It can be downloaded from http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/ida/jsps/index.jsp?fuseAction=showDocument&parent=news&documentID=1647 or through the consultancy’s website, www.netproject.com.

As a side note to this discussion, news has emerged that governments in places such as Vietnam, China, South Korea and Japan are now actively trying to encourage the take up of open source software, albeit with their own agendas in mind. Developing countries in particular see this as a way of catching up with more technologically advanced nations. Another major benefit is that it will reduce the amount of software piracy, which is estimated at more than 90pc in Vietnam, for example. This problem is hampering the country’s economic progress and reduction of its spread is a condition of Vietnam’s joining the World Trade Organisation.

Considering all this, embracing open source is a sound policy: after all, software can’t be pirated if it doesn’t cost anything, right? With that in mind, I’ll leave you with a trivia question: according to research from the Business Software Alliance, which European country consistently comes off among the continent’s worst software piracy offenders? It’s closer to home than you’d think.

By Gordon Smith

Big in Japan and the Far East: governments are actively encouraging the adoption of open source