Open source - believe the hype

Written by Colin Marrs on 25 May 2014 in Opinion
Opinion

Paolo Vecchi takes issue with a recent report which claimed that open source solutions are failing to catch on with local authorities.

If you read a recent briefing paper by think tank the Local Government Information Unit (possibly unlikely, as the organisation asks £500 for the privilege), you may have got a skewed perspective on open source technology.

The report concluded that open source is failing to catch on with councils because of difficulties in integrating it with existing systems and software, as well as costs of implementation and support.

So are the barriers to councils using open source as high as the report suggests?

The report does not actually contain negative comments about open source, per se. On the contrary, it cites Liam Maxwell stating that  “Open source is at the heart of our commitment to deliver digital public services designed around the needs of citizens” and the references the Cabinet Office “Open Source Toolkit” which contains a nice list of alternatives to the ubiquitous proprietary and closed source software. Using this guidance can help save vasts amount of public money.

The most interesting bits are to be found in the “comments” section of the document where the author states that “open source…has failed to catch-on with local government outside of niche, back-office, applications”.

The LGIU paper forgets to mention that many in the public sector don't even know that they are already using open source based solutions. Perhaps this is because some are not looking hard enough or because they find it easier to just sign a contract from the usual supplier or an enterprise agreement without carefully checking what they are buying.

What if they learned that many of the solutions they are using are actually based on open source. Many councils use Linux and open source platforms for their websites in common with 75% of active web sites on the Internet), for their databases and virtualisation infrastructures technologies. Lets’ not forget that some well known and widely used platforms used by local government (such as VMWare, Citrix, Oracle, etc...) are mostly based on Linux and a lot of their technologies are based on open source software.

There is also a sentence in the report that is troubling to me: “Open-source technology is generally neither simpler nor cheaper, just different”. Maybe 10 years ago open source would have been more expensive for a small organisation as, while the required features were available, there were also many rough edges that needed to be smoothed.

Nowadays open source based solutions provide enterprise grade features and support at a fraction of the cost of equivalent closed source packages. Open Source is surely different as it generally requires less powerful servers, it has no or very low licensing costs and as once an application has been developed it can be reused by other organisations very easily.

There are a couple of sentences in the report that are troubling to me: “Open-source technology is generally neither simpler nor cheaper, just different” and “the costs of open source are in deployment, configuration and support, not the software licences”.

Open source may not be simpler or cheaper, like any technology, if you don't use a professional or a partner that is qualified to deal with that specific technology. When mentioning open source we have to take in consideration the fact that we are talking about a vast amount of applications and operative systems for which you have full access to the source code.

If Microsoft decided to make Exchange open source and free of charge would that make it more expensive to deploy, configure and support? It depends.

Licensing price is often not an issue as we see that when there is a competitor involved Microsoft can come up with massive discounts or it can be even free in the educational sector so that they can educate the new generations of customers.

If Microsoft had no, or insufficient, revenues the free Exchange then they would have no interest in keeping up with development and it would be up to the international development community to keep it up to date.

This sometimes could cause issues as without a proper guidance, which often requires funding, different developers may introduce bugs or quickly written code that may not meet the standard required in an enterprise environment.

In this case evaluating and fixing the code in a large and complex set of applications could be extremely complex and expensive for a small council and most people refers to this scenario when talking about open source.

Fortunately, in the past few years things have changed a lot and many open source projects are funded by consultancy and support services and many commercial organisations decided to make their products open source.

But, while they welcome contributions from the community of developers, they validate the source code and anyway their internal developers maintain and enhance the enterprise features.

Remaining on the Exchange example, we don't need to hope that Microsoft releases it as an open source software as there are several perfect replacements out there that will allow you to get the same services at a fraction of the cost.

With the solution I have most experience with you'll generally need a third of the hardware infrastructure (so it's also lowering your carbon emissions footprint) and a quarter of the licensing/maintenance costs than you will expect with Microsoft Exchange. All with an equally enterprise grade and fully supported solution which is giving you full control on the source code.

This type of solution will start a virtuous circle in your organisation that will allow you to regain control over your IT infrastructure and your data.

Open source applications use by default open standards, so integration with other enterprise grade open source solutions will be a lot easier, your choices will not be limited by the file formats or the integration options imposed by a vendor.

Once the process has started you'll quickly find out that your organisation this year may have spent the same amount of money you would have spent by renewing the usual software assurance or enterprise agreement. But next year you'll start saving thousands or even millions of pounds, depending on the size.

The real issue - that to be fair the report does identify - is that CIOs are often still stuck in the old world of just buying licenses and outsourcing development and maintenance of the IT they are supposed to manage.

Instead of spending millions in licenses and outsourcing it would be far more efficient to invest that money in local skills and developers so that each council can start adapting existing open source solutions for its specific requirements and share that development with other councils which in turn will develop something that is useful to others.

Do you want to show how well your bin collection service is running? There is no need to invest a lot of time and money to develop it from scratch as another council in the UK or Europe has already developed it and made it freely available.

The same applies to real time bus services or the new fashionable “digital dashboards”. It’s all open source, readily available. It is mostly free or it costs so little that there is no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.

Combine that with the proposed move to ODF as the file format standard for the Public Sector and we'll see very rapid changes in the whole IT industry.

Microsoft and others know that this is the right approach as they have been lobbying against it all the time as a successful open source strategy will seriously affect its lucrative monopoly.

Naturally is not all about the money. It's true that a nationwide adoption of open source will save billions of taxpayers’ money but it will also stop vendor lock-in, create an harmonised platform where data flows can be controlled more easily, remove barriers that can increase government transparency and accountability and create more local jobs instead of paying US corporations which contribute very little tax in the UK.

Paolo Vecchi is CEO of open source supplier Omnis Systems Ltd

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