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UK gov aims for ‘level playing field’ with open source pilots

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The UK Government is kicking off nine 'proof of concept' trials of the use of open source software in the public sector with the intention of creating "a level playing field" between open source and proprietary software. The trials are being jointly co-ordinated by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) and the Office of the eEnvoy (OeE) and, according to OGC chief executive Peter Gershon, "will operate in a controlled environment and will enable us to identify when and how best to use the technology to the benefit of departments and the taxpayer alike."

IBM, no stranger to Whitehall's corridors of power, is the lucky winner* at this juncture, and will be running the trials, which are intended to "measure the effectiveness and cost-benefits of IT systems based on OSS products, when compared against proprietary software solutions." The OGC however suggests that further studies with "a limited range of selected suppliers" may come as a follow up.

The current initiative can best be seen as a 'policy enabler,' in that a UK government policy on open source already exists, and has been public since July of last year. This states that the government will "consider Open Source Software solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements and award contracts on a value for money basis, seeking to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services." As yet this theoretical level playing field does not seem to have had a massively visible effect on government use of open source, so by running a series of test deployments the OGC is probably trying to kickstart the policy.

There are some interesting - indeed, familiar - names among the bodies taking part in the trials. Newham Borough Council, for example, is already known to be exploring open source, including desktop deployments, so may have shrewdly acquired some central government backing. In addition to this we have Powys County Council and Orkney Council - three local authorities out of nine pilots would seem to us to be overkill, perhaps signifying serious momentum for open source in this particular sector.

Alongside these we have Central Scottish Police Authority, a body known to The Register to have previous SuSE convictions, OFWAT and the OeE, and of the 'proper' central government departments, Culture Media and Sport, Work and Pensions, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. These last two are potentially the most lucrative targets, but that will depend on the nature and extent of their particular pilots. ®

* IBM's corridor-padding has also paid off via a simultaneous announcement by the OGC, which says it has new pricing arrangements for software with IBM, offering "enhanced discounts across the public sector with additional savings where Linux products are specified." One of the OGC's roles is to achieve discounts by using the government's buying power, so this one is an open source equivalent of the one the OGC clinched previously with Microsoft.

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