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Open source and the sluggish UK public sector

Chicken and egg

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Workshop Confronting their rapidly shrinking budgets, public sector bean counters must imagine that someone somewhere has been casting Chinese curses about living in interesting times. Because when money gets tight, things sure do get interesting.

You would think that at times like these open-source deployments would be the obvious solution. Open source has to be considered for public-sector IT projects and with no upfront licensing costs it ought to be a shoe-in.

But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Jane Silber, chief executive of Ubuntu’s commercial champion Canonical, has a feeling that open source is used as a negotiating tool but that its benefits are not always taken into account.

“I’d like to think open source has a value other than as a negotiating tool,” she says. “There has been some good progress in getting it considered. The government is doing some things with procurement laws to encourage system integrators to include open source in proposals.

“But it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation. The system integrators can’t offer it if the public sector isn’t asking for it, and the public sector can’t buy it if it isn’t on the tender.”

Amour toujours

Open source has not taken off in the UK the way it has in France and Germany, for example, because there is less government support for it.

Steve George, vice-president of business development services at Canonical, says: “In France, the government seems keen to support local organisations and companies building bespoke solutions. European governments seem to want to nurture an independent IT sector.”

In the UK, however, the intricacies of the procurement process often mean smaller providers, which encompasses most open source providers, struggle to put a pitch together.

Bite-sized contracts

Silber argues that one way round this is for the public sector to split large IT projects into smaller components, making it easier for open source options to be offered alongside proprietary software.

And it looks like it might happen. The Cabinet Office has suggested splitting mega IT contracts into smaller, £100m-sized chunks to level the playing field.

Another suggestion is to spend more time explaining the benefits of open source. “A desktop refresh doesn’t have to mean a Windows upgrade,” Silber says. Ovum analyst Laurent Lachal agrees that education is key. “There is still a perception that Linux isn’t ready for frontline use. This is nonsense. Linux is ready. It’s the project managers who are not,” he says.

Appliance of compliance

At a recent Cabinet Office forum for system integrators, there were some striking examples of open source being used in the public sector, according to Silber. Bristol City Council, for example, has achieved 50 per cent cost savings by using open source, and the National Digital Resource Bank reported an IT spend reduction of 98 per cent.

The Cabinet Office is in the middle of an informal consultation on open standards in IT. Asked what she’d like to see come out of the process, Silber has no hesitation, especially in the light of Bristol City Council having to re-install Windows because of compatibility issues.

“Some really strong statements of support for requirements to support open standards should be included,” she says. “Compliance really ought to be mandated. The government seems to have a good understanding of open source software’s potential. It is time we saw this turn into action.” ®

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