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Open Source’s Perfect Storm

Open Source’s Perfect Storm

The race to find an alternative to Microsoft is well under way within Australian government as open source systems continue to attract the attention of cost-conscious CIOs.

It was about a year ago that Gartner research director Robin Simpson was in Adelaide visiting his firm’s government clients to talk about mobile and wireless. But they had something else on their minds.

“Every single agency or department I went into wanted to get off their chest how upset they were about licensing Microsoft 6.0,” Simpson says.

“They didn’t necessarily want to go open source but they felt they were being forced to look at drastic alternatives because they never anticipated such dramatic changes from Microsoft. It was a strong emotional reaction. They felt trapped so they wanted to lash out and do something.”

It got Simpson thinking. He told his research colleagues overseas about his South Australian experience. The feedback he got from Latin America and Europe was identical. Soon enough, Simpson discovered the seething discontent was worldwide. More than this, he realised that since governments everywhere face the same budget versus services equation, there existed among them the idea that if they all contributed to the search for software alternatives it would be cheaper for everyone. Simpson says this consensus approach appeals to the way governments work. Today, the IT world is beginning to gauge the extent of government interest in open source software (OSS).

Some government agencies in Australia say they have no choice, so necessity has become the mother of their invention. When these organisations examine OSS alternatives they contain more substance than they might once have expected. Other agencies have found they were already using OSS, such as the Apache Web server or Sendmail for e-mail. But most of the activity to date has been about considering OSS and Linux rather than actually using it.

Simpson says that following the Microsoft licensing 6.0 announcement state government CIOs across Australia felt, for the first time, that they were not in control of when they were going to upgrade their software.

“Even if the reality was that they did upgrade every three years, at least they thought they had the opportunity to delay that decision. All of a sudden they were forced into a regime of upgrades. The real point is that they started looking seriously for alternatives.”

And they found them. Government IT managers have discovered that there are some simple edge-of-the-network functions like file servers, mail servers, Web servers and print servers where there is solid OSS available able to run on inexpensive Intel architecture. It may not stop there either.

Right for the Times

Open source would never have worked under government structures of days gone by, when the overriding decision-making factors were the lowest implementation cost and the question of whether company XYZ would be around to support its product.

Historically, most government departments operated independently and pursued technology that suited their individual needs. High-profile, big-budget and aggressive technology adopters such as NSW’s Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) and State Rail Authority (SRA) tended to drive technology trends in government, but differences in approach or products led to restrictions in telecommunication between departments. Also, education and humanities-based departments preferred to wander down their own Apple Mac paths.

OSS promises to fix technology disconnects across departments for improved interaction and greater government control. The push towards J2EE instead of .Net for Internet applications is also making the open source approach more feasible. As a result a “perfect storm” for OSS is brewing, fuelled by governmental needs for better transparency and cost savings, the greater maturity of OSS, the considerable public sector push to Internet applications, every government’s desire to support its local IT industry and Microsoft’s licensing bogey.

Adding its voice to the cost-reduction chorus is Swiss-based consultancy Soreon Research GmbH. Soreon recently released a study saying that large organisations with a budget for office software of about $2 million can reduce their costs by as much as 20 per cent using OpenOffice software instead of Microsoft Office. Those running Linux instead of Windows on their servers can save up to 30 per cent.

NSW and Victoria have established policy units to investigate how OSS can play a role in their futures. Both states say their projects will involve audits of where OSS is currently being used, discussions of how and where it might be used, and trials of OSS. Sources within both states’ IT infrastructures say the search for alternatives to Microsoft Office is well advanced.

One NSW government IT executive told CIO that businesses and consumers alike should begin to phase out their Microsoft machines and start a Linux migration immediately. “Sure, it will take an initial investment, but in the long run there is no way Microsoft products are cheaper to maintain.”

“Once the new Microsoft OS comes out and companies are forced to upgrade again, the cost of that will be huge. All those existing machines will need upgraded motherboards and processors to accommodate the software’s need for hardware control. Microsoft is getting way out of line with their idea that users should hand total control of their PCs over to Microsoft.”

It has been reported that at least five NSW government departments are testing Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice as an alternative to Microsoft’s Office. CIO attempted to check this with Dr Elizabeth Gordon-Werner, the head of the NSW government’s Open Source Project within the state’s Office of Information Technology, but she declined to be interviewed. The managing director of Sun Australia, Jim Hassell, says an enterprise with about 10,000 users adopting StarOffice instead of Windows XP can generate savings of up to $10 million.

Gartner’s Simpson believes Australian governments are taking a conservative and sensible approach by not openly endorsing proprietary software or OSS.

“That attitude is not shared around the world,” Simpson says. “There are some governments that are so gung ho they are mandating the use of open source, such as Peru, the State of Ohio and a region in Spain called Extremadura.

“The EC also believes that encouraging the development of government enterprise applications based on open source might reduce the dominance of US companies and stimulate local IT industries. Maybe you can encourage innovation this way. It’s a complex issue and some governments around the world are taking a simplistic approach. Our governments are being a bit more cautious.”

Nevertheless there are major government Linux initiatives in Australia, as well as in China, India, the US, Germany, Finland, Norway, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Brazil, Colombia, South Africa and Mexico. Linux is being used for financial reporting and for citizen access portals in regional and local governments in Germany; for portals, public access, office automation, Internet and intranets with the Liu Zhou City government in China; for desktop development with the Beijing government; for workload consolidation in the City of St Louis, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Regione Lazio in Italy; for distributed enterprise applications with the Northern Territory Department of Education; and for applications solutions with the NSW Department of Agriculture.

In what can only be seen as yet another ringing endorsement for the Linux OS, PeopleSoft has just announced it will offer Linux versions of its entire portfolio of 170 enterprise software programs. PeopleSoft’s plans follow other high-profile Linux releases from Veritas Software, Oracle, SAP, Sun Microsystems and IBM.

PeopleSoft’s chief technology officer, Rick Bergquist, says Linux is ready for prime-time because it has reached a level of maturity that makes it capable of running mission-critical applications.

“Functionality such as database systems, network and system monitoring tools, middleware et cetera are now widely available on this platform,” Bergquist says.

“Governments are being asked to do more with less and our customers believe that Linux is one way of reducing their costs. We have found that offering our customers choices in platforms enables competition and results in better technology being offered. We are allowing governments to choose which is the most cost-effective platform for them.”

Mandatory OSS

All government departments and agencies in South Australia will be required to use OSS in preference to proprietary software if a bill proposed by Democrat MP and staunch OSS advocate Ian Gilfillan becomes law. In promoting his State Supply (Procurement of Software) Amendment Bill 2003, Gilfillan says OSS is “an unusual concept” that will take some getting used to.

“When we buy something, we usually buy the right to use that thing in any way that we see fit,” Gilfillan says.

“For example, if you buy a car, you can add roof racks or even paint the car a different colour. The key thing about buying something is that it becomes your property and you can do with it as you will. Somehow we have been tricked into believing that software is different. We have accepted the idea that we don’t own a piece of software once we buy it. We aren’t even allowed to see the workings of the software so that we can check that it is doing what we expect or want it to do. This would be equivalent to buying a car, but never being allowed to look under the bonnet to see what is inside.”

Gilfillan is urging the SA parliament that this “very strange situation”, where people pay “astonishingly large amounts of money on an ongoing basis for very few rights”, cannot continue. Further, he says the OSS movement is a vast opportunity for South Australia’s IT industry and he wants SA to legislate so that procurement officers in public authorities must consider using OSS, and where practicable, use OSS instead of proprietary software.

The Australian UNIX and Open Systems User Group (AUUG) is a professional association that promotes UNIX and related systems, including Linux and BSD. AUUG formed its Open Computing for Government group to accelerate the adoption of open computing — both proprietary and open source — within all areas of the Australian public sector. The AUUG’s annual conference in Sydney in September will include an open source computing in government stream for the first time.

Gordon Hubbard, chairman of the AUUG Open Computing for Government Committee, says there is “strong activity” within every Australian government and at every level, including local government. He believes this is because governments want options and they want to foster the development of local alternatives.

“AUUG’s position is that you need a level playing field,” Hubbard says. “That’s what governments should create. They should make their purchase decisions based on what is the best possible solution and value. Over the years, some people have lost sight of this imperative. It’s no longer good enough for government buyers to reject any vendor out of hand.

“What you will see over the next year or so are some very serious comparative investigations carried out by individual agencies and umbrella groups, some trials and then some deployments. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”

What else might the near and mid-term future hold?

Gartner’s Simpson says the answer can be found in a book called The Innovator’s Dilemma, written by Harvard MBA and Rhodes Scholar, Clayton Christensen. It describes how some market-leading products evolve over time to maintain their dominance but eventually get trapped in an innovation cycle. These products constantly strive to improve with more and more features until they reach a stage where they become too complex for the majority of people they are meant to serve. Another product cuts in at the low end of the market that eventually displaces the high-end product.

“This is the problem Microsoft now has with Office,” says Simpson.

“People only want 10 to 20 per cent of its functionality. Microsoft is in danger of losing the market to someone who comes in at the low end with a better way of doing business. There’s a lot of talk these days about the value of IT and organisations wanting to simplify their lives. The average user just doesn’t need what Microsoft is offering, and they certainly don’t need it under the terms it is being offered.

“However, what is working in Microsoft’s favour is that the winning alternative won’t be Star Office or OpenOffice. Their problem is that in trying to defeat Microsoft they’ve built in all the same complexity, making themselves a ‘me too’. They are monolithic pieces of code, just as full of bugs as Microsoft Office and just as complex to learn, use and install.

“That’s not how to beat Microsoft.”

Penguins and Policy

John Rimmer, CEO of the National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE), told attendees at a seminar on OSS earlier this year that the Commonwealth government had not promulgated a specific policy on agency use of OSS — unlike other governments around the world — because its procurement framework is already flexible enough to allow agencies to use OSS. Indeed federal agencies are obliged, under Commonwealth purchasing guidelines, to implement OSS where it provides a fit-for-purpose, value-for-money solution.

Rimmer told the seminar: “Many Commonwealth agencies already use OSS for some applications, particularly development and maintenance of Web sites. We are witnessing its extension to other areas. We are keen to ensure that agencies share their knowledge about OSS. Some state and territory government agencies have also undertaken significant OSS initiatives, and no doubt we can learn much from them too.”

Mary Ann Fisher, a program director of Linux for IBM’s worldwide public sector business, also spoke at the NOIE OSS seminar. She developed IBM’s Linux investment and product strategy for the public sector and is responsible for IBM’s open source Linux strategies and implementation for government. Fisher believes Linux’s popularity in the public sector is driven by a number of factors: innovation from increased R&D and worldwide collaboration; the fact that “many eyes” can speed problem resolution; the modular nature of Linux, which allows for more secure implementations; the opportunity to limit dependency on proprietary systems and foster local software industries; and the chance to get more technology into the hands of more citizens.

“Linux’s ability to run on many types of hardware and its wide application support are propelling its acceptance. Analyst endorsements are strengthening, tales from user land have been positive and independent software vendors see it as a chance to make a mark,” Fisher told the seminar.

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