Open source in local government, and other unicorns

By Stuart Sumner
02 Jul 2014 View Comments

Oligopolies are unhealthy. When a small number of firms dominates a market, customers are left with a dearth of choice, and in the worst cases the dominant firms collude to raise prices.

And “oligopoly” describes fairly accurately the situation regarding  software procurement within UK government. In fact, when it comes to office software “monopoly” might be a more appropriate description: it’s basically Microsoft or Microsoft. It’s estimated that UK government departments have spent over £200m of public money on Microsoft Office applications since 2010.

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Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude admitted earlier this year: “The software we use in government is still supplied by just a few large companies. A tiny oligopoly dominates the marketplace.”

And Microsoft’s dominance of Whitehall appears at first glance to be reflected too in local government. When Computing spoke to Jos Creese, CIO of Hampshire County Council, and holder of one of the largest IT budgets in local government according to one inside source, he explained that Microsoft works out cheaper than open source alternatives.

“We use Microsoft [for our desktops],” said Creese. “Each time we’ve looked at open source for desktop and costed it out, Microsoft has proved cheaper.”

He explained that this is because most staff are already familiar with Microsoft products, and that they work well with the thin client model employed at Hampshire council. But it’s also partly down to Microsoft itself.

“Microsoft has been flexible and helpful in the way we apply their products to improve the operation of our frontline services, and this helps to de-risk ongoing cost. The point is that the true cost is in the total cost of ownership and exploitation, not just the licence cost.”

And Creese isn’t alone in his attachment to Microsoft. Alan Shields, architect team manager at Cambridgeshire County Council, says: “It is incredibly difficult to get away from the stranglehold of Microsoft products, and we are planning to reinforce this by entering into an Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft later this year.”

Similarly, you won’t find much open source running in the offices of the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead council. Rocco Labellarte, the organisation’s CIO, explains that a trial of productivity software suite Open Office was ultimately unsuccessful as it wasn’t sufficiently compatible with other tools.

And other open source software was dismissed for different reasons.

“We considered Joomla as a CMS [content management system] and website alternative. However, between hiring the skills in-house or paying third parties, it worked out more cost-effective to keep our existing system simply because we already held the knowledge internally,” says Labellarte.

He also cites security as an “important consideration”, stating: “We are moving to IaaS and SaaS solutions, [so] access to our key corporate systems via the internet means everything has to be 100 per cent secure. Our risk appetite where suppliers have no accountability is low.”

And at Essex County Council, CIO David Wilde says his organisation uses open source “only in niche areas and they tend to be cloud services”.

So a pretty negative picture for non-proprietary solutions. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella must be rubbing his hands with glee at the British taxpayer pounds that flood into his pockets each year.

But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Yes, Microsoft has a stranglehold, and if Francis Maude wants to break it, he needs to do more than make the occasional wild pronouncement before disappearing back into his office. The open source communities themselves need to be engaged with, and solutions tailored to accommodate governmental needs. More trials are needed so that end users at least have the opportunity to experience something other than Microsoft. Then perhaps they might realise that “different” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”.

Much of the reluctance to adopt open source among local government CIOs currently relates to training costs, which they feel can often negate any licence fee savings.

“We are fully aware that many [open source] offerings will require additional training and some form of paid support, which does eat into any saving by getting the software free,” says Cambridge’s Shields.

But not everyone agrees. John Jackson, CIO of Camden Borough Council, who describes open source as “a key part of our approach to transformation”, says: “Training and support is needed for most ICT solutions, either open source or not. We have found that due to our requirements on open systems and open standards, and based on people investment we have made over the years, many of the solutions that meet our requirements end up being open source. And we include TCO into our decision-making process (i.e. cost of exit) as a key factor.”

And it’s not just Camden that champions open source adoption in local government. Steve Halliday, CIO at Solihull Council, claims to have saved well over £1.1m by using open source software.

While Essex’s Wilde doesn’t claim to have made big savings, he describes the costs as “certainly no more expensive, just different.”

This view is echoed by Chris Puttick, open source advocate and co-founder of child online protection and guidance service TwoTen. “Support and training costs should be comparable; any figures suggesting otherwise need investigation. For some aspects of support it is possible poor historic solution choices mean you can only support a limited range of products, i.e. you’re using vendor-specific support tools and would need to change them – but again that is an exit cost of the previous decision and cash savings will be realised in the longer term.”

And while open source may be struggling to find a foothold in the productivity suite, it’s alive and kicking in other areas of local government.

At Camden, Jackson says he uses open source for “a wide range of uses  including mission-critical applications”.

“Critically, the technology underpinning our customer access programme is open source,” says Jackson. “Firstly our content management system for is an open source project started eight years ago and still going.   Then we have our digital services stack running an open portal [based on Liferay] – which is enabling us to push all our customer-facing transactions through a Camden citizen and business account – and an open source enterprise service bus, which we use to orchestrate the flow of information within a business process across multiple systems. 

“We’ve also developed code for our web services, including checking for student exemptions. There’s also the tooling and libraries our technical teams use, and our infrastructure – we have a significant estate of Linux servers.”

Maidenhead’s Labellarte explains that while he’s not currently using open source, that could change in the near future. “Small, niche solutions, such as My Council Services, are definitely piquing our interest as they provide limited out of the box functionality with low risk data and the opportunity to pay for more functionality and integration through a dedicated developer/provider.  We definitely see this kind of solution as an opportunity for local authorities, rather than enterprise-wide major systems replacements.”

Cambridgeshire’s Shields lists a host of open source technologies currently employed at his organisation, including image editing tool Gimp, media player VLC, HTML editor Nvu and FTP client Filezilla. He adds that many of the council’s servers use “various flavours of Linux, but this has always been on recommendation by the relevant supplier”.

And Solihull’s Halliday lists his finance, HR, payroll and CRM functions as being “Oracle running on Linux”.

So it’s actually a fallacy to say that local government is failing to adopt open source, you just have to look beyond the desktop. And Jackson sees a rosy future ahead for non-proprietary solutions in his sector.

“We think that a significant number of applications will be developed as open source over the next decade. Improved awareness, better market opportunities and a desire to share solutions in government will drive take-up. I’m sure that going forward, being locked into proprietary systems will impede the delivery of transformation and lock authorities in. I’m being encouraged to think open source by default rather than thinking proprietary, non-adaptable systems by default.”

But given that open source solutions are traditionally created and modified by teams of enthusiasts, rather than teams of professionals whose pay packets depend on the quality of their work, will a greater reliance on non-proprietary solutions in future hinder the performance of local services?

After all, it was only a few short months ago that the Heartbleed bug came to light – a massive security hole in the open source software used to protect millions of websites worldwide – including household names like Flickr and Tumblr.

The developer responsible for the security flaw expressed his “regret” for the oversight but denied that it was due to a rush to submit the code before the 2012 New Year celebrations – the code was only submitted at 11.59pm on New Year’s Eve in 2011.

The programmer, Robin Seggelmann, based in Germany, said that the software had been developed over a number of weeks.

“I am responsible for the error,” he told The Guardian newspaper, “because I wrote the code and missed the necessary validation by an oversight. Unfortunately, this mistake also slipped through the review process and therefore made its way into the released version.”
Despite Heartbleed, Jackson is unconcerned.

“Open source doesn’t necessarily [lead to] quality issues,” he says. “That’s one of the key myths. One of the opportunities with open source is that code needs to be better written and documented to enable others to develop and improve it.  My view is that most functionality within commercial products and ICT solutions generally isn’t used, so we have more than we ever need. (How much of MS Word functionality does anyone use?) This is why user-centred design is a key part of the ethos in developing solutions – as opposed to developing from a commercial perspective – something we strongly believe in and do. Open systems using open standards that can be easily extended, used as part of wider solutions and with options regarding support ecocystems is what we need (open source or not).”

So we’re left with a clear delineation. Open source is fine in some places, but organisations are stubbornly clinging to Microsoft’s Windows and Office. In Puttick’s view, this policy can be simply ascribed to laziness.

“In the best case, this is CIOs not having a properly strategic outlook; so looking at costs in the short term, and therefore the migration costs in moving to an ‘open source first’ approach seem expensive. Further, where the costs of migration are high, considerably more than upgrading to the next version of proprietary software, then these are de facto exit costs for the previous decision and should be so treated in any TCO comparison.

“In the worst case, it’s simple laziness; making a change that sounds hard, particularly to the non-technical. It is hard in that change management and soft skills will be needed to make it work; it would also require some work on areas many in the public sector will be unfamiliar with – involvement in software development projects, particularly those utilising agile development methodologies. It will, plain and simple, require more effort. At that point it’s much easier to put together some figures that make the ‘path most trod’ look the cheaper option and move on.

“But over five years the costs of running an ‘open source first’ policy will be significantly cheaper for a council. Moreover, the change will help to reduce costs for small businesses in supplying or dealing with the council, and thus help the local economy. It would also be more inclusive with regard to less well-off residents. Such a policy would also create more competition in the supply of sector-specific solutions, leading to both reduced costs for those solutions, and improved services to the taxpayers and other stakeholders.”

Puttick supported his view by citing Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Yahoo! And Ebay. Massive, cost-efficient, high uptime, high SLA organisations, delivering a complex mix of services with high trust level requirements.

What do they have in common? They use open source technology to deliver their services.
“In what way are councils operating that means their use of open source technology would be more expensive than alternatives?” Puttick asks.


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