“Each time we look at open source, Microsoft is cheaper” says local government CIO

By Stuart Sumner
29 Apr 2014 View Comments
Socitm's Jos Creese

Local government CIO Jos Creese has come out in favour of Microsoft over open source alternatives, explaining that it has always proved to be the cheaper option when he has examined the alternatives.

Speaking exclusively to Computing, Creese said: "We use Microsoft [for our desktops]. Each time we've looked at open source for desktop and costed it out, Microsoft has proved cheaper."

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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. So I don't have a dogma about open source over Microsoft, but proprietary solutions - from Microsoft, SAP to Oracle and others - need to justify themselves and to work doubly hard to have flexible business models to help us further our aims," Creese argued, adding that his organisation does also use open source solutions in some areas.

He said that he'd like more vendors to show greater flexibility over contracts, with an appreciation that longer term deals may need to change over time to suit evolving business needs.

"I want to see greater flexibility over contracts, I expect suppliers to take a long-term view," said Creese. "If it's shared services, suppliers need to allow flexibility over existing contracts to join them together. There's a range of habits and behaviours I expect from big suppliers to justify continuing using any proprietary software."

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude has made several speeches championing both open source software, and procurement from SMEs within government. Indeed, Maude has gone on record to state that government should specifically drop the Microsoft Office suite in favour of open source alternatives.

While Creese acknowledged that smaller firms often offer the greatest innovation, there is a risk in a large public body agreeing a significant deal with a smaller player.

"There's a huge dependency for a large organisation using a small organisation. [You need] to be mindful of the risk that they can't handle the scale and complexity, or that the product may need adaptation to work with our infrastructure.

"We look at whether [the vendor] large or small, can support our business ambition and the risks associated. A niche application is sensible in some areas, but you need to plan your exit strategy. If you go for a small supplier because you want to support SMEs and you're not mindful of the risks, you may end up with difficulties later. If we are the largest client of a small company and it gets into [financial] difficulty, what happens if they can't sustain a system that schools are depending on?"

Despite Maude's words, central government departments regularly sign contracts with the big integrators. For Creese, this is understandable.

"There are some areas where [central government] has often had an undue dependence on a few big suppliers, which makes it hard to be confident about best value - but I understand where the Cabinet Office is coming from to try to redress that in favour of value and for the UK economy, and not simply being in the pockets of the big providers because you always have been.

"The point here is that you can have some policy objectives around how you'd like to see technology change in the public sector, wanting to make sure small suppliers don't get squeezed out, and not having dependency on proprietary software where open source can do the same at lower cost. But you need to do what's best for the taxpayer, and sometimes that means a space can only be filled by a larger supplier.

"Take the national broadband programme for example. It was inevitable that BT would have a significant part to play. You're spitting in the wind to pretend otherwise. But you can construct a business model with BT that will allow smaller organisations to take a part too."

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