Category Archives: open source

Open source and government

Another post I have been sat on and chewing over for a little while…

Charles Arthur in the Guardian highlighted an interesting area of discussion in the use of open source in government a little while ago. He reports on the views of Liam Maxwell, the councillor responsible for IT policy at the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead, who’d like to see a move away from proprietary software such as Microsoft Office within local authorities.

Cllr Maxwell would like to see the Cabinet Office mandate the use of the Open Document file format within all levels of government. This would be as opposed to the file formats used by Microsoft’s products, as well as other systems in use in the public sector.

Cllr Maxwell states:

If one council goes to a service provider such as Capita and asks for a change to its Revenues and Benefits system so it works with OpenOffice and ODF instead of Microsoft Office, Capita will tell them to go away. But if government mandates it, then Capita or any of these other companies that do this work for councils could get it done in six months. It’s a dysfunctional market because it’s set by standards which are set at the centre.

A bit of background for the non-dorks out there. The Open Document Format (ODF) is a non-proprietary file standard for use in office productivity suites, which include things like word processors, spreadsheets and slideshow presentations.

The flagship software to use ODF is OpenOffice.org, as alluded to by Cllr Maxwell. OpenOffice.org was developed predominantly by Sun Microsystems as an open source office suite, which then fed into their proprietary offering, StarOffice.

Now, I am a fan of free and open source software and I try to use it wherever I can. But there is so much misunderstanding out there about the benefits – especially around cost – that I do worry about whether people’s minds are filled with free-as-in-beer.

Here are some of the issues with this particular proposal. I do want to make clear that none of these are insurmountable, nor am I in the business of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt. I’m certainly no apologist for Microsoft, their software or their business practices. I want government to make better use of open source, just that it needs to do so with its eyes open.

The idea of the Cabinet Office mandating use of ODF sounds good, but the naivety to think that this would happen for free is remarkable – there’s no way those big boys would do that much work and not make customers pay for it somewhere down the line.

Then there is training – the idea that the majority of council workers could use OpenOffice as well as they use MS Office right away is rather optimistic. In my experience, folks can’t even cope with upgrades between versions of Word, let alone a whole new system! The costs need to added in: training, writing documentation, loss of productivity while people figure out how to do stuff, or what they can’t do anymore that they used to, etc etc.

Next up with OpenOffice is the Oracle issue – they’ve already made significant changes to OpenSolaris since they bought Sun and there is no guarantee they won’t do the same to OpenOffice. Part of the pro-open source argument is sustainability, but if the sponsoring corporation (which owns the IP and drives development) doesn’t want to know then it would be very hard in practice for the community to get things up and running again.

(Actually, we kind of know what is happening here, as a separate organisation appears to have been formed to managed a fork of OpenOffice.org called LibreOffice. Confusion abounds!)

Next, support. Where is the organisation that can provide support to large organisations when it comes to switching over office suites? It would drown a council ICT department and I can’t think off the top of my head of any company providing this sort of service at scale for it to be outsourced to.

Finally – do we even know if ODF is better than the current alternatives? Where’s the benefit for the switch?

Now what I have written sounds like a massive anti-open source rant, but it isn’t. It’s just highlighting some of the issues. I suspect, for example, that the total cost of ownership of an open source ICT solution – certainly on the desktop – would be roughly the same as the Microsoft (or whoever) one, especially when you take into account select agreements etc.

The arguments in favour of open source need to be on the basis that the software is better, more reliable and stable, quicker and feature rich, and that it works for the government context – adapted for the sector in a cost effective, maintainable and supportable manner.

This brings in a number of issues, around business models for suppliers, procurement, understanding of licensing, copyright and IP, having actual coding knowledge within organisations.

Learning Pool is also a good example of taking open source, contextualising it, then implementing, supporting and maintaining it. We were recently asked to come up with a few bullet points outlining our approach and experiences, which I drafted up as:

  • There are cost savings to be made with open source, but only when the vendor can provide a genuinely comprehensive service that includes implementation and support as well as code. Otherwise the total cost of ownership can spiral.
  • The argument for open source must be based on better, not cheaper, software. We benefit from hundreds of people tracking bugs, developing plugins and testing betas which helps give our product the edge over proprietary rivals.
  • The flexibility of cloud based applications saves significant amounts of time and therefore money in providing upgrades and new features to customers – who don’t have the bother of installing patches etc.
  • Building sharing and collaboration between our customers into the business model has achieved far greater cost savings than either the open source foundation of our software, or the cloud based delivery of it. The fact that we don’t just tolerate, but rather encourage, our customers to share and redistribute resources means government is redesigning fewer wheels every day.

Having said that, we use the LAMP stack which is pretty much a won argument on open source in many ways, it’s other technology, especially on the desktop, where the debate needs to be refined and informed.

Discussions around open source use in government have to be based on pragmatism: is the OSS solution as good as the competition? Is it comaptible with other systems? What are the training overheads? What are the support, maintenance and development arrangements?

The truth is that replacing enterprise IT systems with open source alternatives is a lot more complicated than deciding to build a new website in WordPress. I quickly Googled for ‘open source ERP’ (ERP is Enterprise Resource Planning, those big internal systems made by people like SAP and Oracle, that run HR, finance, CRM and everything else) this afternoon, and the top result was something called Openbravo. I tweeted about it, and none of my contacts – even the open source IT analyst folks – had even heard of it.

It’s probably not surprising that people procuring this stuff run into the arms of the traditional vendors and system integrators.

Hackers for government (and a dollop of open source)

A hacker

A lovely story of sharing, reusing and creative hacking in government today. There’s a whole post to be written on hacker culture and why government needs people who are able to program computers on the payroll. You just can’t outsource this stuff. The first chapter of this book explains it far better than I ever could, as Andrea DiMaio explains:

Innovative and courageous developers are what is needed to turn open government from theory to reality, freeing it from the slavery of external consultants, activists and lobbyists. People who work for government, share its mission, comply with its code of conduct, and yet bring a fresh viewpoint to make information alive, to effectively connect with colleagues in non-government organizations, to create a sense of community and transform government from the inside.

Anyway, whilst he was still at BIS, Steph Gray produce a nice little script to publicly publish various stats and metrics for the department’s website. A great example of having someone around who has both ideas and the ability to hack something together that puts them into action.

This was picked up during an exchange on Twitter by Stuart Harrison – webmaster at large for Lichfield District Council and another member of the league of extraordinary government hackers. Stuart asked nicely and was granted permission by Steph to take the code and improve it – never really an issue because the code was published under an open licence that encouraged re-use.

So Stuart did exactly that, and produced a page for his council that report live web statistics. Even better, he then shared his code with everyone using a service called GitHub.

Two things come out of this very nice story.

Firstly, the importance as mentioned above of having people able to code working within government. Say if Steph had this idea but had neither the skills himself nor access to them within his team to implement it. He would have had to write a business case, and a formal specification, and then tendered for the work… it would never have happened, frankly.

Leading on from that, the second point is around the efficacy of sharing code under open source licenses. Steph would probably admit to not being the world’s most proficient hacker, but the important thing is that he was good enough to get the thing working. By then sharing his code, it was available for others to come in and improve it.

The focus on open source software and its use in government is often based around cost. In actual fact open source solutions can be every bit as expensive as proprietary ones, because the cost is not just in the licensing but in the hosting, the support and all the rest of it.

The real advantage in open source is access to the code, so people can understand and improve the software. But this advantage can only be realised if there are people within government who can do the understanding and improving.

After all, what’s the point of encouraging the use of open source software if the real benefit of open source is inaccessible? Having access to the code is pointless if you have to hire a consultant to do stuff with it for you every time.

So three cheers to Steph and Stuart for this little collaboration and lovely story of the benefits of sharing and hacking. Let’s make sure there can be more of them in the future by encouraging the art of computer programming, and of being open with the results.

Photo credit: Joshua Delaughter

The State of Open Source

Stephen O’Grady has a great post analysing where the open source software movement is in the Startup, Growth, Maturity or Decline model.

Why would commercial organizations willingly cede the fruits of their labor to a market that might include their competitors? Because for software that is non-differentiating, that is not a competitive advantage – which for most non-technology firms is virtually all of their software – it will cost more over the longer term to author software privately than it would publicly. Facebook and Twitter demonstrate this quite adequately (coverage), true, but it’s not just the web firms. We see it when a hosting company (Rackspace) and space agency (NASA) jointly author a cloud computing stack that neither intends to create a software sales business around. We see it when Lockheed Martin launches an open source social networking project. And so on.

None of these can be characterized as decisions driven by idealism or emotion; they are simply the most logical means of developing software for companies that aren’t in the business of selling software. Make no mistake: we’re seeing a resurgence of roll your own software (coverage). The difference this time around is that by sharing the code developed internally as open source, it becomes possible to amortize the development costs across multiple organizations with similar needs. Worst case, you have the opportunity to lower your costs of talent acquisition; this, presumably, is one of the justifications for Google sharing details on its MapReduce and Pregel processing approaches.

Open source is something I’ve been reading and thinking about a lot recently and the more you dig into it, the more complicated it can get.

With government policy focusing more and more on using open source solutions, I wonder whether the understanding is there amongst those making buying decisions about the various licenses and business models that exist. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

It does strike me though that it is easy for a supplier to claim to provide an open source solution when in fact they don’t.

The advantages of open sourcing for both the supplier and customer, as Stephen notes in his post, are huge. But this really isn’t as simple as just saying that open source software is cheaper, or indeed ‘open’- there are lots of factors here and the implications of taking decisions around open source are potentially significant.

More on this in future posts.