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Is 2011 the year of open source in the public sector?

by Rory MacDonald

As budgets tighten, governments around the world are firming up their open source pledges. Rory MacDonald investigates if 2011 might well be the year open source breaks into the public sector…

This article is due to appear in issue 96 of Linux User & Developer magazine.Is 2011 the year of open source in the public sector? Subscribe and save more than 30% and receive our exclusive money back guarantee – click here to find out more.

Speaking shortly before Christmas, cabinet office minister Francis Maude reiterated the importance of open source software for future government contracts. Speaking to a delegation of large IT suppliers, including BT, Cap Gemini, Hewlett Packard and IBM, Maude pulled no punches, stating:

“The days of the mega IT contracts are over, we will need you to rethink the way you approach projects, making them smaller, off the shelf and open source where possible.”

The speech, at a supplier summit in London, broke no new ground, but it is the clearest indication yet that the coalition government is committed to pre-election pledges from both parties to level the playing field for both open source and smaller IT suppliers in providing IT goods and services to the public sector.

“We will open up the market to smaller suppliers and mutuals, and we will expect you to partner with them as equals, not as sub-ordinates,” Maude told the delegation.

Is 2011 the year of open source in the public sector?
UK Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude stands behind pre-election promises on open source

Highlighting the inefficiencies of the existing government IT procurement process, Maude also said that government will no longer be a source of “easy margins” for the large IT suppliers. He outlined plans for greater transparency in all future dealings between government and suppliers, saying he expects the terms of all future IT procurement contracts to be made available online.

A report published by The Tax Payers Alliance in late 2009 highlights public sector IT projects as a major contributor the UK’s phenomenal £19 billion overspend on capital procurement projects. The National Programme for IT within the NHS topped the TPA’s blacklist, running over-budget by nearly £10.4 billion. Governments and public sector organisations around the world are continuing to strengthen policies openly favouring open source, as budgets are squeezed in the need to cut swathes out of government spending.

In December, the local government in the Canadian province of Quebec were the latest to announce a preference for open source. According to treasury board president Michelle Courchesne, free and open source software must satisfy three criteria: Does it meet our needs? Is it a quality product? Is the cost favourable?

“If the answer is positive, we’re going to favour free software,” she told reporters from the Montreal Gazette.

The new policy is part of the province’s attempts to cut $200 million (Canadian) from the current $2.6 billion (Canadian) annual IT budget. As in the UK, Quebec’s ministers have faced criticism as a series of massive IT projects have spiraled out of control, running massively over budget and were completeted up to five years beyond their delivery deadline.

The moves in Canada, the UK and similar policies across Europe fly in the face of the bullying tactics used by the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) to discourage governments from promoting open source in the public sector. The IIPA is an umbrella organisation of the MPAA and RIAA. At the beginning of 2010, the organisation was openly lobbying the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to place countries promoting open source onto the Special 301 Watch List. This trading blacklist is normally reserved for countries that the US considers enemies of capitalism.

However, with governments across the developed world under immense pressure to reduce national debts, is policy rhetoric around open source software simply being used as a flag to wave in order for them to be seen to be taking action? Is policy being turned into action?

The European Commission (EC) has been more outspoken than many other governmental organisations in its support of open source and open standards. However, the commission has recently been criticised for failing to live up to its own guidelines.

Is 2011 the year of open source in the public sector?
FSFE’s Karsten Gerloff accuses EC of failing to stick to its own policies on open source

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has issued a strongly worded statement condemning last month’s €189 million deal to by what the group regarded as a largely proprietary bundle of software and related services. FSFE claimed the deal, with Netherlands-based supplier PC Ware, goes against several of the EC’s own directives to promote open specifications and interoperability.

“This is a rough deal for Europe”, commented FSFE president Karsten Gerloff. “European citizens expect the Commission to keep its costs low, to spend their tax money in ways that promote Europe’s development, and to stick to its own policies,” comments Gerloff. “This behaviour by DIGIT fails Europeans on all three counts. It damages the Commission’s credibility.”

Francisco Garcia-Moran, director-general of the European Commission’s directorate of informatics, has since refuted the FSFE’s claim. In an official letter passed on to Computer Weekly and eWEEK, Garcia Moran claimed: “The contract in question does not only cover the acquisition of proprietary software, but also of open source software (OSS) and of OSS-related services,” listing four open source vendors.

Garcia-Moran also hit back at Gerloff with a list of the EC’s open source credentials, including the use of 250 open source products and the operation of 350 Linux servers and 800 open source web servers.

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    • Jack

      I’m a 100% Linux user for more than 10 years.

      And i get annoyed when the phrase “the year of Linux” gets resurrected.

      It was stupid then and it’s even more silly now. Get over it – move on – Linux will continue to pentetrate private and public sector. But there will never be “the year of Linux”.

      2010 was and 2011 will be – the year of Android. That’s close enough.

    • Hunkah

      2009 was the year of Linux for me. I stopped using Windows because I got tired of the 15 minute boot times, jittery video and music that kept chirping.

      Since moving to Linux, it takes less than a minute to boot, video is always clear and music plays without a single issue.

      I believe “The year of the Linux” is the year anyone comes out from under the stranglehold of corporate software bullying. It was last year for me, it might be this year for your neighbour and it could be tomorrow for you. It is growing more and more. Who cares if the world recognises it. It is happening.

      I have been a solid Linux user for 18 months and never happier to use my computer!

    • oiaohm

      “the year of Linux” is a very hard thing to define. The peek years of Microsoft was the early days with Dos and of all things Windows 95. Year 2000 on servers with the active directory was impressive but a flop really until XP came along. So there are three very outstanding years of Microsoft Windows. Vista really was a flop. MS is trying to hype 7 to try to get the vigor of the XP time frame. Not happening simple reason what really is the new greatest feature to cause move.

      Windows 95 people who did not own a computer went out and bought a copy because it was the greatest solution ever by the marketers and they believed it.

      Linux has had a few what you would call years. The first EEE pc that basically sold of the shelves like hot cakes. You would call that the first year go Linux that is basically a Win 95 like event lot of people where buying it because it was the greatest thing ever not because it worked.

      Android insane growth in 2010 not desktop but kinda promises interesting times for 2011. So 2010 could be Linux in mobile.

      .net massive bubble gave Linux a few years of Linux in the server world.

      2011 for governments might the like the ADS with XP based on cost and features provided. So could be another true year of Linux

      This is the problem we have had years of Linux. We will keep on having particular years that are great for Linux. The big worry for Microsoft is will they ever have another year that is great for them. At least on Linux we are not looking into the blackhole like MS currently is that there golden age is over.

      What we have to try to get with Linux is not just 1 great year then back to the dog house. What we really want is a decade or so of Linux. Stuff just getting a year that is aiming way to low.

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    • geeko

      There several better questions;

      – given the installed base of existing “stuff” whatever it is, why does government continue to spend so much? Perhaps if the existing IT estate were used ore effectively the government could stop most new project/

      – a simpler and easier target to achieve would be to ask the public sector to stop defining what I need to use by only using open standards (as in “best viewed with any application that uses open standards”) by starting to configure its APIs, documents and whatever accordingly.

      I don’t care that 142.7% of government uses XP – they’ve spent it, too late, it’s OK behind a suitable firewall. I do care about pointless upgrades to Windows 7 because someone was persuaded of the “value”

    • Dan The Man

      In the Netherlands, 2010 was the year in which Open Source in the public sector died, although it never grew beyond a handful of pilot projects.

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