Criticism mounts over Birmingham's Linux project

Criticism mounts over Birmingham's Linux project

Summary: Project costs of over £2,500 per Linux PC raise eyebrows in the open-source community, but some experts are supporting Birmingham

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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Criticism is mounting over the termination of a large-scale Linux project in Birmingham.

As reported earlier this week, Birmingham City Council pulled the plug on its £535,000 open-source pilot after its analysis concluded that it was cheaper to upgrade to a Microsoft-based platform than proceed with open source.

The council planned to roll out Linux software and applications on 1,500 desktops in libraries across the city, but in the end it got no further than a 200-desktop project. Several industry watchers have voiced their concerns about the project, particularly around the number of PCs rolled out. Birmingham's expenditure averaged over £2,500 per PC.

"That's ridiculous," said Eddie Bleasdale, the owner of open-source consultancy NetProject and an early participant in the project. "It's an unbelievable cock-up... They decided to do it all themselves, without expertise in the area," he added, saying that a lack of skills in open source and secure desktops would undoubtedly have raised costs.

Birmingham pulled the plug on the Linux trial after it found that an upgrade to Windows XP would have been £100,000 cheaper than deploying a Linux desktop.

Mark Taylor, whose Open Source Consortium also exited the project in the early stages, said: "I have no idea how anyone could spend half a million pounds on 200 desktops, running free software".

Asked by ZDNet UK whether he was surprised that an XP upgrade was calculated as cheaper than the Linux project, Taylor said, "If it's done properly, that can't happen. It's amazing that anyone can spend that much on [Linux] project management." Taylor added that there are plenty of open-source skills in the Birmingham area which could have been utilised.

But other experts have offered Birmingham their support over the project. Laurent Lachal, an open-source analyst with Ovum, took a positive line, but still questioned the project costs. 

"It is expensive. But there are so many issues to take into account — hardware, software, service costs, porting applications. If Birmingham is not ready [for Linux], then they are perfectly right to stay where they are," said Lachal.

SocITM, a professional association for public-sector ICT professionals, also supported the project. Its international secretary Bob Griffith said the size of the rollout was appropriate. "It's a learning exercise: what are the issues involved?" said Griffith. "Birmingham couldn't afford to fail so it had to be careful on project management. The public had to be involved. Then there is training. It soon eats up that sort of money."

Microsoft's head of platform strategy, Nick McGrath, would not be drawn on the specifics of the Birmingham project, but he said: "I would always recommend that the customer took solid analysis, whether it is for commercial or non-commercial software. But with Linux and open-source software, free is just not the case. There is support and there is maintenance, in the same way as there is with Microsoft."

McGrath added that there were significantly more IT professionals with the skills to support Windows systems, compared with open-source alternatives. "The skills required to own and manage open-source technology are more challenging," he said.

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11 comments
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  • Issues that have not been explored

    Birmingham City Council didn't migrate 'back' to Windows XP, because they were never on Windows XP in the first place. They used Sun Solaris on Sun's Sunray thin clients in the libraries.

    The publishing of the independent market research report undertaken during the trials would show this. It would also show that the Birmingham public were delighted with the GNU/Linux desktops in the public trial.

    The failure of this project has got nothing to do with whether GNU/Linux was suitable for the libraries or not. In fact the trial proved it was.

    The root of the problem was that BCC project managers and technicians were ineffective and unwilling to seek professional advice during the deployment phase.
    dogStar5000
  • Lame excuses

    This all looks like lame excuses to me. They claim "that training eats up that sort money". Well, so does Windows XP. In fact, installing Linux systems, such as RHEL or Novell Desktop or Ubuntu is easier than Windows XP. Also, Linux does provide excellent thin-client solutions.

    The real issue is not the underlying OS, nor the training, but the software being used. Does the OS support the needed software? And does the OS support the needed hardware? You don't need to waste half a million pounds to answer these simple questions. Using open standards is the best solution for public services like libraries. But even if this is not possible, they could have easily run both systems with the appropriate virtualisation software like XenSource.
    JNeuhoff-24734724177744930400675730175219
  • Facts: Successful Pilot

    Coming to what we know of the project, the implementation of the Linux pilot I believe was a success, and various members of the linux community, opensource advantage, south birmingham linux group and the open source academy were initially involved in the project.


    When I have visited Birmingham Central Library, the linux machines were always in use with a waiting queue and appeared to be more available then the other machines in the library at the time.

    The version of linux distribution was chosen as it had all the functionality they required as well as being available and backed by a company like Novell. At the time, 9.3 was the current and supported version and not out of date as suggested. For a big organisation it was important for official support to be available to reassure the rest of the business. According to the presentation given to SBLUG, Ubuntu was assessed and did do well in the initial trails on a equal par to Suse, but the implementation team had prior experience of SuSE and some other distros but not of Ubuntu. In addition certain required enterprise grade applications Birmingham required were only supported by their manufacturers on either SuSE or RedHat.

    I believe it was the Birmingham Libraries powers that be that pulled the plug on the rollout as they didn
    TestU-b3be0
  • Facts: Successful Pilot

    Coming to what we know of the project, the implementation of the Linux pilot I believe was a success, and various members of the linux community, opensource advantage, south birmingham linux group and the open source academy were initially involved in the project.


    When I have visited Birmingham Central Library, the linux machines were always in use with a waiting queue and appeared to be more available then the other machines in the library at the time.

    The version of linux distribution was chosen as it had all the functionality they required as well as being available and backed by a company like Novell. At the time, 9.3 was the current and supported version and not out of date as suggested. For a big organisation it was important for official support to be available to reassure the rest of the business. According to the presentation given to SBLUG, Ubuntu was assessed and did do well in the initial trails on a equal par to Suse, but the implementation team had prior experience of SuSE and some other distros but not of Ubuntu. In addition certain required enterprise grade applications Birmingham required were only supported by their manufacturers on either SuSE or RedHat.

    I believe it was the Birmingham Libraries powers that be that pulled the plug on the rollout as they didn
    TestU-b3be0
  • Tax Payers Pay Again

    Once again we have schemes thought up by self styled "experts" at outlandish costs - and then fail.
    Instead of these "experts" we need just plain old common sense and tightening of the tax payer filled purse strings.
    If the experts were only paid by successful results then we would likely get greater successes.
    hampshirehog
  • Fact: Successful pilot, disasterous rollout

    TU> Facts: Successful Pilot
    DS> The library pilot was successful because it wasn't run by the council's IT department. Members of the Open Source Consortium were responsible for deploying the pilot Linux machines. Birmingham's IT department then erased the winning desktop (Gnome on Ubuntu) in favour of an outdated version of Suse. The subsequent rollout was an unqualified disaster.

    TU> Coming to what we know of the project, the implementation of the Linux pilot I believe was a success, and various members of the linux community, opensource advantage, south birmingham linux group and the open source academy were initially involved in the project.
    DS> Neither have any large scale deployment experience.

    TU> When I have visited Birmingham Central Library, the linux machines were always in use with a waiting queue and appeared to be more available then the other machines in the library at the time.
    DS> That's because they are free to use. The Solaris thin-clients were also heavily used, but not liked by the public.

    Read the independent market research ... oh that's right, it was never published.

    TU> The version of linux distribution was chosen as it had all the functionality they required as well as being available and backed by a company like Novell. At the time, 9.3 was the current and supported version and not out of date as suggested...
    DS> The Suse version used was out of date at the time - BCC were advised of this. The Birmingham IT team's only experience of running Linux desktops was installing Suse on their home PCs - hence the decision to go with Suse. There are many other distributions of Linux backed by credible vendors and independent consultancies - most of whom aren't imploding and doing deals with Microsoft to stay in the game.
    dogStar5000
  • Read the Report

    The project was not a failure due to the OS distribution choice or because the choosen distribution did'nt work I've been told it was simply due to the business (Libraries) not wanting to implement a solution which they saw as a too big change for them, and more work, training for their library staff. The trial dogstar is on about was not the pilot but an initial trail run by libraries to see what the public prefered as the look and feel for the desktop. But Ubuntu (who clearly dogstar is an advocate of) was not chosen as the maturity of the distribution and official support was not proven.

    I suggesst people read the report that was published for the Opwn Source Academy before making up their minds and placing blame.

    http://opensourceacademy.gov.uk/solutions/casestudies/birminham-city-council
    TestU-b3be0
  • Open source debate brought to a close - for now

    http://society.guardian.co.uk/e-public/story/0,,1786068,00.html

    Open source debate brought to a close - for now

    Arguments over whether open source software really does save money over commercial rivals have come to a head...

    S A Mathieson
    Wednesday May 31, 2006
    The Guardian

    Is open source software - collaboratively written and free of licence fees - cheaper than proprietary software? A series of government-sponsored trials has produced an official answer to this intensely debated question and the results are interesting: open source application software used for specific tasks such as word-processing is often fit for purpose but the operating system Linux is often not.

    Over the past year, three large local authorities have used
    TestU-b3be0
  • Open source debate brought to a close - for now

    This hit Birmingham city council's attempt to move 134 library staff to a full set of open source software, including SuSE's Linux operating system, OpenOffice 2.0 and web-browser Firefox. The city's library management software, Galaxy, works only on Microsoft Windows. DS, the supplier, was prepared to produce a Linux version, but this would have taken too long and cost too much for the trial.

    Les Timms, IT manager at the city's IT provider, Service Birmingham, says niche suppliers understandably focus on their area of expertise rather than on providing software for multiple operating systems. Staff have stayed with Microsoft Windows XP, although they have moved fairly smoothly to OpenOffice 2.0.

    The city also had mixed results with public access computers: after trials in three libraries, it is making 130 all open source, although 66 used for education will use Windows and OpenOffice 2.0.

    The trial found other problems with Linux, with public-access computers sometimes failing to recognise diskettes and memory sticks or incorrectly saying these were full. "There were quite a lot of problems getting it working," says Timms, although this was achieved.

    "I would caution against snap decisions saying, 'let's go fully open source in this area'," Timms advises other local authorities. "You may not need as many people, as the technology is very reliable, but you do need a depth of expertise."

    However, Service Birmingham has identified several staff with previously-unknown open source skills, developed in their spare time. "Quite unusually for a local government environment, when I talked to people about it, lots of people wanted to join the project," says Timms.

    Cheshire county council also experienced mixed results in trying to extend the life of PCs dating from the late 1990s, by installing Linux and open source web-browsers through which users access central computer systems. Around a dozen staff are using the reconditioned machines - with new keyboards and screens to disguise their vintage - with only one such computer failing so far.

    However, the council originally considered testing 400 old PCs from social services; it eventually tested around two dozen, and successfully converted around half of these.

    One reason for the reduced numbers, says Bev Roberts, head of ICT strategy and policy, is that many social services staff are moving to mobile working: "The department was saying, 'we need to replace some of these old PCs with portables or notebooks'."

    In some cases, there were compatibility problems between Linux and the new screens but, in others, the difficulties were lower-tech. "We found the plastic was really brittle," says Roberts. "The on-off switches were breaking, the plastic was shattering." She hopes that hardware made this decade will be more durable, which may allow Cheshire to keep PCs in service for longer than five years.

    An opportunity to test this may arise because Cheshire, like many local authorities, was given one-off funding to equip libraries with public-access computers around four years ago. "They are getting old now, and there never has been the budget put aside to replace those," says Roberts - Birmingham's library trial may be applicable. Weblink

    Detailed reports on the trials: www.opensourceacademy.org.uk/solutions/casestudies
    TestU-b3be0
  • Distro choice

    "Ubuntu was not chosen as the maturity of the distribution and official support was not proven"

    Really?

    Distrowatch has been listing Ubuntu as the most popular distribution on the planet for years now:
    http://distrowatch.com/dwres.php?resource=major

    There are 23 UK companies listed on Ubuntu's commercial support page. Most of these companies are also Open Source Consortium members:
    http://www.ubuntu.com/support/marketplace/europe

    hmmmmm...
    anonymous
  • Open Source debate barely started

    The soon-to-be-published European Commission funded study into the Economics of Open Source (known as FOSS in Continental Europe) will show unequivocally that the 'results' publicised so far in the UK (Newham and related 'case-studies') are quantitively and qualitively *entirely* different to the results from the rest of Europe. Even more to the point, they are entirely different to the UK Case Studies of *successful* Open Source projects which do not appear to have received much column at all yet.

    There is clearly something quite different going on in the UK. An interesting question is what that might be?

    The Open Source debate is only just getting started here...
    anonymous