'Like driving a Ferrari at 20mph': Why one region ditched Microsoft Office for LibreOffice

'Like driving a Ferrari at 20mph': Why one region ditched Microsoft Office for LibreOffice

Summary: One of the most carefully designed transitions away from proprietary software is underway in the Italian province of Umbria, with cost, culture and efficiency all spurring the move.

Perugia, the capital of Umbria
Perugia, the capital of Umbria - and Italy's open source movement? Image: Shutterstock

If you're up for a visit to the beautiful Italian region of Umbria, better make sure your laptop is running some open source software — chances are you'll feel more at home there.

This small area in the middle of the Boot, known for its centuries-old monasteries and for being the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, is in fact quickly becoming a mecca of free software.

Thanks to a project called LibreUmbria, the biggest local government bodies are migrating to LibreOffice in what's thought to be the most carefully-designed transition away from proprietary software ever undertaken. Though not as big as other international migration initiatives, the Umbrian project has been praised for its attention it pays to every aspect of the transition, not just the technical ones.

St Francis was all for giving things away and held frugality in high regard — as do his fellow countrymen of LibreUmbria, whose primary goal is to bring savings to the government bodies involved.

The cost of the migration is calculated to be around €56,000 per thousand workstations while the price of the same number of Microsoft Office licences would amount to €284,490. "That's what we would have to have paid had we decided to upgrade our licences which, for budget reasons, were stuck on the 2010 version of Office: so it's roughly a saving of €228,000," said Sonia Montegiove, who works in the IT department of the province of Perugia and is one of the coordinators of the project.

Though important, spending isn't the whole story — the drive for efficiency was also a priority. "We found out that most of our users exploit just 15 percent of their productivity suite, but you paying for the other 85 percent as well. It's just like if you owned a Ferrari and only used it to drive at 30km per hour through the middle of town," Alfiero Ortali, head of IT at the province of Perugia, added.

Cultural and ethical considerations also play a prominent role in the migration. "Right now, along with Munich, I'd call LibreUmbria the most advanced experience of migration in the world," said Italo Vignoli, who sits in the board of directors of the Document Foundation, the entity that supports the development of LibreOffice. "It refined the models of previous projects and put them together in a process that is easily reproducible with all the documentation available for sharing in Creative Commons."

A complex job

The reach of the project also sets it apart from similar switches. It encompasses the migration of different organisations such as the provinces of Perugia and Terni, the region of Umbria and several regional health districts. In total, more than 7,000 PCs are expected to shift to LibreOffice, 2,000 of them by 2014. The target seems well within reach since around 1,000 PCs of the province of Perugia and 500 belonging to USL Umbria 1, the public health organisation involved in the project, have already installed the open source suite.

The participation of many local government bodies makes the initiative more complex but at the same time more effective, since the public sector is a diverse system and needs coordination when it comes to formats and standards.

"We routinely have exchanges of documents with other public bodies, so you can't go to a different suite all by yourself, particularly for the most complex files, such as the financial ones. The large participation in LibreUmbria helps in this regard," said Barbara Gamboni, who leads the IT department of USL Umbria 1, a local public health organisation that reports to the region of Umbria.

So far employees are reportedly happy with the change, a fact that, according to the people managing the project, is due to the emphasis the initiative puts on listening and training.

"We use to say: 'first train, then install'. It means that we try to start from the needs of the users which is not to have an open source software but a software they know how to use and are comfortable with," Perugia's Montegiove said.

Communication too plays an important part in the process. From the very beginning a concerted effort was made to explain the rationale behind the change to users, with different messages crafted for different categories of people in order to suit their different needs. "We targeted both employees and supervisors, putting together two lists of five reasons each for the migration. We called it five plus five," said Montegiove, who also pushed for the launch of a blog dedicated to the project. Arguments about savings, she said, might appeal supervisors or politicians, while employees might be more tickled by the opportunities of training.

For love of the open

In the last few years, free software seems to have gained momentum in the Italian public sector as the economic situation in the country got worse. The austerity measures imposed by the central government are hitting local organisations hard, forcing them to find every possible way to tighten their belt, with IT doing its part. Ambitious migrations like LibreUmbria's or the one underway in the northern Province of South Tyrol could then be seen as a way to respond to this new financial context. But here, in the middle of Italy, it's more than just that.

Umbria's passion for open source has solid roots going back to the pre-financial crisis era as in 2006 it became the first Italian region to pass local legislation explicitly favouring non-proprietary software. "The region," the legislation says, "promotes the spread and the development of open source software, particularly in Umbria's public sector, because it has a positive effect on scientific and technological research and it reduces the cost of licences." Among the legacies of that legislation is a competence centre on open source that is now playing a big role in supporting the Umbria migration.

Such a long-standing interest in free software has also given birth to a passionate community of 'believers' within the public sector which thinks that non-proprietary software is not only economically efficient but also ethically right. As evangelists, they're ready to offer some free time in order to share the idea and are happy to think long-term. As a way of spreading the open source philosophy in the area, for instance, LibreUmbria's people will soon begin training sessions on free software and IT security for teachers and parents in one of Perugia's school districts.

The hope is that, besides helping preparedness for a possible transition to LibreOffice in their organisations, participants will pass their knowledge onto pupils and children — the younger, the better: "We will start with primary schools because, you know, we think the use of free software is an habit that should grow into the kids very early," said Montegiove.

As St Francis might have put it, "Let the little children come to me"...

More on open source migrations

Topics: Enterprise Software, Open Source, Operating Systems, EU

Raffaele Mastrolonardo

About Raffaele Mastrolonardo

Raffaele Mastrolonardo is a journalist and co-founder of effecinque news agency. He has been writing about technology for the past 11 years or so for some of the most important Italian news media.

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  • The world is better off without Microsoft Office

    This should be a template for what every town and city across the world should do.

    They should get rid of Microsoft Office.

    MS Office has no place in government institutions. Why should a citizen have to fork out hundreds of dollars to buy Microsoft Office in order to communicate with government? Government should be open and accessible.

    I hope many more towns, cities and national governments study very closely what the Italian province of Umbria has done, and everyone else should copy it.
    • I'd rather drive the Ferrari

      I used to use LibreOffice, but quite simply it is an inferior product, the major issue being performance. Case in point: a large spreadsheet with several hundred thousand data points I was using at uni took a minute to open on one of the department's very powerful lab machines (Xeons, 12GB RAM, etc) running LibreOffice, and hung when creating a graph. Office did both operations in a couple of seconds on my vastly inferior laptop.
      I'd like LibreOffice to be as good. It just isn't.
      • Much faster release schedule

        I may have started using it at the time you stopped, but I have been very impressed with the speed of improvements and updates to this product, with notable advances in usability. I can't say if the situation you describe has been rectified, but if this is a problem in Umbria it's possible they could purchase Excel for the 5 or 6 people who need to open and manipulate very large spreadsheets. If you do indeed need to do this repeatedly and I were your boss, I'd just buy you Excel. People cost much more than software, and keeping them happy is important for productivity. Excel jockeys are typically an exceptional group that benefits from the latest and greatest, but they constitute somewhere around .1% to 5% of most organizations. There's a lot of money to be saved on the rest of the crew
        Al S Cook-4ec56
        • Excel vs Database

          One item that is overlooked is whether the analysis could be done using a database (not Base or Access) such as MySQL or PostgreSQL. Then the results into a spreadsheet to be prettied.
          • Depends who it is doing the analysis

            A SQL jockey can do more number finessing than any pivot table wizard can. But a pivot table wizard is very powerful for those who don't know SQL. (Both Excel and Calc have pivot tables, for the record.)
          • Pivot Tables are not just for those who don't know SQL.

            I live in SQL, and yet there are just times where the pivot tables and pivot charts kicks SQL's behind. When analyzing data, pivot charts often highlight information that just can't be as easily visualized by staring at rows of data returned in SQL.

            The most disturbing part of trends like these in Italy is the devaluation of human effort required to develop quality software. As a result, the world is being handed more and more junk software all the time....because they are unwilling to pay for it. This alarming trend started with Apple and their Junk App store that devalued software to a ridiculous point. It just doesn't seem healthy and sustainable long term.
          • Free Software

            Yeah, I was kind of thinking the same thing. The idea of giving of some of your time to volunteer is certainly a good one (I do it) however if making a profit on development of software is considered a bad thing then who makes a living? The FOSS (is that what it's called?) embraces the idea that all software should be free. OK, then let's go after the tire companies next. Why should we pay for those? Food? Shudders ... that should be free too. Where does the silliness end?
            Max Peck
          • You don't understand scarcity.

            The FOSS model does not extend to tires or food because physical items are scarce. If I want to sell 100,000 tires, I have to invest a lot more money (warehouse space, employees, etc.) than I would if I wanted to sell 10,000 tires. Once you use a tire, you cannot use it again and again.

            In contrast, with software, you can copy and use again and again. It would take me little or no additional investment to hand out 10,000,000 copies of LibreOffice than it would if I wanted to hand out 10,000.
          • True, but

            True, but if the market demands free or low cost software, those who supply it win. Microsoft needs to reduce prices to keep market share as the world market grows. If they don't, they're just as responsible for the move to junk as the junk makers.
          • I have used MS Access since mid 1990's ...

            ... and at least that software never really impressed me at all. Lots of bugs, especially if you tried native language and all the other "special advantage ".

            And there is no doubt that if there are certain benefits for using MS Word i swear that most of users have no idea what they might be.
            Napoleon XIV
          • MS Office is proprietary and tied into Windows, it's not just a program.

            A lot of connections take place to the OS, which creates a lot of problems. Microsoft is able to connect to the OS for a variety of reasons.

            MDAC for Access is one example. Not having the correct version of MDAC files creates havoc when someone else tries to access information.

            Current LibreOffice is a much better choice. My daughter used OpenOffice and LibreOffice exclusively for all of her assignments as she went through High School and College. (on Linux Mint). It was notable that all through high school and college, I never received on request for help with her computer. No AV was used. No infections or slowdowns the entire time. Her original notebook still works fine with the original Linux software.
          • Human effort is not devalued via OSS.

            If you ask any one of the many, many software developers who work for RedHat, if their efforts are devalued, I think they'd say no. This is the case even though you can get their work product for free.

            In theory your view might have merit... but in reality, Microsoft can sell tens of millions of copies of Office 2013 at $300+ a pop, based on the effort of their developers who created one copy. Yes, at some point the sales numbers should pay for the cost of development, but when the sales number far exceeds that by an order of magnitude or two, your argument suddenly develops holes.

            In terms of this particular case - LibreOffice - there are many developers who are paid by various companies to work on LibreOffice. Their effort is not devalued; if it was, then they would stop developing LibreOffice and move to an employment situation that was more equitable.
          • SQL is good for well-defined requirements...

            ..for reporting and dashboarding, where the requirements are well-defined and something can be built that can then just be run with a set of parameters to pull the information into a specified format, SQL data works well.

            This isn't a good solution for ad-hoc reporting where the information is there and available (with that many datapoints, it is likely coming from a query or report already), but needs to be re-formatted with a fairly rapid turnaround time required. You aren't going to have most business analysts access your OLTP databases and build those queries and reports whenever they are needed, and you're not going to tie up your DBAs to keep writing and modifying stock SQL reports for this purpose.

            Generally, you'll build either a data-dump report that can be imported into a spreadsheet (with thousands of data points), or you're going to build a spreadsheet or interactive dashboard that interfaces directly to the database (a la PowerPivot, Tableau, or other BI tools). This is the area where Excel shines, regardless of what back-end database is being used.
        • I think you hit the nail right on the head there, AL S

          "Umbria it's possible they could purchase Excel for the 5 or 6 people who need to open and manipulate very large spreadsheets. If you do indeed need to do this repeatedly and I were your boss, I'd just buy you Excel. People cost much more than software, and keeping them happy is important for productivity."

          Really between the office suites, the most common deal maker or deal breaker is going to be Excel. For Word Processing, LibreOffice really has all that most people use, so buying MS Office for the word processor isn't as important anymore. As another user below notes, there are also others that may provide better capabilities than both Word, for marginally cheaper (WordPerfect offers a really nice combination of word processing with page-layout controls normally seen only in desktop publishing applications).

          I would say, though, that spreadsheet use in organizations is increasing as a percentage of the org, particularly in the accounting, operations, HR, or procurement areas (in short, pretty much everywhere). This is likely less the case in government (where forms are more common, and many places are moving to web-based forms away from document-based forms) which is more what is being discussed here, but you may find Excel being a planned exception that becomes more and more the rule in cases like this.
      • Not a realistic common scenario

        "Several hundred thousand data points" is not a typical scenario. The point they're making is that for the vast majority of government workers paying hundreds of dollars per user is ridiculous when ALL that user's needs can be met with non-proprietary software.

        And also, realistically, the AVERAGE government worker doesn't do ANY spreadsheets. They basically do wordprocessing. If they DO do any spreadsheet work it does not involve calculations, but simply filling in cells as if they are blanks in a form and then printing the form or emailing the spreadsheet form to someone.

        I'm a lawyer and I do MUCH more complicated wordprocessing than the average person, and for that reason I use WordPerfect. I do things like generating Tables of Authorities. But even for MY uses 99% of my wordprocessing involves text formatting and adding headers OR footers.
        • In the legal field, yes, it is atypical...

          ""Several hundred thousand data points" is not a typical scenario. The point they're making is that for the vast majority of government workers paying hundreds of dollars per user is ridiculous when ALL that user's needs can be met with non-proprietary software."

          In business environments (especially in corporate accounting, finance, and operations, where I spend most of my time), this is far from an atypical scenario - it is practically an every-day one.

          Also, while many of the government workers that we may deal with on an every-day basis are your typical desk-jockey administrator who renews your driver's license or takes your income-tax information, there are many, many, MANY behind the scenes that are involved in procurement, statistical analysis, operations, HR, etc that do more than fill out forms and answer the phone. Many of these people do, in fact, have need for more robust spreadsheets.
          • Yes but

            why update at all if they are on Office 2010? We are still using 2007 and it is fine.
          • Well that's a good question in itself...

            ..I have plenty of large business clients that are only now upgrading *to* Office 2010 - many of those from Office 2003.

            The only reason I can think of is that this is a longer-term migration (which makes sense) and they want to get the ball rolling now so that they are pretty much fully moved to L.O. before extended support ends on Office 2010.
          • I agree

            Office 13/365 have very few improvements over 10, except maybe easier collaboration. Many prefer the 10 interface, so I can see almost zero justification for changing from Office 10 to Libreoffice.
          • Certainly true for Word, in my opinion, however...

            ..there have actually been quite a number of improvements in Excel 2013 that make it worth the upgrade from 2010. Flash Fill - would be used by anybody; and new slicers and timelines for building interactive pivot tables, to name two.