Open source is 'below the radar' of local government

Open source is 'below the radar' of local government

Summary: LinuxWorld: The London mayor's IT adviser says that the use of open-source software such as Linux is a pretty low priority for IT managers in local government


Alex Bax, a senior policy officer at the Greater London Authority (GLA) led by London mayor Ken Livingstone, said that open source was not an important issue to local government.

"Open source is below the radar of senior decision makers," said Bax, speaking at a public sector conference session at the LinuxWorld Expo in London on Thursday.

Bax said that political pressures dominate local government and politicians don't win votes through supporting open-source software.

The lack of GLA's interest in open source is revealed by a document on IT policies for London published in January 2004. The document only mentions open-source software once in its 24 pages, in terms of its potential to make the Internet more affordable for low income households.

The GLA's lack of interest in open source is not shared by all local government bodies in London. Newham Borough Council recently went through a high-profile tendering process involving both Linux and Windows, eventually choosing to go with the proprietary solution from Microsoft.

Bax said there are various reasons why open-source software has had a limited use in software systems developed by various government bodies. Some argue that the total cost of ownership of Linux is lower than for Microsoft's Windows, but Bax said that TCO is less important in governments than in the private sector.

"Government departments have fixed yearly budgets, and if you haven't spent the budget then you don't get the money the next year," said Bax.

Proprietary software is also perceived as a less risky option, according to Bax. "With an open-source system what happens in two years' time? What guarantees do you have that the system will still be there and still be developed?" said Bax.

Bax said the public sector holds the companies which develop IT systems accountable through strict contractual agreements. He believes this is an unresolved issue with open-source projects, where it can be unclear who should be held accountable for problems with the system.

However, he said that the issue of accountability was being addressed now that large companies, such as IBM, HP and Novell have put the weight behind Linux, according to Bax.

"The public sector has to trust the supplier community. There are lots of big companies supporting Linux, which gives us comfort," said Bax.

One big advantage for Linux is the issue of choice -- in many areas of technology there are various options within the proprietary market, but in the desktop space the lack of choice has driven interest in finding alternative suppliers. "The public sector has become more interested in operating systems because Microsoft has dominated the desktop," said Bax.

As previously reported byZDNet UK, some people feel that the best way to get a good deal with Microsoft is by saying that you're considering Linux, a tactic that Bax also takes seriously.

"Competition helps on price and innovation -- we can wave the Linux operating system at Microsoft and it brings prices down," said Bax.

One area when Bax sees open source as the clear winner over proprietary systems is in the development of e-voting systems, as it is vital that any technology used to run elections is seen as transparent.

"E-voting systems should be on an open-source platform so that people know there is nothing going on underneath which they don't know about. You can't have a system which isn't open source -- everyone has to right to see how votes are counted."

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  • So..."TCO is less important in governments than in the private sector"

    but..."Competition helps on price and innovation -- we can wave the Linux operating system at Microsoft and it brings prices down,"

    I think someone needs to go Bax to basics
  • "Competition helps on price and innovation -- we can wave the Linux operating system at Microsoft and it brings prices down"

    He's not joking. When a major company or government say they're considering Linux we hear of MS offering special deals on Windows and in extreme cases flying an executive out to plead Windows' case.
  • This person should be sacked!
    This is not what I consider good use of tax payers money. The statement "if we don't spend as much as possible this year we will not get it next year" says it all. He should be saying if we spend all of our money this year effeciently by utilising cheaper but better technology (not just open source) to keep costs down we will be providing more for less.
  • Microsoft has, for some time, argues that the Total Cost of Ownership of Open Source software includes a high cost for expert support resources, and applies this to the cost of Windows Server versus Linux.

    In my opinion, this argument is ill-founded. It is true that setting up a Linux server system may need skilled resources, while setting up a Windows Server system can often be done "out of the box" with almost no expertise at all. However, the skills needed to set up a Linux system are well provided by excellent books and by a huge free resource pool on the World Wide Web. True, some understanding of the concepts involved is necessary, but any intelligent IP practitioner will gain them by reading and will then be well placed, at relatively low cost, to support his system as it evolves.

    On the other hand, when a Windows system goes wrong, the usual resort is just to restart it and try again. Why? Because the resources to diagnose and fix problems hardly exist at all. A Microsoft -certified practitioner might be able to work through a list of troubleshooting steps, but when they fail to help, as is usually the case, he is powerless to diagnose or fix the problems because the tools don't exist, the mechanisms are cloaked in proprietary secrecy, and the source code is unavailable to be studied or fixed. Sometimes the owner has to give up and admit that his task can't be carried out, or that another method has to be found.

    The result is Windows systems that fail unpredictably, are insecure and cost their owners huge amounts of lost time - and sometimes other financial losses. In my view, the TCO consequences put Microsoft Windows in a poor light.

    It isn't necessarily so for other proprietary software. More enlightened companies who devote a proper share of their revenues to quality, reliability and customer support can produce fine products with modest costs of ownership that can compete well with Open Source solutions. Many "legacy" products fall into this category and have been giving their owners good service for many years.