After a 10-year Linux migration, Munich considers switching back to Windows and Office

For the past decade, Munich has been the poster child for open-source advocates, who pointed to its successful migration from a Microsoft platform to one built on Linux and OpenOffice. Now, a newly elected government has called in experts to see whether it's time to switch back.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

In most of the world, the Year of Desktop Linux never happened. In southern Germany, though, the city of Munich has spent the last 10 years migrating away from Windows and aggressively adopting Linux, OpenOffice (later switched to LibreOffice), and other open-source solutions instead.

Munich’s city council voted in 2003 to spend 30 million Euro over 10 years to make the transition, using a customized version of Ubuntu that it dubbed LiMux. The migration was declared complete in 2013.

And now, months after that milestone was achieved, the city’s newly formed coalition government is commissioning a study to determine whether it should phase out Linux and return to the Microsoft fold.

If you suspect politics is behind the tech scheming, you might be right.

The Second (deputy) Mayor of Munich, Josef Schmid, said the re-examination is necessary because of complaints from employees, who Schmid said are “suffering” in the transition. Schmid lost a runoff election for Mayor earlier this year to Dieter Reiter but was named Second Mayor in May as part of a coalition government.

The original decision to kick Microsoft to the curb wasn’t based on costs. Instead, according to a 2008 report from the European Commission, the main motive was “the desire for strategic independence from software suppliers”—including a single very large software supplier based in Redmond, Washington, U.S.A. At the time the original decision was debated, there was no shortage of rhetoric from proponents about Microsoft as a monopolist.

In fact, the original 2003 study projected that the “proprietary solution,” based on Windows and Microsoft Office, would have cost 35 million Euro, or about 2.5 million Euro less than the open-source alternative after accounting for personnel and training costs.

A 2012 report commissioned by the city boasted that the migration had actually saved 11.6 million Euro, including 5 million Euro in hardware upgrade costs required for Windows 7 and licensing costs of 4.2 million Euro for Windows and 2.6 million Euro for Office on 15,000 municipal PCs. The city’s report estimated the costs of personnel and training as identical at roughly 22 million Euro in either scenario.

Microsoft disputed those results with a study it commissioned in early 2013 that reportedly showed the LiMux project costing more than 60 million Euro, compared to the 17 million Euro that the company said a Windows XP and Office solution would have cost. City officials said the report was based on “flawed assumptions.”

There’s no question that Microsoft’s licensing costs add a significant chunk of change to the overall cost of a major government deployment like this one when compared with free-as-in-beer software. But as critics have pointed out, there are substantial costs involved with being the outlier when virtually every other government agency in the country uses Windows.

Sabine Nallinger, who ran for mayor for the Greens, noted that data exchange was especially problematic and didn’t work properly. Schmid agreed, telling Munich’s largest newspaper, Süddeutsche Zeitung, that “Linux is very expensive” because of the need for custom programming.

And getting rid of all proprietary software isn’t realistically an option. That 2008 EC report noted that Munich uses 300 “specialised administrative software packages” to perform its official duties. Although the goal was to replace those proprietary applications with platform-independent alternatives, the reality is that most would probably end up running in Windows inside a virtual machine, which of course requires paying Microsoft a license fee.

And so Munich is back to Square One, with a team of independent experts evaluating the alternatives. “If the experts recommend a return to Microsoft, then it cannot be ruled out,” Schmid said.

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