Birmingham begins major open source pilot

Open source is going under the microscope in Birmingham, where the City Council has a 'certain degree of scepticism' about its benefits

Birmingham City Council has started a giant trial of open source software on desktops and servers, intended to determine whether open source really delivers benefits.

The council — the largest in Europe — will move 1,500 desktops and all the associated back-end servers in its library service to Linux and other open source software including OpenOffice and Firefox. The year-long trial will be backed by government money, and include a final, neutral assessment of the value of the move. Public terminals in libraries will be shifted to Linux, as well as office systems in the library service.

The council has been given a grant amounting to hundreds of thousands of pounds by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, under the e-innovations programme. A total of £1.3m has been given to various open source projects, which will be gathered and published through the Open Source Academy, a portal for public sector IT in the UK.

"We're taking a hard-headed approach," said Les Timms, head of IT at the council's development directorates, on Monday. "We're coming at it with a certain degree of scepticism. We want to know — can we deliver this with a reasonable cost, including integration, implementation and support? What is not proven is the long term sustainability of open source. If you've already got a predominantly conventional architecture, your support staff and structures will be based round that. Introducing open source into that could add cost."

Other projects with government support include Bristol Council's move to put StarOffice on 5,000 Windows desktops. Birmingham is going further in using a full open source solution, albeit on a small number of systems.

"We will need to link back to existing storage solutions, and the Council's [Lotus] Notes email system," said Timms. "We already have a people's network using SunRay terminals, so staff and customers are used to using StarOffice. What we will do is extend that onto PCs, and increase the number of screens available to the public."

"Local authority chief executives are naturally risk-averse," said Timms. "The Open Source Academy will provide a national framework for what we are doing. This should explode some of the myths about the risks of open source."

The final write-up will be done by a neutral observer, said Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium, an advocate of government use of open source: "Every report on open source is skewed. What the world needs is some objective study."

This sort of pilot is needed to make open source benefits clear to local authorities, said Taylor: "There is a learning curve, and that incurs a cost," he said. "In the private sector we would need investment. The public sector is more risk-averse, and needs this sort of pilot."

Birmingham will spend some time creating a usability study that decides which applications and operating systems make most sense, and roll it out later this year. "Probably we will use a Web browser version of Notes, for instance" said Timms.