Criticism mounts over Birmingham's Linux project

Project costs of over £2,500 per Linux PC raise eyebrows in the open-source community, but some experts are supporting Birmingham
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

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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