French opt for laissez-faire Linux

The French tax agency claims that upgrading its 80,000 desktops to Office XP would cost €29.5m, but switching to only €200,000

"Think small, start small, scale up." The strategy ex-Wal-Mart executive Michael Bergdahl claims was responsible for creating one of the most successful businesses ever, is good advice for organisations looking to adopt open source.

Organisations that "think big" when deploying open source can run into problems. Take the City of Munich, which decided to migrate its 14,000 desktops to Linux two years ago, but is not actually going to start the migration until 2006, claiming that an "additional pilot" is necessary. Paris City Council was planning a migration to open source software on its servers and desktops, but later nixed its plans claiming "the scenario of a near-term massive migration to open source... appeared incompatible with the original state of the technology and systems".

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In contrast, and possibly in reaction to the previous examples, the French tax agency (Direction Générale des Impôts) has opted for slowly, slowly approach. The agency, which manages the taxes of all states and cities in France, has been investigating open source for more than five years. As early as 2000, the agency was running a mission-critical application on open source systems. It then decided to standardise on the open source application server JBoss in 2004 and is now planning to migrate 80,000 PCs to the open source productivity suite

Slow and steady
The agency is currently using 150 open source products across its offices and has mandated the use of open source for all new projects, according to Jean-Marie Lapeyre, chief technical officer at the French tax agency. Open source software is attractive for a number of reasons, says Lapeyre. In his view it cuts costs, reduces vendor lock-in, improves standards compliance and increases flexibility.

The cost savings realised by the agency are considerable, with support and maintenance now budgeted at systems. The agency is now saving around €20m per year, says Lapeyre — a considerable chunk of the agency's €200m (£140m) yearly IT budget.

Ten times less than proprietary
Three companies — Capgemini, Linagora and Bull — are due to provide support for the 150 open source products used in the company, which already uses ATOS Origin to provide support for its JBoss systems. Each of the services companies in turn uses a number of subcontractors to provide support for the individual products, for example, JBoss is a subcontractor to ATOS Origin.

But despite the double-layer of consultants involved in supporting open source, the savings are still considerable. "If I add the costs of supporting JBoss and the costs of the new contracts I will sign, the total corresponds to ten times less than what I would pay for proprietary software," says Lapeyre.

The avoidance of vendor lock-in, associated traditionally with proprietary software, is also an important consideration for the agency. With proprietary software only the company that made it can provide comprehensive support as only it has access to the source code, but any company can support software from an open source project as the source code is freely available, says Lapeyre.

"We can have a contract with any player to support open source products. At the moment JBoss is providing support for its product, but in the future this could change. We are not...

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...dependent on any vendor — we received three proposals based on JBoss [for the original tender] — one was based on JBoss providing support, two were without JBoss as a subcontractor," says Lapeyre.

Modify the code
The fact that the tax agency can access and modify the source code of open source software is also useful, as it can fix problems or add features in-house, rather than waiting for a vendor update.

"It's good that if we want we can make a modification or fix software. For example, Nagios [an open source host, service and network monitoring program] had a bug in it and we didn't have support from anyone, so two of our engineers fixed it. But, if we go to a [proprietary] vendor like Microsoft and say we have a problem, their answer is to switch to the next version," he says.

As for the downsides of open source, Lapeyre says that in the past the main disadvantage was the lack of commercial support, but this is no longer a problem. "There is [still] a perception that this is a problem, but this is no longer valid. There was no market for [commercial] open source support two years ago, but this is no longer the case," he explains.

Support no longer an issue
The tax agency has supported its open source products in-house in the past, but is now contracting it to external companies to ensure quality of service across the board.

"The contractors make a barrier between me and the complexity of the open source community. Today, I can contact the open source community if I want support, but there's no engagement or commitment. Contractors provide that commitment and manage the community and smaller companies that provide the support," says Lapeyre.

One of the first major deployments of open source software by the agency was back in 2000, when it deployed 850 servers to run an application that manages income tax. The agency is now running around 4000 Linux servers, the majority of which are running a variant of the Red Hat distribution. However Lapeyre claims Red Hat is not being used to support the product as another provider submitted a more competitive tender. "We don't pay Red Hat a cent," he says.

A few years after its mission-critical Linux deployment, the agency decided to standardise on JBoss, after a proposal based on the open source application server was ranked highest out of a number of tenders, including tenders from the proprietary vendors BEA, IBM and Oracle, according to Lapeyre. The contract, which was signed with services company ATOS Origin and uses JBoss as a subcontractor, is worth "several million euros", he says.

From 2004, every new project in the tax agency that requires an application server must use JBoss and legacy applications must be migrated to the open source application server when possible, says Lapeyre. Already, almost every front-end system in the tax agency is running on JBoss and a mission-critical online tax declaration system was migrated to the application server in August.

The tax declaration system, which is the biggest system run by the agency, was used by 3.8 million people this year. As tax declarations are due at the same time, the system receives the majority of its traffic over just over a month, receiving 5 billion hits during this period in 2005. Although JBoss was deployed after the peak period, it will need to handle the performance requirement next year.

After its positive experience with JBoss, the tax agency decided to mandate the use of open source across the organisation. "Since 2000, we have considered open source on the same criteria as proprietary products. We switched our policy in 2004 because of...

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...our good experience with JBoss. Now, if we have a new need and a good open source product exists to cover the need, we will use that product. Up till now we have not had a problem finding a product that meets our needs," says Lapeyre.

80,000 desktops
The next major open source migration planned at the tax agency is a migration to the open source productivity application on 80,000 desktops. It hopes to switch to running on Windows XP, "probably by the end of next year", according to Lapeyre.

This migration is expected to cut the agency's costs by €29.3m, compared with the cost of migrating from Microsoft Office 97 to Office XP. Lapeyre says that the agency has calculated that switching its 80,000 desktops to Office XP would cost around €29.5m, but switching to only €200,000. Although this cost is a one-off saving, Lapeyre points out that due to the need for regular upgrades it will effectively save this amount every five years.

Since last year, the agency has given departments the choice of using or sticking to Office 97. It now plans to mandate the use of, a migration that should be fairly straightforward as few employees use the more complex features of Microsoft Office, according to Lapeyre.

Three man-years to be free of Office
"Our use of Office is very, very basic. The majority of our employees do not really use office programs — they mainly use business applications, which are not linked to Office. The documents produced are, in majority of cases, very simple — there are no macros or anything like that," says Lapeyre.

"We have calculated that to be completely independent of Microsoft Office, would need three man-years," he adds.

The organisation has already updated some applications to generate documents rather than Office documents. This modification is "very easy", according to Lapeyre. But some applications are more tightly linked to Office and will require more work to adapt, he says.

The tax agency may also migrate to Linux desktops in the future, although this will require much more work, according to Lapeyre.

"It's difficult to switch to Linux on the desktop for the moment because we have about 30 desktop applications that have been developed in Visual Basic. It's technically possible to switch the desktops to Linux, but the VB licence doesn't allow you to run them on non-Windows systems," says Lapeyre.

"We need to get rid of all these programs and will have to redevelop everything using Web-based technologies before we can switch," he says.

Bold yet measured
Even if the tax agency does not switch to Linux in the near future, its current open source deployments and the fact it has mandated open source makes it one of the most progressive public sector users of open source in Europe.

Its adoption and attitude to open source has been bold, yet measured — initially treating open source and proprietary software as equal and then after a couple of successful large-scale deployments mandating the use of open source. Other public sector organisations that are unwilling to carry out large-scale open source deployments might do well to follow the tax agency's strategy.