Large public-sector Linux project flops

Birmingham City Council received £500k of public money, but rolled out only 200 Linux PCs
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

A publicly funded Linux project which cost UK taxpayers half-a-million pounds has flopped.

Birmingham City Council began the project — one of the largest public-sector Linux projects in the UK — in May 2005 to evaluate the potential of open-source software. The council, the largest local authority in the UK, intended to deploy open-source software on 1,500 PCs in libraries across the city.

But the project has fallen vastly short of expectations, with just 200 Linux PCs being deployed. Even some of those have been migrated back to Windows, council executives have told ZDNet UK.

"We have deployed open source in some libraries. We have worked on the basis of 200 PCs. In some cases, we have migrated back to Windows," said Les Timms, project manager at the city council. "1,500 was the original plan. It was a figure plucked from the air at the time," Timms told ZDNet UK.

Timms said the council had compared the cost of the Linux desktop migration with an upgrade to Windows XP, and had found that a Microsoft upgrade would be cheaper. Most of the difference was made up of costs attributed to "decision making" and "project management", largely brought about because of a shortage of skills in open-source networking and the changes to IT processes that would result.

The Linux project cost £534,710, while the equivalent XP upgrade would have cost the council £429,960. There were a range of problems with the open-source implementation, Timms said, including desktop interfaces and lack of support for removeable drives.

In the light of the findings, the council has taken the decision to mothball the project.

Timms has now moved jobs to work for Service Birmingham, a joint venture between Birmingham City Council and Capita, which is focusing on increasing business efficiency. Responsibility for the day-to-day running of the council's IT now rests with transformation chief Glyn Evans. Evans told ZDNet UK: "We will continue with a mixed economy [Microsoft and open source]." But he warned, "I'm not an open-source fanatic."

Birmingham's project was funded through the £1.3m central government-backed Open Source Academy (OSA), which has itself faced mixed fortunes.

Although the OSA has supported successful projects such as a 5,500-desktop PC project run by Bristol City Council, it has also been blighted by criticism. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister withdrew its support from the OSA in March after accusations of poor management and after its dissemination programme flopped spectacularly.

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