'Like driving a Ferrari at 20mph': Why one region ditched Microsoft Office for LibreOffice

One of the most carefully designed transitions away from proprietary software is underway in the Italian province of Umbria, with cost, culture and efficiency all spurring the move.
Written by Raffaele Mastrolonardo, Contributor
Perugia, the capital of Umbria
Perugia, the capital of Umbria - and Italy's open source movement? Image: Shutterstock

If you're up for a visit to the beautiful Italian region of Umbria, better make sure your laptop is running some open source software — chances are you'll feel more at home there.

This small area in the middle of the Boot, known for its centuries-old monasteries and for being the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, is in fact quickly becoming a mecca of free software.

Thanks to a project called LibreUmbria, the biggest local government bodies are migrating to LibreOffice in what's thought to be the most carefully-designed transition away from proprietary software ever undertaken. Though not as big as other international migration initiatives, the Umbrian project has been praised for its attention it pays to every aspect of the transition, not just the technical ones.

St Francis was all for giving things away and held frugality in high regard — as do his fellow countrymen of LibreUmbria, whose primary goal is to bring savings to the government bodies involved.

The cost of the migration is calculated to be around €56,000 per thousand workstations while the price of the same number of Microsoft Office licences would amount to €284,490. "That's what we would have to have paid had we decided to upgrade our licences which, for budget reasons, were stuck on the 2010 version of Office: so it's roughly a saving of €228,000," said Sonia Montegiove, who works in the IT department of the province of Perugia and is one of the coordinators of the project.

Though important, spending isn't the whole story — the drive for efficiency was also a priority. "We found out that most of our users exploit just 15 percent of their productivity suite, but you paying for the other 85 percent as well. It's just like if you owned a Ferrari and only used it to drive at 30km per hour through the middle of town," Alfiero Ortali, head of IT at the province of Perugia, added.

Cultural and ethical considerations also play a prominent role in the migration. "Right now, along with Munich, I'd call LibreUmbria the most advanced experience of migration in the world," said Italo Vignoli, who sits in the board of directors of the Document Foundation, the entity that supports the development of LibreOffice. "It refined the models of previous projects and put them together in a process that is easily reproducible with all the documentation available for sharing in Creative Commons."

A complex job

The reach of the project also sets it apart from similar switches. It encompasses the migration of different organisations such as the provinces of Perugia and Terni, the region of Umbria and several regional health districts. In total, more than 7,000 PCs are expected to shift to LibreOffice, 2,000 of them by 2014. The target seems well within reach since around 1,000 PCs of the province of Perugia and 500 belonging to USL Umbria 1, the public health organisation involved in the project, have already installed the open source suite.

The participation of many local government bodies makes the initiative more complex but at the same time more effective, since the public sector is a diverse system and needs coordination when it comes to formats and standards.

"We routinely have exchanges of documents with other public bodies, so you can't go to a different suite all by yourself, particularly for the most complex files, such as the financial ones. The large participation in LibreUmbria helps in this regard," said Barbara Gamboni, who leads the IT department of USL Umbria 1, a local public health organisation that reports to the region of Umbria.

So far employees are reportedly happy with the change, a fact that, according to the people managing the project, is due to the emphasis the initiative puts on listening and training.

"We use to say: 'first train, then install'. It means that we try to start from the needs of the users which is not to have an open source software but a software they know how to use and are comfortable with," Perugia's Montegiove said.

Communication too plays an important part in the process. From the very beginning a concerted effort was made to explain the rationale behind the change to users, with different messages crafted for different categories of people in order to suit their different needs. "We targeted both employees and supervisors, putting together two lists of five reasons each for the migration. We called it five plus five," said Montegiove, who also pushed for the launch of a blog dedicated to the project. Arguments about savings, she said, might appeal supervisors or politicians, while employees might be more tickled by the opportunities of training.

For love of the open

In the last few years, free software seems to have gained momentum in the Italian public sector as the economic situation in the country got worse. The austerity measures imposed by the central government are hitting local organisations hard, forcing them to find every possible way to tighten their belt, with IT doing its part. Ambitious migrations like LibreUmbria's or the one underway in the northern Province of South Tyrol could then be seen as a way to respond to this new financial context. But here, in the middle of Italy, it's more than just that.

Umbria's passion for open source has solid roots going back to the pre-financial crisis era as in 2006 it became the first Italian region to pass local legislation explicitly favouring non-proprietary software. "The region," the legislation says, "promotes the spread and the development of open source software, particularly in Umbria's public sector, because it has a positive effect on scientific and technological research and it reduces the cost of licences." Among the legacies of that legislation is a competence centre on open source that is now playing a big role in supporting the Umbria migration.

Such a long-standing interest in free software has also given birth to a passionate community of 'believers' within the public sector which thinks that non-proprietary software is not only economically efficient but also ethically right. As evangelists, they're ready to offer some free time in order to share the idea and are happy to think long-term. As a way of spreading the open source philosophy in the area, for instance, LibreUmbria's people will soon begin training sessions on free software and IT security for teachers and parents in one of Perugia's school districts.

The hope is that, besides helping preparedness for a possible transition to LibreOffice in their organisations, participants will pass their knowledge onto pupils and children — the younger, the better: "We will start with primary schools because, you know, we think the use of free software is an habit that should grow into the kids very early," said Montegiove.

As St Francis might have put it, "Let the little children come to me"...

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