Linux brings hope to Spain's poorest region

The rural Spanish region of Extremadura has seized on the potential of open source software to improve the lot of its citizens and kick start the local economy

"New information technology can help us achieve our goals," Juan Carlos Rodriguez loudly proclaimed recently. The president of Extremadura may be the leader of the poorest region of Spain, but that hasn't dented his ambition or his belief in technological progress.

Like the governments of countries such as Venezuela, China, Thailand and India, Extremadura has been pumping money into the research and promotion of locally developed software as a way to keep pace with technological investment in other parts of the world and give its economy a boost. While Western European cities such as Vienna, Munich and Paris have only recently latched onto the potential of Linux, Extremadura has been heavily investing in open source software for years.

Bordering Portugal to the west and Andalucia to the south, Extremadura has a population of around 1.1 million but the employment rate is only around 50 percent. Although short of financial resources, the region has set itself ambitious targets when it comes to improving its IT infrastructure. As far back as the mid-1990s the government began to pin its hopes on information technology as a way to overcome its historically "peripheral" standing within Spain.

The regional government was saying as far back as 1997 that information technology, and open source software in particular, was key to the region's economic and social development. "The time of the industrial era, when discoveries were abusively capitalised and unfairly monopolised, is over. A new model is necessary; a model which would allow the improvement of the lives of all citizens in Extremadura," it declared at the time.

The biggest implementation of open source technology in the region to date has been in the education sector, with around 70,000 desktop PCs and 400 servers in schools across the region now running Extremadura's unique version of Linux called LinEx, which was created by a Spanish company and is based on Debian.

Pop Ramsamy, a project officer at Fundecyt, one of the organisations supporting the region's use of Linux says that although total cost of ownership studies are divided on whether open source is actually cheaper than proprietary software, for Extremadura the cost savings have been significant. Documents supplied by Ramsamy revealed the total cost of the Linux software, deployment and support costs for the first year of the 70,000 desktop education project to be around €190,000 (£130,000).

"For two or three computers the issue of cost is not really a great issue — you can use proprietary software," says Ramsamy. "When you have 70,000 PCs it's different. Microsoft also made a tender [for the education project] but their price was very high, he claims. "After calculating all the savings we have obtained today, we believe that our costs have been lowered by €18m."

Another advantage of using open source is that it benefits local businesses, according to Ramsamy. "SMEs from Extremadura developing software cannot be competitive when they work with proprietary code since its raw material belongs to big multinational companies," he says. "However, they can be competitive when they work with open source software, as their business is not selling licences, but giving services."

Fundecyt is now using its experience of deploying LinEx to help other government agencies across the region to deploy open source software. The Ministry of Culture is part-way through a migration, having migrated around 60 percent of its 380 desktops, while the regional Ministry of Health will eventually run all medical applications on Linux servers and is migrating 14,000 PCs at health centres to the open source operating system.

The Ministry of Health project will result in the "largest Linux-based IT system in Spain", according to IBM, which is partnering on the implementation. Started at the end of 2004, the mammoth deployment is expected to take four years and involves the re-engineering and integration of various systems involved in healthcare. Fourteen thousand healthcare professionals based in 14 hospitals and over 400 primary care units across Extremadura will eventually have access to the system.

Last month IBM completed the installation of the servers that will eventually run the new healthcare system. The 28 IBM xSeries, and six p5-570 servers are all running Linux. Luis Javier Bonilla, the programme manager for the project at IBM, says the first primary care centre will start running parts of the new Linux-based system in June 2005.

At present, the health centres are primarily reliant on manual processes to transfer patients to hospitals and are unable to access patient records and lab results held at hospitals. From June, the pilot primary care centre will have access to the hospital legacy systems, allowing doctors to have digital access to patient information such as lab results. Doctors will also be able to carry out some administrative processes, such as discharging patients, using the new integrated system.

Eventually all processes will be transferred from the legacy systems to the integrated system, which will give every healthcare professional access to all the patient data, such as lab results and prescription information from any portal. All 400 primary care centres across the region will have access to the system by September 2006, after which the system will be rolled out to the 14 hospitals, according to Bonilla.

The completion of this system is likely to help sway critics of open source, who claim that Linux is not suitable for mission-criticalapplications. As Bonilla succinctly put it: "Medical systems cannot go down, ever, because people will die."

Following Extremadura's lead, a number of other Spanish provinces have started migration projects including two of the largest provinces Andalusia and Valencia, as well as one of the smaller provinces Castile-la-mancha. The government of Extremadura is also working with various regional authorities in South America to help the Spanish-speaking organisations migrate to open source. With this kind of momentum, President Rodriguez' predictions that the region's salvation lies with technical innovation seems increasingly likely to come true.