Managing content the open source way

UK government departments have been slow to adopt open source software but more stand-out projects such as the content management system being used by 40 local authorities could help to change all that
Written by Matthew Broersma, Contributor

It feels like a week hardly goes by without public sector organisation on the European mainland announcing a migration to Linux or some other open source platform. UK government organizations, meanwhile, seem more reluctant to commit to despite the existence of some real open source success stories.

The APLAWS (Accessible and Personalised Local Authority Web sites, pronounced "applause") content-management system (CMS) is a stand out example of the flexibility that community built software can provide. The four-year-old initiative, backed by the British government, has resulted in an open-source CMS, customised for UK local authorities. Local governments are now adopting it at a rapid clip — about 40 now have the system up and running or are rolling it out. The project managers for the APLAWS project went with an open source scheme almost by accident, but now claim the open source licensing arrangements and development model have become one of the project's strongest benefits.

APLAWS was one of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's original 25 Pathfinder projects, nationally-funded schemes designed to develop technology that could be reused across the country. The project was particularly important to local authorities facing a deadline of getting all their services online by 2005.

Five London boroughs were involved, with Camden taking the role of project manager; Alasdair Mangham, the head of Camden's e-services development team, and Jeremy Tuck, Camden's APLAWS programme manager at the time, spearheaded development work. In 2001, when APLAWS kicked off, there was one very simple reason for going with an open-source solution — it existed, and it was far less expensive than proprietary alternatives, says Arturo Dell, who recently succeeded Tuck's in Camden. If circumstances had been different APLAWS could easily have ended up with a proprietary license, says Dell.

"It's all about value for money — you have to justify your decision. We were lucky [an open-source] project existed in the area we needed," Dell says. "From that project to now, there has been a lot of work, but it would have been a completely different proposition if we had had to start from scratch."

The open source CMS fixed on by Camden was ArsDigita Community System (ACS), developed by US-based ArsDigita, which took several hundred thousand pounds to customise its system, and then promptly went bust in late 2001. Fortunately for APLAWS, the project's open source licence — and the purchase of ArsDigita's assets by Red Hat — meant work could continue with little interruption. ACS formed the basis for Red Hat's Enterprise CMS and Portal Server.

"The change to Red Hat wasn't that noticeable, it happened quite quickly," Dell says. Some ArsDigita staff had moved to Red Hat, so Camden ended up working with many of the same developers.

The project's initial phase ended in March 2002 and was succeeded by APLAWS+, the current version, the main new feature of which was allowing the use of non-Oracle databases. Many local authorities went live with the first version, and Camden used it as its internal CMS before going live with APLAWS+ for its external Web site about a year ago. "The CMS manages our whole Web site, it's quite a visible part of our overall strategy," Dell says.

A major part of the project has been implementing standards, Dell says — technical standards such as XML and standards for local authority sites. On the technical side, APLAWS makes heavy use of XML, with XSL for styling, and is programmed in Java. The use of government standards, in defining navigation, categories of services offered and metadata for instance, has become one of APLAWS' biggest selling points, Dell says. An example is a suite of lists, controlled by a central standards body and built into APLAWS, that defines every service offered by UK local authorities. "Apart from the quality of the system, and the fact it is open source, a big reason for people to choose APLAWS is that out of the box it complies with all the standards," explains Dell.

As the standards are generally international in basis, the customisation work done for APLAWS can ultimately be reused by government bodies in other countries. The metadata standards, for one, are all extensions of an international standard called the Dublin Core. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has adopted APLAWS for its huge intranet, and the Italian city of Torino also has the CMS under consideration. Giles Palmer, managing director of Runtime Collective, one of the companies providing support for APLAWS, says word of mouth has turned the system into the fastest-growing CMS product on the market, largely because of its open source licensing and standards support. "It is very niche, very targeted, but it can jump from that niche in the future," he says.

Open source
When deciding to roll out APLAWS, local authorities also get to decide on their own arrangements for technical support and development, something that would be unheard of with a proprietary product. Currently the project has persuaded a handful of companies, including Red Hat and Runtime, to offer commercial support; authorities can find local alternatives or decide to rely on internal resources. New features and bugfixes developed for each authority feed into a central code repository, ensuring there is no overlap in the work and that the code doesn't fork. There is also an active user group.

Getting the main partners to use a single code base has been one of APLAWS' biggest achievements, Dell says. "This has helped us a lot to avoid the forking of code, which was one of our main concerns," he says. "Now we have full confidence that we can do it." Major overhauls, such as APLAWS+, have so far been carried out with funding from wider central government initiatives.

The project's open source licence has attracted some but caused confusion for others, Dell concedes. "Not everyone is familiar with the open source model, what it means to have the direction of the code in your hands, in the hands of the community. That is something we've had to deal with," he says. "The changes you make are defining the direction of the product, and as a participant, you have to be aware of that and manage it as much as possible."

At the management level the perceptions of open source are even worse. "There is the misconception that open source projects are done in a volunteer type of environment by people who are not completely committed. They think of freeware, a student typing in a room," he says. "In our case, this is a real enterprise-level application, with vendors supporting it and taking it as their real business model. The fact that it is open source is just another benefit."

The project leaders are now looking to shift APLAWS from simply being a project to more of a sustainable product, with a steering committee and more companies offering support, says Dell. "We would ultimately like to see an O'Reilly book on the shelf, 'Learn APLAWS'. Then it would be a real product," he says.

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