Newham CIO sees open source as 'red herring'

IT chief who took part in a key battle between Microsoft and open source software is now getting ready to tackle the Olympics
Written by Richard Thurston, Contributor

The IT chief at a London Borough which was a key battleground between Microsoft and open source has described open source software as a "red herring".

Richard Steel, chief information officer at the Borough of Newham, made the comments to a large audience of senior IT professionals at London's IP'06 event on Wednesday.

Newham is cited as a critical victory by Microsoft in its battle against open source, after the Borough decided to deploy a Windows XP-based infrastructure followed a detailed evaluation of Linux.

Steel told delegates, "Open source is a bit of a red herring. It's just a piece of software at the end of the day."

Critics have suggested that Newham evaluated Linux purely to enable it to negotiate substantial financial discounts from Microsoft. It is a view which Newham IT executives dispute.

"We asked consultants to look at the desktop and server [environments]. We wanted people who would challenge the status quo," said Steel, explaining the evaluation.

"We developed some radical theories around technology refresh. And we achieved some significant savings. We are pleased with our decision."

Steel is in the throes of preparing the Borough's network for the Olympic Games, which will be held in the north west of the Borough at Stratford.

Having laid a new fibre backbone with converged voice, data and CCTV and some 88 points of presence, he is now evaluating wireless technologies to connect residents and public sector buildings.

Carrying what Steel described as "fairly sophisticated services", the new Wi-Fi and WiMax network will provide connectivity outdoors and for council facilities including libraries, community centres and schools.

"We have proposed the UK's leading 21st century infrastructure, certainly in government," said Steel, who won the Public Sector CIO of the year award in the UK Technology Innovation & Growth Awards last year.

On his plans to connect the Borough using wireless, he said that the private sector had failed. "Some areas are commercially unattractive," he said. "We see it as quite critical to provide universal access."

That universal access may be extended to Olympic visitors when the games launch in six years time, depending on discussions with the event organising committees.

In the meantime Steel is firming up the backbone network and the key applications, which must be finalised by the earlier Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

"It's the biggest show on earth," Steel said. "I don't want to be risking new technology."

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