Open standards push Mannheim to Linux

The German city's Linux migration is going to take a while, but those responsible are confident in its success

"We want to decide our IT strategy in Mannheim and not have Microsoft make the decision for Mannheim," declares Gerd Armbruster, the IT infrastructure manager at the German city. For in Mannheim, open standards — not cost — is the main driver of the software strategy.

This does not mean everything has to be open source — though much will be — but it does have to support open standards. "We migrated from Microsoft Exchange Server 2005 to Oracle Collaboration Suite because it [OCS] supports open standards — it is proprietary software but it uses standard protocols," says Armbruster, talking to ZDNet UK about his plans.

Although it has not mandated the use of open source, it has already migrated the majority of its 120 servers to Linux and plans to migrate its 3500 desktops to the open source productivity application running on Linux.

The migration to Linux on the server was predominantly driven by the IT department's decision to use open standards — it wanted to use OpenLDAP rather than Microsoft's proprietary Active Directory. Similarly, the migration to was driven by its desire to use OpenDocument — a standard file format that Microsoft has said it will not support in Microsoft Office.

Price isn't everything
In contrast to many large-scale moves to open source software, cost was largely irrelevant for Armbruster. Mannheim recently paid approximately €1m to Microsoft to migrate from Office 2000 to 2003 and yet, says Armbruster "it was not important in our internal discussions — we never said to our mayor that if we switch to Linux we won't need to pay €1m to Microsoft."

Although the city will save some money by switching to open source desktops, it is likely to spend a considerable sum migrating desktop applications from Windows to Linux. "We need to change 145 applications so they will work on Linux. This will cost millions of Euros," he says.

Putting your customers first
Migrating those applications will not only take money: it will take time, and because of this, the migration to Linux on the desktop is not due to start for five or six years. But the migration to on Windows will begin next year, with 3500 desktops across 40 departments migrated to the open source productivity application by 2009, according to Armbruster: "The migration to OpenOffice has to end when support for Office 2003 ends — so we have about four or five years to complete the migration."

Armbruster believes that one of the most important factors for a successful migration is user acceptance. "It is important for me to have no resistance from users," he says. It is so important that the Mannheim IT department is providing every city employee with copies of and Linux for their home PC and will even provide support for home users.

The department is also attempting to engage its users in the desktop migration project by arranging meetings with users where they can discuss their concerns about the migration. Armbruster thinks that the lack of user engagement is one of the main problems that has caused the delay in Munich's migration to open source desktops...

"Most of the problems in Munich are due to resistance from users — they don't want to change to Linux," says Armbruster. "It's important for an open source project that you inform your users — you need to talk with users and speak about their problems."

He is confident that this won't happen with Mannheim's migration. "We haven't seen any resistance from users in the city of Mannheim. We have talked with department managers and power users and they accept our strategy to slowly move to Linux," he says.

The problems with Munich's migration to open source encouraged Armbruster to publicise Mannheim's migration — to show that open source can work.

"Microsoft is probably very happy about the project in Munich because of its problems," he says. "One year ago I didn't want to go public about our migration. I have now gone public because the project in Munich is not a success, but our project is. I wanted to say, 'Here is a city with about 6,000 employees where open source and open standards works already.'"

The migration
The first stage in Mannheim's migration to — the evaluation of its Microsoft Office documents — started earlier this month. It is using a migration analysis tool called SCAI MAS to analyse 500,000 administration documents to identify which files cannot be automatically converted to

"We expect that maybe 10 or 20 percent of documents will have problems when we move from Word to," says Armbruster.

Some of the macros contained within the Microsoft Office documents can be automatically converted into macros, but some will need to be reengineered.

The evaluation project is due to be finished in mid-January, after which the IT department will start migrating the first departments to It plans to migrate only two departments in the first year — the IT department plus one additional department.

Although some city employees will not have access to for a few years yet, they have already been using at least one open source application for almost two years — the Firefox browser. Armbruster says the city has been using the Mozilla browser since version 0.8 came out in February 2004. Internet Explorer is not used for Internet access for "security reasons".

Tux patiently waits
When Mannheim has finished it migration to, it will start its migration to desktop Linux. This delay will not only give the city time to replace those 145 Windows-specific applications with applications that will run on Linux, but it should also...

...ensure that the Linux desktop environment is more mature by the time Mannheim adopts it.

"In every new Linux version we see more Windows functionality," says Armbruster. "We want to move to Linux on the desktop when it has the same look and feel as Windows."

Armbruster did not say what version of Linux it plans on installing in the future, but he is a fan of Ubuntu, a free Linux distribution based on Debian. Ubuntu is the distribution that will be offered to city employees to try out at home, according to Armbruster.

"I think Ubuntu is very interesting, more interesting than SuSE or Red Hat's desktop products," he says. "I have friends who wanted to try Linux at home and when they installed SuSE or Red Hat they had 500 or 800 programs. You don't need 800 programs; with Ubuntu you get fewer applications,"

Why it's hard to move to open standards
Although other German cities echo Mannheim's view on the importance of open standards, many are reluctant to change as they have only recently moved to proprietary technologies, such as Active Directory, according to Armbruster.

There are other reasons why government agencies may find it hard to follow Mannheim's lead in adopting open standards. Mannheim is a long-term user of Unix, which has meant that the migration to Linux is easier than for organisations that predominantly use Microsoft software.

Cost is also likely to be a prohibitive factor for many government agencies. Mannheim's migration to Linux is expected to cost millions of Euros, a short-term cost that would be difficult to justify to senior management who are unlikely to fully understand the need for open standards.

The central German government is also more supportive of the use of open source software than some other European governments, such as the UK. It is difficult to imagine a UK council, under the current government's policy, spending millions of pounds to migrate away from proprietary standards.