Say hello to the UK's 'open source dating agency'

OpenAdvantage, which has received funding from a regional government body, says its remit is to bring together people who provide something in the open source area with people who have software needs

The UK government is widely perceived as lagging behind other European governments in the deployment of Linux and open source software.

While other European cities such as Munich, Bergen and Vienna are partway through high-profile implementations of Linux, the UK has failed to proffer similar case study material. In fact, right now the UK's public sector is probably best known in open source circles for the embarrassing U-turn perpetrated by Newham Council. It has been alleged that the council feigned interest in Linux just to get a better price from Microsoft.

But following the publication of a pro-open source report by the Office of Government Commerce, things started to look up, although some of this headway was dented with the announcement the following week that Microsoft had won a £500m contract to supply software to the NHS.

But despite the conspicuous lack of a flagship Linux implementation, at the grassroots level some government-funded organisations are making significant investments in open source technology. OpenAdvantage, created in January this year with £4.5m of government funding, aims to promote open source and support those companies using, developing or selling services around it - bringing together technology customers and open source suppliers.

ZDNet UK spoke to Paul Cooper, the assistant director at OpenAdvantage, to find out more about the organisation -- such as why their server room is the centrepiece of the office, and how open source has helped a million-pound business create a "Fisher Price" user-friendly email system.

How did OpenAdvantage come into being?
I've been involved with open source for 10 years. Scott [Thompson, the director of OpenAdvantage] and I came up with idea about two and a half years ago when we were working at the University of Central England. We worked on both internal and external projects.

Every time Scott and I went to a new client, we would spend the first hour explaining what open source is. One day, before a client meeting, we discussed how good it would be if another organisation could explain open source, so that individual businesses which were selling open source solutions didn't have to.

We then developed the idea and wrote a proposal. We thought, "We can't do this on our own -- we have to build partnerships." We had a look around the UK and the only other people who were thinking along the same lines were the National Business to Business Centre in Warwick University, which was using open source software, and the National Computing Centre (NCC) in Manchester, which had published a paper on open source. In this paper they called for some of the ideas we had in our proposal: for example, a centre where people could get impartial, vendor-neutral advice about open source.

We teamed up with those two institutions. We are the main partners -- there are nine staff here, three at Warwick and one at the NCC. We opened our office here in January this year.

What are the aims of the project?
Our key aims are to inform, advise and assist people in whatever aspect of open source - whether they are using, developing or commercialising it. The service is free for organisations in the West Midlands area -- from Stoke on Trent down to Hereford. We are the first in UK and one of the first in Europe.

We are very focused on IT SMEs -- there won't be widespread adoption of open source unless companies can go to their local supplier and get support for open source. We aim to help independent consultants, jobbing programmers and SMEs.

Basically, we're the open source dating agency for the West Midlands -- we bring together people who provide something in the open source area, with those who want something.

Who is funding it?
We have got £4.5m funding from Advantage West Midlands, the Regional Development Agency for the West Midlands area. The project is funded for three years -- we have funding until the 31 October, 2006.

What are you actually doing to help people who are using or developing open source software?
We have various targets set by the funding body. The main targets are that we have to help 400 businesses for a minimum of a day; run 100 training courses of 30 hours or more; run seminars which are attended by a total of 1,000 people; and help at least four community regeneration projects.

The business assistance involves helping companies to understand or implement open source software. For example, if a business wanted to roll out a content management solution to client, we could help them sort through the options. We may do some research and write a report recommending the best three and would then put the different CMS systems on our servers and let the client try them out. We try not to rip and replace, instead we try to find an area where a company has a gap in its technology. For example if a company hasn't got a firewall, we suggest, "Why don't you try an open source one."

The training courses are on a variety of topics, such as Linux, Plone [an open source content management system] and Samba. We try to make our courses vendor-neutral. We don't have an affiliation -- we're not here to make sales. That's one of the things people like about coming here -- we're not trying to close the deal. We're happy for people not to use open source if it's not appropriate for their situation.

The seminars cover various areas. The most popular is "How to make money from open source". We also have seminars on how to defeat viruses and spam using open source products such as Samba [a file and print server], and how to do Web development using open source applications such as SugarCRM [a CRM application], SquirrelMail [a Webmail package] and Zope [an application server].

What kind of technical facilities do you have there?
We have a room with 14 machines, which are a mixture of Macs, PCs and thin clients. We can run whatever people want -- Windows XP Pro, any version of Linux, OpenBSD, FreeBSD. On the server side we can also run whatever people want.

Everything in the building is open source except the swipe-entry system. For example, we use Linux, OpenOffice [an office-productivity application], Evolution [an email application] and Asterisk [a VoIP system].

Your server room appears to be the office centrepiece [the server room is in the centre of the OpenAdvantage office surrounded by glass walls], why is that?
When we were talking to the people who kitted out the interior, they wanted to know about what we were doing here so they could decide on the design. We tried to explain what open source is and said that it's about "opening the building blocks of software so that you can get under the hood". Their interpretation of this was to put glass walls around the server room, so that people can see the servers.

Do you enjoy your job?
I have been lucky. This is my dream job - helping people get into open source. When you are sat in the pub, putting world to rights, you often feel there's not a lot you can do -- you can't go into Gordon Brown's office and change things. Before I was sat in a pub going, "people should be using open source." Now I've got the opportunity to make it happen.

What has the demand been like for OpenAdvantage's services?
We started in January and for a long time things were slow. Since June or July it has been non-stop. The demand is massive -- every week we're meeting a new school, local council, voluntary group or company.

We're finding that in a lot of events open source takes over. For example, we gave a presentation about open source at a conference on IT in the voluntary sector in Hereford. Every talk that came after us, the first question they asked was, "That’s very interesting, but how can we do that using open source?" Open source had taken over.

What do you think should be in the next wave of open source applications?
John [Pinner, managing director of Clockwork Software] highlighted it at the launch of PayThyme [an open source payroll application] -- the main things that are missing from open source are boring business applications like payroll and accounting. After the launch of PayThyme, the big thing that’s still missing is an open source accounting package. One of the companies we work with is an accounting firm and have used SQL-Ledger [an open source accounting system], but they know how to argue with Inland Revenue about it [SQL-Ledger doesn't contain details on UK tax regulation]. They have the knowledge and balls to argue with the Inland Revenue. But the average SME doesn't have the knowledge to do that.

In software there are very few things holding people back. The main thing that's holding people back is the perception that there's not the software and about support. People think, "Where will I get support?", "Who will I sue when it goes wrong?" This perception is misplaced, particularly as the world isn't littered with people who have sued proprietary companies.

What are the best ways to drive more open source uptake among large businesses?
It often infiltrates in the way of a guerrilla marketing scheme. For example, MySQL is now a de facto piece of the toolkit of many programmers because they used it while doing a database course at university. When their boss then comes and says "I want you to develop this database system," they are likely to use MySQL as they are familiar with it.

It’s the same thing with PayThyme -- if you are studying accountancy and need to set up scenarios to practise with, you have a free tool that you can use. If your uncle, who runs a small business, needs you to do his books you have a free one to plug in. As his company grows the open source business model kicks in [the company is likely to pay for support, which will providing revenue for the company that supports the software].

What are you going to do when you run out of funding?
We are we are in the process of trying to extend our funding, but if that doesn't work we have an exit strategy -- any project funded like this has an exit strategy.

You can look for more funding, for example, from the EU, or can commercialise some of things that you do, for example, we could provide paid services for bigger companies or companies outside the West Midlands. You can also look for industry sponsorship, for example, the OSDL [the Open Source Development Labs, one of the main groups promoting the business use of open source software], is sponsored by various vendors.

There are other funding opportunities, for example, research funding or Knowledge Transfer Partnerships [which enable, say, universities, to act as consultants towards businesses by applying their in-house knowledge to strategic business problems].