The UK government seems to be warming to open source. Today, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) published a report saying open-source software is now a genuine competitor to Microsoft in the public sector.
After a running a series of pilots with government bodies, in conjunction with IBM and Sun, on the use of open-source software, the OGC's report adds weight to the argument against the idea that Linux has a long way to go before it will be considered as a serious contender and describes open source as "a viable desktop alternative for the majority of government users".
The report lists interoperability and cost as two of Linux' major advantages, saying that the former is "now not a major issue" for open source and that using open source instead of proprietary software can generate "significant" cost savings in government.
The OGC foresees the savings from an open-source switch being particularly successful when undertaken with "server consolidation and by delaying hardware replacement".
The issue of Linux' potential for saving money has repeatedly been disputed by Microsoft, which recently launched a major advertising campaign, entitled 'Get the Facts', to contradict the idea that open source has a lower TCO (total cost of ownership) than proprietary software.
The OGC also highlights that it believes using open source can even be good for the environment as it would lead to less hardware being produced and fewer old machines ending up in landfill.
John Oughton, chief exec of the OGC, said the pilots--designed to give a flavor of how a Linux rollout would work in government without the pressure of a live situation--would be key in future government decision-making.
"These pilots have provided us with valuable evidence on open-source software. They show it could support government bodies by offering efficient and cost-effective IT solutions... This report will assist public sector bodies in making informed, value-for-money judgments when deciding upon which solution best suits their needs," he said in a statement.
However, the report also highlights the challenges of a switch: "Adoption of open source, particularly for the desktop, requires investment in planning, training of users, development of skills for implementation and support, and detailed consideration of migration and interoperability issues."
James Governor, principal analyst at RedMonk, described the government's statements as "more aggressive than you'd expect" and marked "a potential sea change" at government level.
While it's possible the government is using the report as a bargaining chip to force Microsoft to cut licensing costs, the trickle-down effect of greater Linux adoption could be felt both in the public sector and commercial world.
"If you're an open-source exponent trying to convince your manager," the report could be useful, Governor said. "If you're in the private sector and you're looking for a source of authority [on changing operating systems], the OGC might be better than an industry analyst group."
An OGC spokesman said the report wasn't intended as "Microsoft-bashing" and that it is about highlighting choice. He added implementation would "depend of the marketplace--manufacturers, suppliers--putting together the solutions. We're saying to IT buyers, consider open source. We can't say 'buy this brand' or 'buy that brand' [but]... look at the generic option."
While the pilots were carried out in association with two large vendors, the spokesman maintained that it didn't affect the outcome. "We're not a software specialist so we need 'partnerships'," he said, adding that Microsoft's involvement at Newham could be seen as a "deep and meaningful" partnership.
A Microsoft spokesman said: "We understand it's the role of government to promote a level playing field and foster competition", adding he encouraged people to read the report, which is available here.