The UK is a "third world country" compared with the rest of Europe where it comes to public- and private-sector interest in open-source software, an industry lobbyist said on Thursday.
Mike Banahan, chief technology officer of OpenForum Europe, made the remarks at the Linux User and Developer Expo in Birmingham, by way of introducing the results of research into the way UK firms are using and thinking about open-source software such as Linux. A key finding was that companies are highly uncomfortable with the technical support options available for open-source software, which has traditionally been maintained by the open-source developer community or by experts within the firms using the software.
This impression was supported by a separate presentation by Damion Yates, of the BBC's Internet Operations arm, on the use of Linux at the publicly supported broadcaster. While Linux is widely used at the BBC, and is vocally supported by many engineers and technically minded managers, few of the installations are the result of policy decisions -- largely because decision makers don't feel there are adequate support options for Linux.
Yates said, however, that the BBC uses Linux for many mission-critical applications. Football scores, for instance, use Linux in a live broadcast situation, while the interactive television department (iTV) within the BBC is headed by a manager who has been able to see the reliability and increased ability for user support of Linux due to its open nature, Yates said.
That department has officially used Linux throughtout most interactive elements of its output, such as the "Red Button" interactive feature of the digital channels delivered by cable and satellite.
Persuading businesses to use Linux
OpenForum, a subsidiary of technology lobbyist InterForum, aims to persuade businesses around Europe of the benefits of open-source software, and to level the playing field for open source where it comes to government procurement. However, Banahan said the task is much more difficult in Britain.
"The European Commission is incredibly pro-open source," he said. "It's a bit depressing to come back to Britain and realise that here is the place where the work needs to be done. We're a bit of a third-world country in comparison to what the rest of Europe is doing with open source."
Open-source software is covered by licences which, generally speaking, allow anyone to modify and redistribute the software, as long as the modifications are returned to the developer community. This approach is designed to prevent any one organisation from controlling the software, as is the case with proprietary products, and is seen by advocates as potentially feeding Europe's locally based software industry.
Banahan presented the results of a survey of more than 100 senior managers in charge of making software procurement decisions, whom he characterised as chief technology officers and IT managers. While the survey showed that Linux's reputation and market penetration is improving, it also revealed what Banahan said was a deep-set flaw in the Linux industry: the lack of adequate support agreements.
The No. 1 factor preventing companies from purchasing Linux installations was support availability, the survey found. "What's worse is that the people who are using Linux are even more critical of the support situation," Banahan said. "For busy IT directors, they want to have someone to place a support contract with. They want to continue with their established suppliers whom they've been using for ten years, and whom they know are going to stay in the market. Proper service-level agreements and support contracts are something the industry has to get into place."
Ironically, one of Linux's biggest selling points is its reliability, and some large organisations using it -- such as the London borough of Waltham Forest -- say it essentially needs no support, according to OpenForum's case studies. But such arguments fall on deaf ears with most businesses, Banahan said: "You can argue that it's all a charade and it's stupid, but that's what the market wants."
Other findings were more positive for the open-source community. Companies are taking the software more seriously, as they grow increasingly concerned about lock-ins to proprietary products, the survey found: listing their business priorities, the top concern was creating more efficient internal processes, followed by examining the possibility of using open-source software.
Twenty-five percent of respondents said they were considering using Linux for mission-critical applications, while 22 percent said they were looking at it for desktop use -- a big jump from previous years.
The main draw of Linux is the perception that it decreases costs, the survey found, with 64 percent of companies who use open source saying that it had lowered costs. Of companies who weren't using open source, 49 percent said they believed it resulted in lower costs.
In the public sector, 50 percent of respondents said they were using open source, compared with 36 percent for all respondents. In financial services, 28 percent said they were using open source, with 20 percent for retail.
Banahan said that while the survey figures reflect official procurement policy, open source has often made its way into organisations via the unofficial efforts of aficionados. "It is used more than they know. Maybe they are not using it by policy, but when they do an internal survey, they find it's rife," he said.
Linux at the Beeb
This is the situation in the BBC, according to Yates, who said there is wide unofficial use of Linux at the broadcaster. "There are few places where the software was officially purchased," he said. "All too frequently, it's a matter of an engineer using it under the desktop, and has hundreds of users depending on it, but it's not something that's been officially agreed upon."
Most of the BBC's Linux installations benefit from a culture that places results first, but is relatively open about how the results are achieved, Yates said. "People have been told, 'I want this done,' and their managers haven't asked what they're using to do it. (The engineers) are relying on the manager not knowing that computers don't equal Windows."
On the downside, the BBC has the same support requirements of other large organisations, which has worked against open source, Yates said. "The attitude of a lot of managers is, if you use an off-the-shelf system, like (Microsoft's) Internet Information Server running on (Windows) NT, then when it fails, you've got a company to ring," he said.
He said that while large companies such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard are now offering support for open-source systems, these support options still don't fit with the BBC's requirements.
Yates gave the example of an installation of 50 DHCP servers running Linux, which was set up several years ago, and for which the technical support is tenuous. "The people who set them up have gone on to other projects," he said. "People are terrified about what the support would be like if something went wrong."
While unofficial, however, the BBC uses Linux in a number of mission-critical projects, Yates said. One of these is the system for adding data content such as sports scores to digital-terrestrial broadcasts.
The addition of the data to the MPEG broadcast stream is done by dedicated hardware, but is fed by two redundant Linux boxes, Yates said. "It is built on amazingly cheap hardware, considering how mission-critical this is," he said. "If those boxes failed, the red button on your remote control would produce no response."
Linux is also used for serving BBC News' Web site in the UK, for receiving SMS messages, for generating on-screen sports scores in ordinary broadcasts, and for internal systems such as the one that retrieves images from the BBC's picture library.
The BBC runs numerous Web cams displaying locations around the UK, and these are mostly controlled by Linux boxes, so that they can be easily administered remotely. Popular Linux-based Web cams in the past have included an Owlcam, a Badgercam and a Kittencam, Yates said.
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