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A council of hope – the free software column

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Migrating the city’s computer systems from Windows and NT was a long slow process, but it would be wrong to ascribe the delays just to teething problems with the use of Linux and free software in large environments. Every migration, even between different versions of Windows, brings its problems: fractured OEM deals, broken data, lost or redundant applications, single vendor tie-ins, interoperability log-jams and the transition process itself. People don’t like change.

Microsoft liked it even less, and commissioned HP to produce a study in early 2013 which claimed to show that Munich’s decision to move to Linux had lost the Council something like £37 million. Jutta Kreyss, for the City of Munich’s IT service provider (bit. ly/1ajiHBI) countered that “the quality of HP’s analysis was ‘so bad’ that she wouldn’t even have released it as a student research project.”

Even the smallest of organisations has tie-ins to legacy products and processes that are hard to surmount. Open APIs and standards provide long-term guarantees of data integrity and accessibility, but can only be realised after the random use of Access databases, .NET and VB scripts, Active-X, Active Directory and countless other proprietary features in diverse parts of the organisation that have been replicated or immunised. Munich City Council had the good fortune of a patient and stable left-of-centre political administration (shared between the SPD and the Greens) which took a long- term view of the project as an opportunity to reimagine the data and business processes, and to rationalise its IT services accordingly around ‘an efficient and sustainable IT structure, based on open standards and free software.’

As is the case with many organisations, the council’s IT systems had evolved over a number of years on an ad hoc basis, department by department, and as a result, the council had 21 IT units, each responsible for its own operation, each with different locally optimised processes, tools and staff. Between these units there were ‘51 small and big data centers’ and ‘about 1000 IT staff for 33000 employees.’

Florian SchieBl went on to note that the technical diversity within the organisation was “a small mirror of the world’s different IT solutions. No common directory, no common user, system or hardware management. Different tools for software distribution and system management. More than 300 apps, many of them redundant, eg using Dreamweaver, FrontPage, Fusion, etc, for HTML editing. 21 different Windows clients, different patch levels, different security concepts.” The full question and answer breakdown is available to view on the Wayback Machine.

But complexity breeds complexity. Data is lost. Processes are replicated. Inefficiencies creep in, and solutions add more problems layered on top of other problems. As Munich discovered, re-aligning computer systems offered an opportunity to reimagine the way data could be used and stored. Thankfully, patience does pay off, and in the long term, the implementation of the free desktop reaps not only a financial reward but also a streamlining of the process, which brings with it other rewards.

For most organisations the primary reason for moving from Windows to Linux is perceived cost savings. The secondary reasons are factors such as interoperability and greater compliance with standards, which themselves bring longer- term cost benefits. Unlocking interfaces and data from vendor lock-ins may be rather time consuming and costly in the short term, but doing so brings considerable cost and efficiency pay-offs in the long term.

One of the payoffs for the City Council, other German councils, the Linux community and other interested parties, has been the development of LiMux, the German language Linux distribution which has since been approved as an official distribution by the German government. The work of Munich will make it easier for others to follow.

In an ideal world, LiMux would provide a model that would inspire more government-sponsored IT projects in the UK, which are all too often outsourced to proprietary interests. Whether it does or not, is yet to be seen.

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