UK city council claims open-source success

Birmingham City Council talks of Linux project success

The city council of Birmingham, U.K., has defended its year-long trial of desktop Linux, claiming it to be a success, despite an independent report showing it would have been cheaper to install Windows XP.

Head of IT for the council, Glyn Evans, argued that the higher cost resulted from the council having to experiment with the new technology and build up a depth of technical understanding, as well as fit it with the complex system already in place.

The £105,000 (AUD$261,000) saving that the report says would have resulted from going with Windows XP has also come under question as it was calculated using the special discounted licence rate that Microsoft offers councils -- something critics argue is a calculated effort to prevent public bodies from building up technical knowledge of open source offerings.

With Birmingham's trial period over and with lessons learnt and understanding gained, the Council now expects to make cost savings over time, and contrary to press reports which claimed Birmingham had scrapped the Linux initiative, it will in fact "significantly increase" its use of open-source software, Evans said. The trial also had other positive results, he claimed, such as demonstrating the ease with which Firefox and OpenOffice.org can be substituted for Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office.

The trial was carried out with the government-backed Open Source Academy (OSA), and planned to install Linux on 330 desktops in the council's libraries service, split between staff PCs and public access terminals, in an effort to build up practical experience that could be drawn on by other public-sector bodies.

It ran from April 2005 to March 2006, but is still ongoing, with the council refining its Linux desktop image and planning further rollouts next year, according to Evans. "The project did not end when the element of original funding ended, because it is part of the Library Service strategy," he said. "This project is still very much ongoing, and now that a stable image... has been developed, we would expect significant movement forward."

Over-ambitious

He admitted the council's original plans were over-ambitious, with rollouts of Linux-based staff and public PCs originally scheduled during the one-year trial period. In reality, ongoing testing of the desktop configuration means no Linux desktops have yet been installed. Instead, 96 public desktops and 134 staff desktops are running open source applications such as the OpenOffice.org office suite and the Firefox browser.

The council does plan to begin migrating those desktops to its Suse Professional 9.3-based desktop OS, however, a plan that should go into action in the near future, according to Evans. He said that far from scrapping the Linux initiative, as has occurred in some other high-profile cases such as the London borough of Newham, Birmingham is planning to "significantly increase" the number of desktops involved with the project.

Evans' description of the project is a sharp contrast to the findings described in a case study authored by iMpower Consulting at the formal conclusion of the trial in March, which is available from the OSA's website . The case study found that the council had failed to make a business case for its Linux desktops, largely because the half-a-million-pound cost of designing and implementing the system cost more than the estimated cost for a Windows XP installation.

The difference is largely down to high "team costs", including setting up the project, technical definition and design, development and testing and training, all of which amounted to roughly £100,000 more than the estimated team costs for a Windows installation. The total cost of the trial was £534,710, compared to an estimated £429,960 for Windows XP.

"The project showed that there are considerable costs incurred in decision-making, because of the huge range of open source options available," said iMpower in the case study. "The extra resources involved in decision making and project management mean that the cost of this first-time open source implementation for BCC was significantly higher than for a comparable proprietary upgrade, despite the minimal licence costs for open source software."

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