UK city council claims open-source success

Birmingham City Council talks of Linux project success

Frustrations

The case study also detailed the many frustrations involved in approaching an unfamiliar desktop technology, including the discovery that key applications wouldn't run on Linux and usability problems with the original Gnome interface. At one point, realizing that most of the usability issues were attributable to Gnome, which had taken three months to configure, staff ripped out Gnome and replaced it with KDE. The new interface was up and running within a week.

But evaluating the project solely on what occurred during the original trial period is absurd, according to Evans. "There is no doubt that start-up costs for this project would be high due to the level of requirement, the level of Linux expertise within BCC and the complex requirements of the library service for the public desktop," he said. "The positives centre on future costs."

Birmingham's requirements involve "much more than purely tweaking a standard desktop image", according to Evans, including the need for particular security features, authenticated processes and the supply of specialized management information for performance monitoring requirements.

For instance, existing Windows 3.1 public terminals used a program called Deepfreeze that rebooted the system at the end of each session, something that had to be re-engineered for Linux. Another problem arose with the handling of removable media, which often wasn't recognized or caused errors on the desktop.

Staff also found that the OS was storing information about the contents of public users' removable media, and for privacy purposes had to develop a script to delete this information, which caused further delays in developing the final image.

Porting problems

Linux simply wasn't able to meet certain requirements, such as the ability to run Galaxy, the library management system. The council couldn't afford to pay Galaxy's developers to port it to Linux, and running it in emulation would have added yet another layer of complexity, so many staff PCs were simply migrated to Windows XP with OpenOffice and Firefox.

All this planning and configuration added to Birmingham's start-up costs, and meanwhile, the fact that Birmingham qualifies for Windows discounts further lowered the comparative cost of a Windows installation.

The council gets a steep discount on Windows licences through a broader Education SELECT licence arrangement, paying £58 for a Windows XP licence compared to roughly £100 for OEMs. "Accounting for corporate instead of Education SELECT licences would have added nearly £50,000 to a Windows upgrade project," iMpower found.

Despite this, however, the council feels that further down the line the investment in open source will pay off - for instance, Linux-based systems can be upgraded incrementally, avoiding large one-off license payments as would be the case with a Windows upgrade. Any number of further desktops can be added to the project without adding extra licence costs.

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