Under public criticism for promoting an oligopoly in the local software market, the Hong Kong government has for the first time outlined its stance towards the use of open-source technology in the support of public service provision.
According to an assistant director at the Information Technology Services Department (ITSD), Dennis Pang, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government welcomes the broadening of product choices in the market and is actively looking at the adoption of more open-source products.
"The government has been keeping an eye on the development of the open-source movement. Competitively priced open-source products are getting better in quality and more mature for enterprise use. We'll make the best use of it where appropriate," he said.
Over the last three years, as the open-source movement began to gather momentum, the government has installed over 100 Linux servers in various departments, mainly as Web servers, application servers and firewalls -- the traditional uses for open-source products, Pang said.
Although he declined to reveal what percentage the 100-plus Linux servers represent as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of servers that run other operating systems, such as Unix, Microsoft Corp.'s Windows and Novell Netware, Pang admitted that the number is only a small fraction of the total servers deployed by the government.
On the desktop side, government adoption of open-source office systems is still negligible, mainly due to limitations including inadequate Chinese language processing capability and lack of interoperability with existing software, he said.
A monopoly advocate?
The government's warming towards open-source technology comes in part from public pressure for the use of alternative software products. In February, Legislative Councilor Chan Kwok-keung, who represents the labor constituency, criticized the government for its zealous adoption of products from a few international vendors.
According to government statistics for its bulk supply contracts, the public service spent HK$180 million (US$23.2 million) on software purchases in the 2000-01 financial year, about half of which has gone into the pockets of Microsoft Hong Kong Ltd.
For operating systems and system software alone, IBM China/Hong Kong Ltd. and Microsoft Hong Kong together received the lion's share of the spending, pocketing 60 percent of the budget, or HK$20.5 million and $19.3 million from the government respectively during the same period.
According to a source close to the government that requested anonymity, ITSD has expressed concern about the public's criticism and is working on measures to justify its spending on mainstream systems while at the same time making greater investment on alternative products.
To encourage government offices to consider open-source products in their procurement plans, ITSD is taking steps to enhance the understanding of these products, according to Pang.
An open-source supporter?
These measures include organizing promotional activities with open-source product suppliers among government departments; the inclusion of these products in the government's bulk supply contract catalogs; product and services introductions on the government's intranet; and product display and trial for government officers at ITSD's Information Technology Center in Wanchai.
Already, some 270 government officers have attended the product introduction seminars organized during the past two months, Pang said.
For public tenders on the provision of mid-range servers, the ITSD has started to require bidders to submit quotations for open-source products, alongside those of more mainstream operating systems.
For the 2002-03 financial year that has just begun, ITSD has committed to procure 18 servers running Linux operating systems from ELM Computer Technologies Ltd., a Hong Kong-based supplier for IBM's RS6000 servers, who submitted proposals for both Unix and Linux-based products as options at ITSD's requests.
"More is likely to come," said Pang, who declined to provide details on how the two proposals compare in dollar terms and how much savings the government is able to achieve by adopting the Linux products.
"By setting itself as an example in the adoption of alternative products, the government wishes to encourage more competition in the market, which will eventually benefit all users," he said.
Nonetheless, Pang maintained that cost-effectiveness and fitness for purpose, rather than brand names, remain the primary considerations for government procurement of IT products. ITSD will also provide information on not just the benefits, but also limitations of the open-source products to give government departments a comprehensive view when making purchase decision, he noted.
Microsoft: no impact
Mark Phibbs, general manager at Microsoft Hong Kong, said the government's announcement will not significantly impact the company's business in the city. He is confident that the software developer will remain the dominant supplier to the government.
"People embark on the open-source products mainly due to its low upfront investment costs. But if you look at the total costs of ownership on a three-year term, you'll find that Microsoft's products are more cost-effective," Phibbs said.
"The costs for training and supporting Linux are enormous. It can be a nightmare of management," he added.
Dumping Linux for Windows
One man's meat can be another man's poison.
While the government is making its supportive stance for open-source products, Hong Kong-based Café de Coral Group has recently finished switching from the Linux to Windows platform in managing its operation.
In a project to upgrade its business management systems, Café de Coral has dropped the Red Hat Linux operating system it previously used for its point-of-sale system for the over 200 branches across the territory. Instead, the fast-food chain selected Microsoft Windows 2000 to support the new system, which has been in production since January.
Café de Coral's business management system is made up of five modules, including systems for branch intelligence, human resources management, cash management, sales and marketing as well as procurement and inventory control, according to Helen Li, professional logistics director of the fast-food chain.
The new system allows instant access to business-critical data generated at the branch level by the headquarters, facilitating more streamlined business processes and effective strategic planning, Li added.
"After a very long competitive evaluation, we decided that the [Linux-based systems] was not an ideal solution, so we bit the bullet and chose a wholesale migration to Windows 2000," she said.
"Linux cannot deliver the reliability and performance we need as our retail system continues to mature and scale up," she added.
Li concurred with Microsoft's Phibbs that as the company's needs grow, managing and supporting Linux and its multiple add-ons will eventually lead to higher total costs of ownership, although she declined to divulge details of the savings achieved as a result of the migration.