Linux gaining acceptance in Canberra

The Linux operating system is finding a welcome home in Canberra as an increasing number of Federal departments and agencies look towards cost-effective open source solutions.

Agencies are keen to trial Linux, eager to explore the costs and benefits, said Steve Alford, business strategies branch general manager for the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE).

He cited existing procurement policy that states agencies are free to use open source software where it provides a value-for-money solution to their needs.

While it was hard to gauge which agencies' IT systems would gain most from Linux, savings alone meant government interest, said Alford.

"As Linux is implemented by more users both within government and industry, we will have a better idea of where [in government] Linux can be implemented with most benefit."

Peter Gigliotti is the assistant director of computing at the Bureau of Meteorology. He has had no problems using Linux for about two months on a development cluster for one of the government's largest Web servers.

Gigliotti is typical of government IT managers turning to Linux.

"Everybody's looking at the bottom line these days. I'd estimate we've made a cost saving of about 30 per cent, that's hardware and software," he said.

"I suppose what else made us use Linux was confidence of stability, it's supported by the commercial channels now. There's been a lot of money spent on the development of it by companies like IBM. It can certainly provide a fair amount of computer power, too."

The scalability of Linux is also attractive for the government because it runs smoothly on mainframes, such as IBM's z Series mainframe used by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Following an infrastructure upgrade, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) moved to a thin client operation with one central data centre. It moved file and print servers to the mainframe to run under Linux. The network supports about 3000 PCs.

The reason behind the Linux move was "basically cost", said Alan Parker, information manager at the DVA.

"We will reduce floor space and less operator support will be required, especially in managing growth."

Parker said the Department had not been actively seeking to replace Microsoft software, but had SuSE Linux offered to them by IBM.

As open source supporters like IBM and Sun are also Commonwealth Government-endorsed suppliers, Linux has become more available to government agencies.

A lack of credible information on the total cost of ownership for Linux systems has so far prevented agencies from trialing Linux, said Alford. However, this will be addressed when NOIE briefs government officials on Linux before the year's end.

"Also, where agencies have outsourced their IT operations, using Linux may require contractual variations, and this may not be a simple exercise," he said.

This has been a huge wall for open source acceptance that is finally crumbling, said Cybersource managing director Con Zymaris. The Victorian professional services company specialises in open source solutions and training.

"What's traditionally worked against Linux in the government is that if something can't be used everywhere, they won't use it.

"The problem is that 80 per cent of people in government departments could use Linux desktops, but Microsoft contracts in effect lock the government down further than the contract period because it's difficult to get other software working on it."

He agrees mainframes are a big growth area for Linux with its scalability.

"Now that mainframes can run Linux, you can use its full power."

Zymaris referred to Telia Net in Sweden, one of Europe's first major commercial Linux installation which last year doubled the capacity of its initial mainframe Linux installation. This ran up to 1500 virtual Linux Internet servers simultaneously. A major commercial player, IBM, was involved here, too.

Now Linux is being used by government and with the NOIE seminar to come, it will gain a permanent place in government IT, said Zymaris.

The NOIE seminars will be held for Federal government officials by the end of the year.

While Zymaris acknowledged the problems of integrating Linux in government IT systems, he said the NOIE seminars were evidence government agencies could no longer ignore the benefits.

Just the fact that government agencies are "so conservative means that Linux has finally made it", he said.

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