British gov't agencies to test open-source software

A British government agency whose mission is to help reduce the cost of government is launching a series of nine IT "proof of concept" trial projects using open source software, including Linux.

In an announcement Wednesday, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) said the trials will be conducted across a diverse group of government offices to see how open-source software compares to proprietary products -- and to learn where it can be used with comparable or improved performance and lower costs.

The first nine trials will be conducted with the help of IBM Corp., but other vendors will be invited to offer their ideas, said Martin Day, a spokesman for the OGC. The office was established in April 2000 to help U.K. government agencies get the best value for their money from vendors in everything from road building to property management and IT, he said. "IT is a great way of losing money if you get it wrong," Day said.

For more than a year, the OGC has been working on open-source trials that would yield real-world results, he said. In July, the British government's Open Source Software Policy was announced in Parliament, which wanted a level playing field for comparisons of open-source and proprietary software based on value for money.

The nine trials, which will take place during the next six months and could be expanded to more projects, are being coordinated by the Office of the eEnvoy, which is responsible for improving the online delivery of public services and cutting costs, as well as making all U.K. government services available electronically by 2005.

"We're not out here to prove a point" about open-source vs. proprietary software, Day said. "We have no specific religion" about either technology, he added. "Is this about abandoning Microsoft products? No, it's not."

Instead, the idea is to find out if public money can be saved by looking at other ways of doing government business, he said.

Whatever the eventual findings, the OGC can't make open-source software use mandatory, Day said. The agency can only make recommendations, although the findings could hold some weight in future IT decisions.

"Whilst it's not mandatory, if (open-source software) works, it would take a very brave department to rubber-stamp another order" for proprietary software from any vendor, he said. "We're going to want to see what these trials (show)."

The nine departments involved in the trials are: the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; the Department for Work and Pensions; the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; the Office of the eEnvoy; the Powys County Council; the Newham Borough Council; the Orkney Council; the Central Scottish Police Authority; and the Office of Water Service.

Adam Jollans, Linux strategy manager at IBM's software group, said the pilots could help determine practical usage for Linux and other open-source software in government agencies, as well as provide measurable comparisons of costs and performance. "This parallels what we've been doing with a lot of our commercial customers," Jollans said.

Jonathan Eunice, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H., said the British trials show just how far open-source software has come in the past few years. "They're considered as something that's viable compared to commercial products," he said. That wasn't the case only a few years ago, he added.

In some areas, such as office suite applications, however, open-source software still isn't ready as a replacement for proprietary products, Eunice said. "No matter how good (open-source products) OpenOffice or StarOffice get ... the Microsoft Windows Office franchise is going to last for many years," he said. "There are cases that are very clear (for open-source use), and there are cases that are mixed."

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