German Gov't Eyes Alternatives to Microsoft

MUNICH (04/10/2000) - The days when MS Windows and MS Office alone ruled the clients and servers of the federal government might be over soon.

Recently, more and more voices from top political levels are speaking out in favor of open source software as a less expensive, more stable and safer alternative to Microsoft Corp. products.

A recently published letter of the federal IT consulting department KBSt concerning open source software for public administration summarizes: "Linux or Free BSD operating systems and complimentary open source software, along with commercial software, provide stable, affordable, resource-preserving, and safe computing systems for professional office environments which are supported by a sufficient number of consulting firms."

The authors make strong points for open source software, which represent a serious alternative to common operating systems and office packages thanks to a high number of sophisticated products. However, the authors also assume that the coexistence of commercial and open source software are currently the most feasible solution.

Those responsible for product selection in public administration should pragmatically test on a case-by-case basis whether their needs cannot be satisfied better and cheaper by open source software. In an overview, the authors show alternatives to Microsoft products for individual configurations, for instance, the Linux Samba Server, which can "entirely replace" Windows NT as a file and print server.

The authors emphasize that, contrary to widespread public opinion, the range and support of open source products are sufficient to allow migration or at least coexistence.

The KBSt letter points out the flexible installation of Linux distributions, the lessened need for training, and especially security issues, as further advantages of open source software. The authors do not regard the publication of the source code as a gain in security by itself, but they say it is "certainly a basic condition."

At the end of a project regarding safety, control, and management of networks, the Federal Authority for Safety in Information Technology (BSI) stated that the latest approaches to distributed applications, such as agent systems, make access to the operating system's source code mandatory.

Potentially explosive is a comparison between the purchasing costs of an NT workstation -- according to the MS select contract -- and Linux, which was originally included with the KBSt letter. According to this comparison, each workstation with NT and Office package, exchange license and SNA client costs 845 marks (US$412). An NT server for file and printer sharing costs 681 Marks, an NT server with multiple processors and added SMTP mail server 3257 Marks.

The chart shows that all of these configurations are free in Linux.

The publication of the KBSt letter at http://www.kbst-bund.de was received with much interest, especially by open source advocates. In fact it was received with too much interest, apparently. According to a certain advisor of the state, Brigitte Zypries, the letter was immediately removed from the server.

The official reason, according to Zypries, was that the document was only meant for internal use and should not be misunderstood as official statement of the Ministry of Interior.

The answer from the Open Source community, which interpreted the withdrawal as a friendly gesture toward Microsoft, came immediately. Quickly, about 2,700 Internet users participated in a protest organized by the forum http://www.linuxtag.de. This met with success. Last Tuesday, the text was published again, to counteract "the impression that the withdrawal from the Internet had anything to do with censorship," says Zypries. The comparison of costs, however, has been removed "to avoid the possible breach of licensing contracts through accidental publication of confidential prices." The federal government, said Zypries, will continue to support the introduction of open source software.

The positions of other government authorities shows that Zypries is not alone with her change of heart. Not long ago, the minister of economy, Werner Müller, ordered an inquiry into the feasibility of future inclusion of open source products into software acquisition for public administration. And the Federal Fiscal Authority wants to research the potential for savings of open source software for federal administration by the middle of the year.

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