Systems integrators took on a disapproving audience of open source advocates this week after the government told its biggest suppliers to explain why its open source policy has been thwarted for so long.
Five executives braved public censure to tell a meeting of the BCS Open Source Group that the fault was an industry ecosystem built over 20 years on principles inimical to the open source model. The hostile ecosystem sustained itself - they merely operated within it, they said.
Darren Austin, chief engineer at Atos Origin UK, said the desire for greater use of open source in public sector IT projects had been blocked by standard government contracts, by enterprise software licences and by the reluctance of suppliers operating the government's key systems.
The enterprise-wide agreements with which the Office of Government Commerce agrees bulk prices with large software suppliers define what effectively became the default software used across the whole of government, said Austin. They put systems integrators in a commercial straight-jacket.
"We drop into myriad complexities around what existing agreements we have in place. This is where we have the big challenge as the integrator," he said. "We have to find the right fit in that matrix to deliver a supportable service."
Suppliers of commercial off-the-shelf software, currently favoured by the government, defined the stack of software with which they operated. The components of the stack were often defined by alliances formed between the big software providers to the exclusion, he implied, of alternatives such as open source.
"The Department of Health had a very extensive Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft," he said. "That software was effectively described as a stack. So for commercial or contractual reasons the choice wasn't there."
"A product's technology stack dictates the solution," he said, citing the case of the NHS, which tried to roll out Cerner's patient administration system as part of the National Programme for IT. Cerner was delivered on an Oracle platform and was certified to operate on IBM hardware and to work with IBM's Websphere application server.
"It will run on Linux," said Austin, "but without any formal support from Cerner."
Government contracts also imposed an effective prohibition on the use of open source software because they left systems integrators with commercial risk they could only mitigate using software supplied by companies with the clout to carry the can if the customer came looking for compensation for a failed project.
"In government and blue-chip procurements, the terms and conditions of the contracts don't allow us to use open source because the risk is contractually unacceptable. You would find we would be disqualified in the procurement process," he said.
Speaking on Tuesday, the day after the Cabinet Office had firm words with the major IT suppliers telling them that they had better start delivering open source systems, Tariq Rashid, lead architect for the Home Office technology solutions and assurance team, told the BCS group that the government was frustrated that its open source policy had been ignored.
Mike Robertson, head of public sector business at Savvis, raised hackles among delegates by suggesting that open source software could not be trusted in critical situations because of the risk that it might crash and brought down essential public services.
The Cabinet Office told suppliers on Monday that they could not continue to raise such fears now that open source software was running the London Stock Exchange.
Robertson said, however, that the risk in using open source was defined by procurement authorities, who typically preferred to "go down the Windows route".
"If you do the wrong thing in procurement you are out," he said.
Adam Jollans, open source programme director at IBM's systems & technology group, said systems integrators are more likely to formulate bids using open source technology if they think the government is committed to it.
Cabinet Office exasperated
Rashid told Computer Weekly after the meeting that the Cabinet Office was exasperated because it declared a policy that asked suppliers to use open source software two years ago and it had been since been twice restated.
Gurpritpal Singh, chief technology officer at Hewlett Packard UK's consulting arm, said open source software had "come a long way" and might catch on now it was being widely used in smartphones.
Singh added that open standards would present a way forward because they would make it easier for software systems to be swapped with one another.
But after the meeting he rejected the government's suggestion that systems integrators may have a commercial interest, defined by strategic alliances, in promoting and using software by Oracle, Microsoft and other powerful software corporations. HP did have a $200m (£124m) alliance with Microsoft, but any choice over which software it delivered was "customer-driven," he said.