News Analysis

Can the government really move to open source IT?

Kathleen Hall

The government has started making serious noises about using open source products.

Bill McCluggage, deputy government CIO, held a meeting on Monday with suppliers to discuss the desire for much wider use of open source in public sector IT.

The meeting came hot on the heels of a new policy note published by the Cabinet Office to effectively mandate open standards in all government IT procurement specifications. But how close is the public sector to really using open source widely?

McCluggage says the government is looking to work on an open source implementation group, following his meeting with top-level suppliers.

"The engagement strategy has to address the systems integrators issue, we can't buy what's not offered. The government is serious about open source," he told Computer Weekly.

The meeting followed the Cabinet Office policy note which said that, wherever possible, government departments should deploy open standards.

'Open source' defined

The government's definition of "open standards" is standards that are thoroughly documented and made publicly available at zero or low cost. They should have "intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis; and as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms", said the policy note.

Many popular IT products would struggle to satisfy that definition.

Georgina O'Toole, analyst at TechMarketView, believes the government is unlikely to move to open source products for its most critical systems.

"For applications that ensure things like benefits being paid on time, the government will continue to take a risk-averse attitude and stick to traditional models," she said.

There are also compelling arguments for using products from companies like Microsoft, she adds, "It's easily integrated into many CRM products, for example, and there are strong skills-sets in the market for implementing the technology."

Microsoft still dominant

Clive Longbottom, director of analyst Quocirca, agrees. As most of the public sector is still using Microsoft products, it is limited by what can be changed, he says.

But as fewer people buy PCs with pre-loaded versions of Windows, other options will eventually become more viable.

"The government can't afford to keep paying for fork-lift upgrades of Microsoft products, so they will have to take a broad view and be highly flexible. But for the moment we are still looking at a very Microsoft-centric situation," he said.

For internal projects open source could be a more realistic option. "It could be used for ERP systems, providing it was codified in such a way that it could be read by other SAP systems and Oracle. But government has to be aware that it could be putting in place constraints," said Longbottom.

Open source is already being used in some areas of government. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) uses Linux, and the Department of Health also uses open source on some major projects, for example.

McCluggage wants to make open standards a key element in the government's new IT strategy due in the Spring, to level the playing field for smaller open source providers. If the plan goes ahead it could finally trigger an eventual migration toward a widespread use of open source.

Read more on the challenge of open source in government: IT suppliers claim procurement system excludes open source.


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