Public sector IT directors' eyes are likely to be focused on the east London borough of Newham this autumn, where IT director Richard Steel has engineered a face-off between open source systems and the best that Microsoft can offer.
The borough has begun a review of open source desktop and server products and their suitability for council demands. Steel used the trials as a bargaining chip that led Microsoft to pay Cap Gemini Ernst & Young to provide the council with free consultancy about how it could save costs using the software giant's products.
The review and Cap Gemini's report are likely to lead to initial procurement decisions by Christmas, said Steel, who stressed that there would be no sudden move to open source software whatever the trial's outcome.
However, the size of any purchases by Newham is likely to be less important than the message it sends to the rest of the public sector, which is increasingly interested in low-cost open source software.
Two weeks ago, the Office of Government Commerce and the Office of the E-Envoy tried to stimulate the uptake of open source technology by announcing nine public sector open source "proof of concept" trials, including Newham.
The next edition of the authoritative IT Trends survey from Socitm, the local authority IT directors' organisation, is due by the end of the year and is likely to show that about 20% of local authorities are selectively using open source, while 50% have it under active consideration. Only 25% of councils have considered and ruled out using open source technology.
"People are at the precipice, they want to jump [into open source] but they do not have the courage," said John Serle, editor of the IT Trends report.
Newham's decision to explore open source was driven by three main issues.
- The affordability of Microsoft software and the fact that software developments are forcing hardware upgrades
- The need for server consolidation
- The need for software upgrades to deliver the integration and interoperability needed to meet 2005 e-government targets.
Faced with these pressures, which are common across the public sector, Steel said, "We thought it appropriate to have a look at the options available. It is part of Newham IT department's culture to look at new ways of doing things," he said.
As the borough launched its open source audit, Steel approached Microsoft to discuss his choices. "We are always trying to get the price down and we told Microsoft what we were doing," he said.
Microsoft told Newham it could not move from the discounted price structure it had agreed with the Office of Government Commerce and Socitm last year.
"Microsoft said it could not do anything on price, but was keen to show us how we could use its software effectively to drive down costs," said Steel.
Bringing in Cap Gemini to offer independent consultancy to Newham was the answer, said Matt Lambert, Microsoft's director of government affairs, Europe. "Newham is seen as a technology leader. It is an important account for us and we are trying to prove we have the best offering," he said.
The Cap Gemini deal will allow Newham to carry out a comparative study of the performance of open source systems and the performance of Micro-soft software within its own organisation.
Lambert said Microsoft was confident that its products were competitive against open source alternatives, if users compared total cost of ownership, rather than just licence price.
Analysts said a decision by Newham to move to open source software could encourage other organisations across the public sector to follow suit.
"Microsoft would have considered the knock on effect for the public sector vertical market of a technology leader like Newham shifting heavily to open source," said Mike Thompson, principal research analyst at Butler Group.
Lambert would not reveal the public sector's contribution to Microsoft's UK turnover, but Thompson said the UK public sector would be looking seriously at open source, given the budgetary strain of meeting e-government targets.
Microsoft is determined to defend its market share in the public sector against open source products. That determination is fuelled by the embarrassment it suffered in July when Munich City Council awarded a 14,000 desktop contract to SuSE Linux, despite a trip to Germany by Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer to offer the city a heavily discounted deal.
Phil Dawson, who leads Meta Group's global open source research, said Microsoft's decision to fund research in Newham was good for the council and good for the software giant.
"Whatever the outcome of the trials, Newham will be in a better position to negotiate with suppliers," said Dawson. "Microsoft is trying to ensure an apples-with-apples comparison between its products and open source alternatives," he said.
That comparison appeals to Steel, who is anxious to avoid the evangelical fervour that can surround the open source versus proprietary software debate. "It is about being flexible, objective and cost-effective," he said. "We are trying to devise a strategy that is pragmatic in the short term and flexible in the long term."
The council is in discussion with several suppliers but is aware that a move to open source would pose a range of new challenges.
"We did a trawl through the IT department and found we were using 13 open source products without a clear strategy to move in that direction," said Steel. "But we are mindful that open source is not free and we understand the implications of working in a mixed environment."
He described products such as Openoffice as "a no-brainier" for simple word processing and spreadsheet tasks, but a big issue for Newham is whether open source products can meet the sophisticated requirements of the council for e-mail, calendaring and contact management, he said.
Should Newham decide to go further down the open source road, it is unlikely to be the site of a "big bang" implementation, but its decisions will be closely scrutinised by public sector organisations across the UK.
Tests will clarify systems' potential
The Office of Government Commerce is co-ordinating nine "proof of concept" open source projects across a range of public sector organisations.
The move follows July's announcement of a government open source software policy.
OGC chief executive, Peter Gershon, said, "The trials build on our commitment to create a level playing field between open source software from a range of suppliers and propriety software within government procurement.
"The trials will operate in a controlled environment and will enable us to identify when and how best to use the technology to the benefit of departments and the taxpayer alike."
The nine organisations involved in the trials are: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Department for Work and Pensions; Department for Culture, Media and Sport; Office of the E-Envoy; Powys Council; Newham Council; Orkney Council; Central Scotland Police Authority; and Office of Water Service.