Microsoft lock-in stalls Bristol council's open source strategy

Bristol City Council has been forced to ditch a major tranche of its open systems strategy because it is locked in to using Microsoft software and standards.

Bristol City Council has been forced to ditch a major tranche of its open systems strategy because it is locked in to using Microsoft software and standards.

Open source software and open standards were central to the council's regeneration plans, promoting local enterprise and helping cut £50m from its annual budget by 2013. But the council's full open source strategy may not now be implemented until its three-year cost-cutting phase is over. It will instead spend at least £7.3m on an IT strategy that involves putting Microsoft Windows 7 and Office 2010 software on 7,000 desktop computers.

Both the central government and Bristol's own IT strategies require the use of open standards and the adoption of open software. But the strategy Bristol's ICT director will put before the council Cabinet for approval on 30 September claims that so many other organisations insist on using proprietary Microsoft standards that its own attempts at using open standards have become untenable.

Gavin Beckett, Bristol's chief enterprise architect, told Computer Weekly, "We are trying to drive forward this openness agenda, but it's dependent on the rest of the public sector catching up and because they've not caught up we have had to make a pragmatic decision to use Microsoft."

He supported the call from Liam Maxwell, Conservative technology policy strategist and Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead councillor, for central government to push open policies from the centre.

Bristol blazed a trail for the coalition government's IT strategy by replacing Microsoft Office five years ago with office software that used open standards on 5,500 machines. But its staff found their work became prohibitively unproductive, said the Council Cabinet document, because so much of the UK's public sector carried on using Microsoft standards. Sixty per cent of its employees installed Microsoft Office software piecemeal to get round the problem.

Bristol had also been forced to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. Its 5,500 desktops had been running Windows XP. Microsoft is phasing out support for XP, and will cease in 2014.

Bristol ICT director Paul Arrigani said in the IT proposal that Bristol was being forced to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft software because, since its old software was no longer supported, access to other key computer systems such as the Government Secure Intranet could be invalidated.

"The planned approach does not change the council's commitment to open standards and open source, but reflects the reality of the environment in which we have to operate," said Arrigani in the report.

The council might find a way out when its new Microsoft licences run out in three years, he said, "should the move to a fully open source environment be feasible at this point".

Beckett also said in the report that Bristol's Microsoft strategy was not a "retreat" from open source. The council would still install the open source Open Office alongside every machine with Microsoft Office. It would encourage users not to form habits that would lock them into using Microsoft in the future.

If approved next week, the strategy would commit the council to upholding open systems and standards as best it could. The council still hopes to shift its entire supporting IT infrastructure to open source and is rolling out an open data and open standards policy. It will assess the feasibility of the plan in each area of its IT infrastructure in coming months.

Councillor Mark Wright, Bristol's lead on ICT, efficiency and value for money, said, "A legacy of proprietary, closed, data formats, and non-standard methods of exchanging information between applications have created barriers to the use of low-cost open source software, limiting our flexibility and ability to innovate."

The openness strategy must still be pursued, he said, to help the council meet its target of cutting 25% of costs. It was also a component of Bristol's Digital City regeneration plan by opening its IT spend to small, local firms.

"Open source software, being generally free, is a great leveller and thus a major enabler of digital inclusion," said Wright. "It is the role of the council to take the lead in these matters."

Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius Corporation, which has advised Bristol on its open strategy, said Bristol's plan to implement an open source IT infrastructure beneath its Microsoft desktops was the most significant commitment any council or public organisation had made to open source.

"There's a fairly strong open source community in the Bristol area. There's a growing number of open source companies as well. The council's money is local money from local taxpayers; isn't it better to feed that into growing local businesses rather than faceless multinational companies?" asked Taylor.

Read more on IT strategy