While the government in England has started to talk seriously about a possible move to open source, Allan Paterson, director of information systems for the Isle of Man, talks to Computer Weekly about the benefits of standardisation on Microsoft.
"We are very much a Windows environment," says Paterson. About eight years ago, the Isle of Man's IT system in government was a mess - it was poorly controlled, expensive to run and there was no IT strategy. Now its IT infrastructure is praised for its efficiency and costs less to run than most local government environments in the UK. Part of the reason for this has been a move to standardisation, says Paterson.
"Strictly speaking, open source means things people can modify, which adds complexity to the system. The good thing about Microsoft is that you know what their standards are. Also, in a small environment, you have to be conscious of having a [limited] skillset. We've had to reduce Oracle because of the skills issue and there is also a skills issue with open source," he says.
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The advent of broadband and cloud computing has gone hand-in-hand with Paterson's strategy to simplify and reduce costs. The Isle of Man previously had 300 servers, with little convergence, massive duplication and plenty of room for confusion, he says. Now it has consolidated its servers and moved to two datacentres. "At one point we lost power in one datacentre and it was transferred to another in 15 seconds Ð so we didn't even notice," he adds.
"With the cloud, we've been able to reduce IT costs and deliver joined-up services in areas such as health, education and tax."
In collaboration with IT provider Unisys, the Isle of Man government has also been using private cloud for some time, in its various guises, from outsourcing and hosted services to a fully managed operation.
The take-up of online has also been growing over the past 24 months, says Paterson. "We have a single internet environment which covers every aspect of government, from the harbour master's hut to the post office.
"Users can access all services through a single person sign-on, and make payments through a single payment engine. So the farmer's wife can do a cattle registration on the same portal as the farmer's income tax return."
But although standardisation has turned around a previously chaotic system in many ways, the strategy has met with less enthusiasm from some people, says Paterson.
"Forcing the government to use a common strategy to applications has caused some difficulty," says one commentator familiar with the Isle of Man's IT programme. "Standardisation is the single most effective means of reducing the costs of IT, and it works with desktop PCs and networking, but when it comes to the functionality of business needs, it needs to be applied more sensitively."
All the island's departments are using Microsoft's Axapta accountancy software, which is unable to fulfil specialist functions in certain areas, he says. The deployment of Sharepoint has also been less than optimal in some areas, and the Information Systems Department's use of Microsoft smartphones for the Isle of Man's politicians has also been the source of some discontent, he claims.
The other knock-on effect of standardisation is the impact on suppliers, says the commentator. "We have some non-Microsoft suppliers who have become very effective in the area of government IT, but many others have become excluded from contracts with what is by far the largest user of IT."
But Paterson has a firmly pragmatic approach to the government's overall IT strategy, "As the saying goes, the best is the enemy of good, and I'm looking at good," he says.
"We want to continue to provide effective services and reduce the cost of government, which is important for businesses as they can move to any jurisdiction - so we need to have an environment that is sticky to them."
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