On 14 October Computer Weekly ran a story on Newham Borough Council's decision to review software procurement . This involves running Office of Government Commerce-sponsored open source trials on desktops and servers.
Simultaneously, Microsoft, Newham's incumbent software supplier, is externally auditing the entire IT system in conjunction with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.
In the past year the OGC and the National Audit Office have published their verdicts on the government's software procurement model and provided guidelines for the future. Their advice to purchasing departments is that they should buy on a value-for-money basis - something we all agree with.
For many the concern is that the debate has become polarised, pitching open source software against the proprietary model without constructive dialogue. Along the way, arguments have become emotive and somewhat ideological, making it difficult for public sector IT managers and consumers to make rational, fact-based choices.
As the public sector and suppliers work together to improve IT services and keep costs down, the relationship between the two sides comes under frequent and intense scrutiny. There are many reasons why such scrutiny is both inevitable and justified. Principally, it is imperative that the taxpayers' money being spent on IT is distributed wisely and that maximum value is extracted.
Equally important is that services and products bought by public sector bodies are instrumental in helping IT environments to improve rapidly, and that they show intrinsic qualities such as security, reliability, interoperability and ease-of-use. In other words, any rational purchasing decision should be made by looking at the value of the whole IT platform, rather than the individual technologies.
Early comparisons between Microsoft and Linux desktop and server products tended to suggest high functionality, familiarity and ease-of-use on the one hand against low-cost, secure performance on the other.
Our research, both internal and external, shows that Microsoft puts forward convincing cost and security arguments as well. For the public sector these two factors are of paramount importance. It is up to us to provide compelling evidence that Microsoft software can be chosen on both counts.
Analysis of the costs of IT systems is an extremely complicated process. It can also, unavoidably, appear somewhat arbitrary. This is borne out by the fact that total cost of ownership studies struggle to agree with one another.
What is clear, though, is that introducing open source software instead of proprietary software is by no means a certain way of lowering costs. Indeed, both IDC and Gartner found that increased service and management costs for open source more than negate any up-front savings from obviating software licensing costs (which typically amount to about 5% of the total IT cost).
What is more, the industry now accepts that Linux is commercial software: it carries a significant acquisition cost and is typically bundled with suppliers' proprietary software and services.
In the past, it has been said that open source products are more secure than their commercial counterparts. However, industry watchers and analysts are divided on this point. Security is an industry-wide concern so it is in the interests of all parties to make security issues a priority.
Microsoft has taken a number of steps to demonstrate its commitment to secure computing. For example, the UK government participates in Microsoft's Government Security Programme, which gives all appropriate agencies controlled access to the Windows source code. This allows inspection of the code line by line and simulation of vulnerabilities and threats.
Windows has received the highest common criteria certification (CCC) yet awarded. This is a globally-accepted standard for evaluating the security of IT products and systems. By providing a common set of requirements for comparing the security functions of IT products and systems, CCC allows objective evaluation.
It would be fair to conclude that open source and proprietary software, while able to coexist in many environments, can be seen by industry and the public sector as alternative and closely-competing products in certain roles. The arrival of open source as a competitor will ultimately benefit customers and the IT industry alike, and head-to-head evaluations will inevitably become regular occurrences.
Every company wants to hold on to its customers when faced with competition and Microsoft is no different. The external audit of Newham's IT environment is one of several projects we have undertaken to highlight our commitment to analysing our customers' needs and testing the depth and quality of our products and services. We will continue to listen to customers, evaluate their needs and improve in response to what we learn.
Matt Lambert is director of government affairs at Microsoft