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An Open Road

An Open Road

When it comes to open source, the NSW RTA has been there and done that. But other departments - and, maybe, even politicians - can use its experiences to guide their own open source policies.

As CIO of the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA), Greg Carvouni has a history of thinking differently when it comes to IT.

Back in 1992, when most government organizations were intractably wedded to their mainframes, the RTA - created just three years earlier - implemented the government's then largest Unix system to run its core DRIVES application, which still manages NSW's 4.1 million motor vehicle registrations and 4 million licensed drivers.

Years later, the RTA explored use of alternative desktops with the rollout of Sun Microsystems Java Terminals for staff at the organization's 140 registries. It recently installed Sun StarOffice on more than 300 desktops to assess its suitability as a replacement for Microsoft Office. All projects were conceived and executed in-house by an IT organization whose more than 200 IT staff service some 6600 employees and maintain more than 800 applications.

Open source is firmly entrenched within the RTA, where Linux and Apache rub shoulders with lesser-known open source components that have been used to speed development and improve the department's applications. Open source tools manage replication among the 350 Sun servers installed in registries, for example, while DRIVES itself has benefited from numerous open source enhancements.

"The RTA has always had an open standards orientation as a culture," says Carvouni. "In this registry space, a lot of work was done to create an environment that could be managed easily. Because you have the source code, we understand the applications and are able to fix things immediately."

Open source advocates might claim this approach validates their vision of a Microsoft-free world, but Carvouni's view of the upstart software model is far more pragmatic than revolutionary. RTA developers, he says, are 50 percent more productive by reusing open source components than they would be if they had to build their own.

They're also able to extend the life of equipment that might otherwise be discarded as obsolete. Recently facing the Java Terminals' end of life, for example, the RTA modified its open source Web browser to design a new user interface for a revised NSW Driver Knowledge Test. "We knew we were coming to our end of life and chose not to upgrade," Carvouni explains, "with the comfort that we could always support the product because we had the source code."

Such strongly positive results have validated open source for Carvouni, who has once again called on the increasingly popular model as the RTA implements an alternative desktop that will give more than 1500 registry workers access to e-mail and the RTA intranet for the first time. Apple eMacs, running the Mac OS X operating system, will provide free Mozilla e-mail and Web browsing software as well as Sun Microsystems' StarOffice productivity suite.

Estimated savings of $2 million per annum will trim 20 percent off the RTA's desktop management budget by reducing the chance of virus infection, reducing total cost of ownership and helping the RTA centralize a highly distributed IT environment that currently spans more than 240 locations.

"In a largish environment, there is a constant cost doing upgrades, sometimes for little benefit other than to maintain vendor support," says Carvouni. "With open source, you can drive your own show to a degree."

Creating a Climate for Change

NSW RTA's commitment to open source reflects a growing trend within governments that have become emboldened in their quest for a lower-cost alternative. Samba, Apache and Linux are now unremarkable elements of most departments' environments, and there are signs the trend is gaining even more momentum.

Acting Australian government CIO John Grant recently revealed the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), CIO Council and Information Management Strategy Committee are driving an initiative to create a toolbox of generic "white-branded" open source applications and components that all departments can use as they like. The AGIMO is also finalizing an open source procurement guide that has reportedly been driven by real interest from Commonwealth departments.

That interest is only increasing as governments the world over embrace the idea of open source. Politicians' rhetorical cries for freedom from Microsoft have driven adoption of open source legislation in areas such as South Africa, India, Peru, Brazil, the European Union and the US state of Massachusetts.

In Australia, the debate came into the political mainstream last September, when Democrats senator Brian Grieg launched an ill-informed tirade against proprietary software, attempting to use nationalistic sentiment to garner support for the party's proposed Financial Management and Accountability (Anti-Restrictive Software Practices) Amendment Bill 2003.

Grieg argued that mandating open source would keep control of Australian data in Australian hands, with legislation forcing government departments to "wherever practicable . . . procure and use open source software or software using proprietary formats in preference to proprietary software".

As worded, such legislation would have forced departments to chart IT strategies based on philosophical ideals rather than technical merit. Departments would have been pushed to adopt MySQL over Oracle, Linux instead of Windows, and to pepper their environments with open source tools that would create a planning and management nightmare. Grieg left this more complicated issue alone, ignoring risk management issues and the relatively higher costs of enterprise-level support for open source solutions.

Grieg's speech also highlighted the reasons politicians should stay out of making technology policy. Statements such as "Internet Explorer will only be supplied as an integral part of the Office 2003 suite and therefore a costly upgrade" and "Longhorn is the development name for the next version of Office" are simply incorrect, while Grieg compiled spurious argument upon spurious argument to conclude that the high cost of Windows meant the average battler would have to pay more than $1000 to participate in ATO-driven online tax initiatives.

Little wonder, then, that the legislation was unceremoniously dumped by the Selection of Bills Committee last October. The Democrats struck back soon afterwards, however, kindling debate on the issue in the Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly just two months later.

In that discussion, ACT minister Roslyn Dundas waved the Democrats' flag. "This bill will . . . encourage local and Australian IT companies who are currently struggling to break free from the domination of one proprietary system to be able to work with the government on solutions for what the government needs and what the government wants," she argued.

ACT deputy chief minister Ted Quinlan was quick to take the Democrats to task: "Let's . . . make sure we do not create legislation that, in fact, by its nature, reduces competition, reduces value for money and in all probability does not benefit those that it is aimed to benefit," he argued. "We can be required to buy open source software - with no guarantee, because there is not a proprietary support for it, that support is going to be continuous, that it is in fact going to be a useful product over a reasonable time span."

Debate largely centred around the law's instruction that departments show "preference" for open source solutions; changing the word to "consideration", and setting a sunset period of three years, was enough to soothe criticisms and pass what became Australia's first open source government mandate.

Just how much the legislation will actually change ACT procurement policies has yet to be seen, says Robyn Hardy, manager of procurement policy with ACT Procurement Solutions, a fee-for-service government procurement consultancy. "Everyone has now become aware of [the law], and the Procurement Board has put out guidelines to guide agencies," Hardy explains. "However, because we're such a small jurisdiction we don't do very much [procurement]. You won't start to see a difference until a couple of years down the track and we begin to purchase new software."

What Government Wants

As Quinlan quite accurately pointed out, all government departments are already able to consider open source solutions in their procurement decisions. However, lack of strong support organizations, as well as technical differences, often sway them towards commercial solutions. Effective governance demands strong vendor backing; when fundamental issues of business continuity are on the line, departments must choose suppliers with risk minimization in mind. Even the RTA has stuck with commercial packages in its back end, with its data centres running a combination of Windows NT and Sun Solaris.

"We have to protect ourselves in corporate apps such as HR, financials and so on," says Bevan Doyle, CIO of the Western Australia Department of Education and Training (WA DET). "We have to make sure we are guarded about possible failures, and go through the usual [precautions]. In terms of general software - the world of Office - it's not such a critical factor."

Because their environment revolves primarily around large numbers of students needing basic word processing and presentation tools, alternatives to Microsoft Office have found their most receptive government audience in the education sector. WA DET, for one, recently chose Oracle Collaboration Suite as the basis of a student portal and e-mail solution that has become standard issue in the department's 100 Schools IT modernization project. The department has also evaluated StarOffice; although it recently stopped trialling the software on Unix SunRay thin terminals, StarOffice itself remains "quite a valid product", Doyle says.

Open source's biggest Australian desktop win so far, the Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training's $23 million Learning and Technology in Schools (LATIS) project, raised the profile of open source as a cost-cutting measure for perennially cash-strapped education departments.

In that project, installation of the StarOffice 5.2 productivity suite and SquirrelMail e-mail system on more than 4000 desktop PCs delivered savings of more than $1 million. This has allowed the department to install 1000 extra computers, supporting its push to increase computer numbers by 60 percent over the next few years and deliver a student-to-computer ratio of around seven to one.

NT DEET contracted IBM and local partner Computer Support and Maintenance to support its open source environment. Yet despite the up-front savings, there is little indication of how much the solution has cost in support and changeover costs.

There is also little discussion about the issue of file formats, which was raised with such vitriol by Senator Grieg. Many open source proponents argue that Microsoft's proprietary data formats should be avoided in favour of open standards - yet perception of StarOffice's legitimacy has hinged upon its compatibility with Microsoft Office. Education and other departments will only deploy StarOffice if it will work with their huge base of Word documents - but this process does not always go smoothly.

More complex usage, and integration between various systems, can complicate the situation significantly. NSW RTA found this out after recently moving a group of 300 employees from Microsoft Office to Sun StarOffice. "The corporate environment is not as simple as it seems," Carvouni says. "When you install [StarOffice] in a corporate environment, you discover that the IT department doesn't always know what people are doing with [current technology]. People use their own initiative to build spreadsheets and databases that manage work processes, and all of a sudden you move them to StarOffice and find out they don't work."

The solution, as always, is to plan carefully and listen to users. "You have to do a detailed business analysis to understand what users are doing; even small things can bring you unstuck," Carvouni continues. "Slight differences aren't impossible to fix, but if you don't do the analysis you're going to end up with a very negative customer reaction. Having just cut over 300 people to StarOffice, I can understand why it's not so easy and why you don't get hundreds of people adopting it."

Many departments are still putting broad open source deployments in the too-hard basket. Witness the NSW Department of Education and Training's recent $37 million, three-year deal with Microsoft, which put its software on 163,000 desktops and 2300 servers. Indeed, most governments have negotiated whole-of-government licences with Microsoft, thereby reinforcing Office's entrenchment within Australian government and making exercises in open source replacement largely academic.

"We have to accept that Microsoft products are quite ubiquitous in the open world, where our kids will be going," says Carvouni.

Remaining Open To Open Source

The reality of open source migration highlights the ever-present conflict between the ideal and the real, between politicians' will and CIOs' mandate to deliver. However they feel about Microsoft, departments still face the obligation to provide users with the tools to get the job done - not to base buying decisions on transient political philosophy.

As in the general business world, the areas of government where open source has made the most inroads have been for the most practical reason of all: sound business benefits. Here, Linux is particularly advantageous as an alternative to Windows Server, a point that became clear during planning for an e-business project at the NSW Office of State Revenue (OSR) five years ago. An initial deployment of Linux servers was recently extended to replace a legacy Sun Solaris Server, and is now supporting the department's core Oracle databases, which handle the collection of more than $13.5 billion in state revenues every year.

It is a mission-critical deployment that OSR CIO Mike Kennedy concedes is still a little unusual for Linux within government, but the solution made perfect sense when the business case was drawn up - and still makes sense now that OSR is in the process of upgrading the environment's redundancy and scalability using Oracle 9i RAC (Real Application Cluster).

"Unix, Solaris, AIX and so on used to provide a value - you were paying for reliability, performance and so on - and we were happy to pay for it because there weren't a lot of alternatives," Kennedy says. "But Linux came along, and there's an alternative that provides you with the same business outcome. So where's the value in paying extra for it?"

Support is just as important as technology, Kennedy adds, noting that in the past year OSR migrated from Debian Linux to Red Hat Linux because it was easier to get support from third parties. But that migration was "technically a non-event", he says.

So politicians, when debating bills mandating that open source software should dominate government purchasing, argue loudly that a move to open source is in Australia's best interests. As with all public discussion, their perspectives are shaped by the input of various stakeholders - and, in the case of open source, these perspectives are invariably biased against Microsoft.

While nationalistic rhetoric may score political points, it will become a major problem for government CIOs if they are pressured to pick technology according to politically motivated procurement policies. Numerous departments have proven that open source works where it is applied appropriately, but a growing trend towards political intervention could become a major headache for CIOs whose priorities are much more immediate.

"Open source is not the issue for me," says Kennedy. "I've got a business to run. Whether it's open source or proprietary, if it can deliver the business outcomes I need at the price I want to pay, I'll use it."

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