In From the Cold

In From the Cold

Government interest in open source is increasing, but is it Linux they’re looking for or simply an alternative to Microsoft?

A growing number of state and federal departments are exploring Linux, drawn to the open source movement by visions of a cheap, reliable alternative to Microsoft. So far the adoption rate of Linux continues to lag behind the hype, but nevertheless acceptance of open source software among Australia’s government CIOs is undoubtedly improving. Last year, the Northern Territory Department of Education replaced Microsoft software with the open source word processing suite StarOffice 5.2 in 160 schools. More recently, the Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs, the Bureau of Meteorology and Centrelink have all announced that they plan to move some of their IT infrastructure to Linux.

The federal e-government strategy, Better Services, Better Government, announced last November, encourages trials of open source software as long as they meet “fit-for-purpose and value-for-money” criteria. Some agencies are seizing the opportunities offered by open source, but not enough for the Shadow Minister for Information Technology, Senator Kate Lundy. Lundy is so far leading the charge to curtail federal government spending with Microsoft. Speaking at the e-Government Australia Summit in November last year, Senator Lundy argued strongly in favour of open source software: “Departments and agencies should be immediately required to consider and assess the merits of open source software as part of their strategic approach to sourcing their information and communication technology expertise,” she said in her address. The Senator warned the government not to regard open source software as “just another opportunity for cost-cutting in government information technology systems”. Instead, Lundy suggested that a new outlook on open source should be the first step in a rethink of how the government manages public information and delivers e-government services.

“This is the chance to make a significant investment in updating legacy technology systems that will prevent the effective delivery of e-government services, including access to data that is held in systems that are up to 30 years old,” Senator Lundy said.

Certainly, the benefits of Linux are well documented: a free operating system that rarely crashes, runs on anything from a 386 PC to a Sparc-based Unix server, is easy to debug and modify, speaks IP fluently, is similar to Unix in terms of administration and is improved constantly thanks to a grass-roots development effort that encompasses thousands of programmers worldwide. And now that Commonwealth government-endorsed suppliers like IBM and Sun are backing open source, Linux is more available to government agencies than ever before.

DVA Takes the Lead

The Federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) is currently in the middle of the Commonwealth’s most advanced Linux project — a plan to move file and print services for all branch offices to an IBM zSeries mainframe running Linux. Following an infrastructure upgrade, the DVA is moving to a thin-client operation with one central data centre supporting about 3000 PCs. It will move file and printer servers to the mainframe to run under Linux in March.

“As part of its technology strategy, DVA continuously monitors the IT market place for new industry initiatives that could reduce its total cost of ownership on technology expenditure, and at the same time improve productivity to the business,” says Tony Ablong, corporate state offices and Information Management Unit services manager with the DVA.

According to Ablong, the decision to use Linux was prompted by the need to refresh the department’s IT architecture to bring it in line with government strategy, and so the department included it as requirement during the renegotiation of its outsourced IT arrangement with IBM. “DVA has been watching the progress of Linux for some time, and our research suggested that from a risk point of view Linux has reached an acceptable level of operational maturity,” Ablong says.

As for the business benefits of Linux, Ablong claims that in addition to getting a “more robust” IT architecture the DVA expects to receive value for money. “From a technical point of view, our research indicated that there would be financial and operational benefits arising from the centralisation and consolidation of file and print, mail and database servers,” he says. Pending the success of this implementation, Ablong says the DVA intends to investigate similar open source initiatives as a way to reduce cost and to improve performance and delivery of applications to its business areas.

Yet despite the DVA’s success with Linux, Ablong warns that open source is no magic cost reducer. “As CIOs well know, there is no such thing as a free lunch,” he says. “The understanding by some people that open source software means ‘free software’ that would reduce TCO is not realistic. My view is that this is far from true, and considerable cost and operational overheads kick-in following a decision to walk down this path.”

To Ablong, the philosophical aspects of open source are largely irrelevant. Instead he insists that open source solutions should be considered in the context of an organisation’s business requirements on a case-by case basis.

“So far our observations indicate that although anticipated cost savings typically are the key driver behind open source software, true comparisons are difficult to make. In our case, Linux was certainly not seen as a silver bullet for reduction in the total server ownership cost.

“While Linux OS itself is nominally free, the data centre-ready Linux distributions — for example, RedHat, SuSE — are not. The bottom line is that organisations should evaluate platform costs from a total cost of ownership on a case-by-case basis.”

Testing the Waters

“Certainly, CIOs are very cautious in their approach to open source, because it’s not a solution for every problem,” says Robin Simpson, research director with Gartner.

Linux has matured well over the years, Simpson says, quietly achieving success in the background in specific areas like education, where it has proven popular with academic researchers who need high-performance computing on a limited budget. But Linux is still not a practical general solution for mainstream servers, he says.

“There are some areas where it can be a great solution, from the point of view of robustness, reliability and ease of deployment, but no one is saying: Let’s move everything to Linux,” Simpson says. “That’s just impractical. Linux isn’t ready for all kinds of things.”

Especially frustrating for CIOs, both government and private sector, is a lack of open source applications. The Web server Apache, one of the original open source projects, has been around for many years and is extremely reliable — and popular. In a recent Netcraft survey of Web domains, Apache was reported as running almost 63 per cent of the sites in the world. What’s missing are CRM and supply chain management applications. Most of the big enterprise software vendors, like SAP and Peoplesoft, have ported their products to one flavour or another of Linux, but as of yet there have been no major deployments.

“There are some reasonable open source applications, but the fact of life is that 97 per cent of everybody uses Microsoft Office, and you’ve got to live and do business in that world,” Simpson says.

Alternatives have appeared on the scene, like StarOffice and OpenOffice, but so far there’s no functional alternative to the Microsoft Office suite. “StarOffice is wonderful but it’s sufficiently different in terms of user interface and compatibility with MS Office file formats that you can’t suddenly say: ‘Everybody use this’,” Simpson says. “Training is an enormous issue with something like StarOffice. If you’re a new organisation you can consider it. But for existing organisations with a big installed base it would be a nightmare.”

But Simpson admits this situation could change any time; all that’s needed is the right application and the right organisation to lead the way. “Everybody’s looking very hard at Linux right now. This a very dynamic situation, and it only became dynamic in the last six or nine months. The test will be: who’s going to be the first to make a big deployment?”

License 6.woe

So if Linux isn’t ready for mass deployment, why are governments suddenly interested in Linux? According to Simpson, it’s not only the stability and low cost that has CIOs looking to open source, but also dissatisfaction with Microsoft’s new and expensive licensing program.

Simpson is currently helping to compile a Gartner report on the use of open source in governments worldwide. Although global in scope, the report had its genesis in Australia. In May of last year Simpson visited South Australia, where Gartner has many government clients, and virtually every department he walked into was filled with IT executives wanting to voice their opinions about Microsoft’s new licensing regime.

“An extreme level of unhappiness” is how Simpson describes the reactions he witnessed. Simpson was surprised; after all, Microsoft had given everyone months of notice and even extended the deadlines. Nevertheless emotions are still running high, he says. “It’s like the introduction of the licensing program was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Simpson says.

Currently, customers who sign up for the software giant’s enterprise licensing agreements, known as License 6.0, have to pay an up-front fee in addition to annual fees over the life of two- or three-year contracts. Microsoft enacted that new licensing model in July and reviews from customers and analysts have so far been mixed.

“Everybody’s been using Microsoft for years,” says Simpson. “People know they need to have a Microsoft environment because it’s what everybody else has.

“With License 6.0, everybody came to the realisation all of a sudden that not only are they dependent on Microsoft products, they’re locked in. And now Microsoft is trying to extract revenue from them on a regular basis.”

Even though government departments have always had to worry about keeping up to date with the latest version of software and installing patches, at least previously the organisation was in control and could choose how frequently upgrades would take place. Smaller and medium government departments may upgrade every three or four years. “All of a sudden you’re being asked to consider doing that every two years,” says Simpson.

Tony Ablong at the DVA won’t go so far as to say unhappiness with Microsoft’s new licensing system is what drove the department to look into Linux, but he does say that the department is watching what happens very closely. “DVA has always been concerned with the cost of software licensing, and is obliged under the Commonwealth Procurement Guidelines to achieve value for money wherever and whenever possible,” Ablong says. “The concerns raised by other organisations about Microsoft’s new licensing structure is very real to this department as well, and we are closely watching the interplay that is taking place between software vendors in the market place.”

At the end of the day, it all comes down to budget issues, says Gartner’s Simpson. Even though Microsoft offers customers several payment options, many government departments still view the new licensing fees as an up-front cost.

“Several of those that I spoke to discovered that to make all of their existing desktops legal and up to date — using the two-year agreement where they paid upfront — was similar to their entire IT capital budget for the year,” Simpson says.

Although Simpson concedes that a scenario like this is more likely to occur in smaller government departments than large ones, he maintains the principle is the same. Namely, that Microsoft’s licensing program is alienating its government customers.

“Budgeting is an annual process for most of these people,” Simpson says. “They aren’t thinking about how to spread that cost over two years. They’re thinking: this is what it’s going to cost me up front. And I’m locked into it. That’s a huge stimulus for people to look for alternatives. And that looking is still going on.”

Best Practice: Centrelink

How the government’s largest agency approaches open source In an enthusiastic show of support for open source, the federal government’s biggest agency, Centrelink, plans to establish a Linux Laboratory in collaboration with IBM. The agreement is part of four-year deal with IBM to update the agency’s IT infrastructure with a range of hardware, software and services.

Although the specific activities to be undertaken in the laboratory will not be identified until the release of a strategy paper due in Q1 2003, Centrelink CIO Jane Treadwell provided CIO Government with a briefing document on the current state of the agency’s open source initiatives, excerpts of which appear below.

Linux Laboratory

Centrelink recently incorporated the collaborative development of a Linux-laboratory in its Enterprise Level Agreement with IBM. Installation of equipment in the laboratory, based in Canberra, has already commenced.

The facility’s aim is to enable Centrelink to investigate areas where the opportunities offered by Linux can be exploited. The team responsible for the development of the Centrelink Linux strategy is responsible for identifying the initial and longer term opportunities for the optimal application of Linux.

Factors which will significantly influence the resultant recommendations include:

  • the risk to delivery of customer services
  • swap-out/swap-in costs
  • skills and training requirements
  • support costs
  • the risk and costs associated with the integration of the some 200 legacy applications in the organisation.

Linux in Centrelink

Currently Centrelink has limited exposure to the Linux operating system and its use is largely confined to testing and development systems. It is generally used to support niche network management capabilities and as a low-cost alternative to Unix for specialist system administration areas. Virtually all of these capabilities are based on the implementation of Linux on Intel platforms.

Open Source Software in Centrelink

Centrelink already uses the following open source products (although in the majority of cases they are not hosted on Linux) to support a wide-range of niche capabilities:
  • DNS (Bind)
  • DHCP (IP Address serving)
  • Squid (proxy caching)
  • Apache (Web serving)
  • Perl (programming)
  • GNU C (gcc) (programming)
  • BASH shell (systems administration)
  • Sendmail (external mail)
  • Nmap (internal network mapping)
  • MRTG (network management via Web interface)

Key Opportunities & Concerns

The following represent some of the key considerations associated with the development of a Linux strategy in Centrelink, which is aimed at satisfying the constraints associated with the effective, efficient and ethical use of public funds.


  • Potential for up-front reduction in licensing and licence monitoring costs.
  • Potential cost savings in moving from mid range platforms to Intel-based platforms
  • Potential for more robust mid-range server environment.
  • Potential savings through consolidation of platforms.
  • Potential to create more competitive support environment and increase opportunities to pursue strategic sourcing in the support environment.
  • Opportunity to participate in the open-source community and drive the development of specific capabilities
  • Opportunity to standardise operating systems across the mainframe, mid-range, desktop, mobile and handheld environments.

Potential Risks

  • Uncertainty regarding the direction of Linux in the Enterprise environment.
  • Risks associated with potential ‘lock-in’ to a single vendor of Linux and associated support services.
  • Perceived lack of enterprise-strength system management tools to support Linux
  • Lack of widespread Linux-related skills in the IT community particularly, in niche areas
  • Costs associated with the development of a Linux skills base
  • Immaturity of third-party support and uncertainty regarding the cost structures associated with the costing models underlying support services
  • Risks and costs associated with the migration of some 200 desktop-applications, many of which are closely linked to Microsoft, IBM and Solaris operating systems, to a Linux environment.

Key Observations and Findings

Initial indications from Centrelink’s research shows that Linux has reached an enterprise-strength level of maturity and that the opportunities for implementation, in priority order based on several criteria, are as follows: 1. Web hosting 2. Hosting of collaboration tools 3. File and Print 4. Security & Firewalling 5. Network and System Management 6. Application Development 7. Database hosting 8. Data Warehouse & Analysis 9. Proxy / Cache 10. End-User Computing Planned research activities in the Centrelink Linux laboratory, to be conducted in Q2 2003, will assist in determining whether these capabilities are to be optimally hosted on Linux in the mainframe, mid-range, desktop, mobile or handheld environments.

Snapshot: Centrelink

One of the top one hundred Australian companies in terms of size and turnover Centrelink has a budget of $1.6 billion and distributes $44 billion in social security payments on behalf of the Department of Family and Community Services. It the world’s 12th largest processing organisation, processing 2.9 billion online transactions a year.

Centrelink: -has 6.3 million customers; -pays 9.3 million individual entitlements each year; -has 24,356 staff; -has more than 1000 service delivery points ranging from large Customer Service Centres to small visiting services;

Open Source Wins Overseas

US -A Mitre Corp report into the use of open source software at the US Department of Defence found that Linux “plays a more critical role in the DOD than has been generally recognised.” The report identified 249 uses of open source systems and tools, including running a Web portal for the Defence Intelligence Agency, running network security for the Army command in Europe and support for numerous Air Force Computer Network Defence tools. Among the most high-profile efforts is research funded by the NationalSecurity Agency to develop a more secure version of the open source Linux operating system.

EU - In October 1999, two French Senators introduced a bill requiring all French government agencies to use software with accessible source code. The following February, the Ministry of Culture and Communications announced a plan to replace proprietary software on hundreds of its mail, file and Web servers with a mix of open source-based servers. Heightened security concerns are said to be the reason. - Last year, the Norwegian government terminated a contract with Microsoft, its sole public sector software supplier. In Germany, the government also announced a deal with IBM to promote hardware and software products supporting Linux for public sector use. - A report published by the European Commission in July 2002 encouraged EU governments to share open source software resources as a way to cut down on e-government costs. According to the study, “Pooling open source Software”, which was financed by the Commission’s Interchange of Data between Administrations (IDA) program, a kind of software clearing house should be created in Europe in which various administrations could “donate” software for reuse. - In November 2002, the European Union gave UK-based system integrator Netproject almost $500,000 for a feasibility study into moving several member countries’ government IT systems from Microsoft Windows to the open source Linux operating system.

Asia -In 2000, reports out of China suggested that the government is getting ready to name a Linux-based system as its official operating system. By 2001, the government announces its investment in Red Flag Linux, citing the risk of China’s software market becoming dominated by foreign vendors. - In 2002 the Korean government bought 120,000 copies of a Linux-based office suite. - A government-subsidised technology development group in Thailand announced the launch of open source-based desktop software for use on government computers. - Japan’s public management ministry has earmarked 50 million yen for a panel of scholars and computer experts, including Microsoft officials, to study the possibility of using open source software such as Linux at the government level. The study is to be completed by March 2004. South America u In 2001 Peru, Argentina and Brazil all introduced bills that would require the government to use open source instead of proprietary software, citing a huge debt load related to proprietary licensing. - In Costa Rica Linux is running on servers at the Casa Presidential (the Costa Rican equivalent of the White House) and CIPET, a branch of the Ministry of Education that provides technical training for teachers.

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