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Where to save the millions with Open Source

January 19, 2013

A viewpoint

It has become my considered opinion, that enterprises can deliver bigger benefits by deploying Open Source for enterprise systems than for desktop applications. This view is backed by a banked saving of over  £1.1 million, from using Open Source where I work.

In a perfect world

I’d love to have everything we do powered by Open Source. If you’re not familiar with it, Open Source is software developed by an unlimmited community of users and made freely available for anyone to use. Some Open Source software is supported by guarantees from commercial companies, for a fee,  but without the normally substantial cost of being licensed to use the software.

Open Source is cheaper and often more quickly adaptive to change than commercial software. In a time of intense austerity, one would expect Open Source to dominate and technology leaders to be thinking Open Source first.

In a real world

But the world is not that simple. I have installed Open Source (free) software on all my family’s laptops, in preference to installing expensive commercial products. Open Office has functionality that meets and exceeds our word processing requirements and compares very favourably with any of the commercial alternatives. I thought I’d see how they got on with Open Source.

They gave it a go, but pretty quickly, there was a revolution in the family. My children came home from school with homework to “create a spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel” or “do a Powerpoint presentation about your holiday”. My wife wanted to share files with friends on the PTA, who all had standard Microsoft products. Sure the teacher, or any of us, could learn to convert the files, but this extra little step just seemed to create too much emotion and hassle. I lasted a few months before I conceded, got the credit card out and bought the same software as everyone else is using.

Sorry Open Source, I couldn’t champion you for word processing, even in a family of four.

In the enterprise

In the enterprise, I have been more succesful.

I have seen the same sharing files issue with desktop Open Source solutions in organisations. I remember working as a consultant with some Sun engineers who complained bitterly about having to use open source Star Office – not because it didn’t meet their requirements, but because it was hard to share stuff with the rest of us. And I remember their jubilation when the company allowed them to buy Microsoft.

I’m also aware of many well-intentioned corporate initiatives to deploy Open Source that have floundered on the same sharing issue. The leaders said “Open Source only” – and the users bought Microsoft anyway. I am also aware of some notable heroic organisations that are soldiering on. But if its hard to achieve in a family of four, it’s even harder to achieve in a business of four thousand. So hats off to everyone who has – I hope you can sustain it.

I have learned that the bigger Open Source gains are to be had away from the desktop, in enterprise IT provision.

In my own organisation, the defacto standard Microsoft products are embedded in many of the business systems, like finance, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and others. That is just how the suppliers write them.  Letters are automatically generated in MS Word format, finance data in excel and so on. The cost of running this applications and ensuring the Microsoft conversions to Open Source still work every time we upgrade is more expensive than the saving on the desktop software. Sure, you could have a policy of pockets of allowed Microsoft, but then you are on the slippery slope of sharing incompatibilities. Given that most organisations in public service now are required to share more and more information with other public service organisations, a common standard is required – and the path of least resistance is the de-facto standard.

Cracks in the armour – where the savings are.

Away from the desktop, however there are glimmers of light. Those same enterprise applications are now available in increasingly credible Open Source versions. Enterprise operating systems were amongst the first to get there. Way back in 1999, the wise CIO before me agreed to run Open Source Linux as the operating system for all of our Finance, HR, Payroll, CRM, procurement and related systems. Over the years that has meant we can buy cheaper hardware than a commercial operating system would restrict us to.

With some 60 servers associated with these systems, this drives a material cost saving, exceeding £1 million over the period. There is more info in this case study:

So that’s where I am going with Open Source. Into the enterprise applications with a current project being the re-development of our Web Site and Intranet with Open Source DotNetNuke going live this year. Business Intelligence and Document Management have to be contenders, as well.

I’m confident we will see similar cost benefits.

  1. “Where to save the millions with Open Source |
    Steve Halliday Public Service CIO” was indeed a remarkable read and thus
    I really ended up being truly happy to come across it. Thanks for the post-Kerry

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  1. Open Source council web site to share | Steve Halliday Public Service CIO

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