Kicking tech tires: Open source making progress

Governments around the world are rapidly adopting Linux and other open source software, according to analysts. Canada is no stranger to open source either – but some industry watchers have noted that not every jurisdiction has the same reason for using code that can be freely shared.

Gordon Haff, analyst at research firm Illuminata in Nashua, N.H., said governments are probably not much different from other organizations when it comes to making the decision to use open source software.

“Particularly on the server side, open source, and specifically Linux, continues to grow rapidly,” Haff said, adding that overall Linux server shipments were in the 30 per cent range between 2002 and 2003.

According to Stacey Quandt, principal analyst at Quandt Analytics in Santa Clara, Calif., while the SCO/IBM lawsuit has some organizations seeking a lower profile as Linux users, there is no slowdown in Linux adoption among government customers around the world.

“High profile Linux implementations such as the City of Munich’s migration of 14,000 Microsoft desktops to Linux, and the Chinese government’s efforts to support the development of Linux are significant, but also part of a larger global trend,” said Quandt, adding that government agencies in France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Australia, Mexico, the United States and Japan are also leveraging Linux.

But the only way to find out what’s happening in the Canadian public sector is to examine some successful open source projects across the country – and the driving forces behind them.

Open source and the feds It was only two months ago that open source got the official nod of approval for use within the federal government. The CIO Branch of the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat now says that “software solutions used in the Government of Canada come under many license types, including certified ‘open source’ or ‘free/libre’ software licenses.”

Helen Jelich, director general, standards, engineering and project management at the Information Technology Services (ITS) Branch of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC), said the Government’s vision is a balanced one. “It’s a full spectrum approach” that includes various business models, Jelich said.

Joseph Potvin, management team member, enterprise architecture for the IT standards, architecture and security sector, ITS Branch of the PWGSC, added that the statement from the Treasury Board is “deliberately low-key. It’s not ‘rah-rah’ open source – it’s more of a shrug.” The acceptance of open source is connected to the idea that using free software makes good economic sense, Potvin said. Jelich, however, described it as “more than a shrug – it’s a very thought-through shrug. We spent time considering the options and how to approach open source…because there is such a variety of open source software.”

Calgary: Linux on the server

Other levels of government have been equally active in getting open source into their IT environments – but in their case, pressure on IT budgets has been the main driver.

The City of Calgary is one example. In the fall of 2002, it had about 140 Unix servers. According to Dan Ryan, manager, infrastructure and desktop management for the City, managing them cost more than $600,000 a year. “We had to find ways to cut costs and we were looking under every rock,” Ryan said.

In their research, Ryan’s team came across Linux. “Back then, we could barely spell Linux,” he said. “We had heard of it but hadn’t done any work on it…(so) we challenged our database and Unix team to come back with a business case for Linux.” The research team contacted some of the city’s vendor partners and prepared a proof of concept for Ryan.

The City’s three Linux pilots were about cost containment, Ryan said. “We were praying that it would be a break-even proposition. Even if it was close, we would consider Linux.”

But the IT team started noticing some performance gains as well. In the first quarter of 2003, they tested the city’s property tax instalment payment plan application, which normally processed 175,000 records in 73 minutes using an eight-processor CPU running Unix. With Linux on a two-processor Intel CPU, it ran in 31 minutes. “That was the first heads-up to us that we were dealing with something pretty special,” Ryan said.

Toward the end of March 2003, the City did its annual property tax run, which involved calculating 329,000 tax records. In the Unix environment “we used to crank that thing and it dimmed the lights at City Hall,” Ryan said, adding that the eight-processor CPU with Unix did the job in 60 hours. But on a two-processor, $12,000 CPU running Linux, the calculations took about 13 hours. “At that point…we met with the architecture manager and decided on the spot that…Linux was here for keeps.”

Since then, the City has replaced its Unix environment with Linux running on Intel boxes. Today it is in the process of migrating one of its applications to the Linux environment every seven to 10 days. Charles Taylor, supervisor, data infrastructure management for the City, said it’s important to get real management buy-in, which was easy in the City’s case because of the motivation to reduce costs. Upper management should also do its homework on the budget, hardware compatibility and product certification side, he said.

Toronto CSD: Linux on the desktop

Last year, when the City of Toronto’s Children’s Services Division (CSD) was looking for more powerful computers to replace their existing machines, they investigated several alternatives. One of the options was to go with an Intel PC with Windows, while another was to upgrade its existing Neo thin-client workstations to Linux-embedded ones.

The CSD asked for a demo Neo Linux machine and discovered that it was running a “bare bones” version of Linux. “That got us to thinking that we might be able to come up with a modified version of Linux ourselves,” said Randell Clarke, an IT configuration specialist at CSD.

After much trial and error CSD came up with a version of Red Hat 7.3, one of the flavours of Linux, that they were able to compress onto a CD ROM and run on an Intel computer.

Installation is simple, Clarke said. “We can burn 65 new CDs, drop those CDs in the mail and send them to the users with the instructions,” he said. And this version of Linux “provides users with connectivity to the online daycare applications, e-mail, calendar, Microsoft Office Suite as well as their personal and corporate data stored on the central server.”

The Linux-based thin clients CSD now uses are cost-effective too – $253 each, versus the $1,600 the department would have had to dish out for new PCs with Windows XP. That’s not even counting the operating system licenses, Clarke said.

The transition to Linux did not require as much of a learning curve as some expected, said Clarke, who up until nine months ago had not worked with Linux on a regular basis. “It didn’t take me long to pick [Linux] up and run with it. One operating system is a lot like another.” He did point out, however, that a migration to a Linux thin client solution requires at least one person who is very knowledgeable in the open source operating system. Also, some software is still not compatible with Linux.

Clarke said the move to Linux desktops was “not a radical shift” for CSD. “It’s a small and unique situation” because the department was used to operating on its own, with no pressure to choose the same technology as other departments were using.

The final word

Illuminata’s Haff observed that Linux adoption on the server side is “certainly much further ahead than the desktop is,” at least in North America.

“There is a lot of tire kicking and pilots going on (on the desktop), a lot of interest, and certainly the capabilities are improving, but we’re really not at the widespread adoption point yet, probably not anywhere except in relatively narrow clumps” in Europe and in the Far East, he said.

Haff noted that the government Linux desktop adoption is more common on other continents, where low cost is a stronger driver. There are political considerations as well – those governments want to retain control of their own destiny and not be at the mercy of a U.S. company. “They would rather keep the money in the country.”

He added that some of the early open source desktop adoption is focused on workers who use their PCs for very specific or limited functions. “If all you’re doing is word processing on a PC, Open Office (the Linux equivalent of Microsoft Office) may be just fine for you. But if you are the typical professional using your PC, there might be a lot of other software that you may want to run on it, and it becomes more problematic, at least right now.” Potvin said there is still some fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with open source, both in the public and private sectors. “Some people treat [open source] like pornography,” he said. “But most (federal) government agencies aren’t like that …. It’s just good business to include it.”

But as with any organization, governments have to be careful about their motives for switching to Linux, Haff warned. “If someone is using something else today, there are always switching costs associated with that. Just because Linux is good, doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to throw out something that is working well and move to something else . . . . It certainly does boil down to a business decision.”

Patricia Pickett ( is a department editor at ComputerWorld Canada who specializes in IT workplace and management issues.

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