UK police force considers Linux for desktops

A U.K. police advisory body, the Police Information Technology Organization (PITO), has launched a three-month study to consider the possibility of using the Linux operating system on all police force desktops, the PITO said Wednesday.

“We are looking at the cost, stability, security and compatibility with other systems that are currently being used on the various forces. There is no commitment towards Linux just yet, but we liked it enough to look into the possibility of using it on what we estimate to be 60,000 desktops throughout the police forces in England and Wales,” said PITO spokeswoman Isabell Davies.

The PITO is a government agency that is charged with providing IT, communication systems and services to the U.K. police as well as other U.K. criminal justice organizations. The PITO has contracted Netproject — an association of user organizations including Royal & Sun Alliance Insurance Group PLC, Nationwide Building Society, National Grid and government departments — to carry out the Linux usability tests as part of a larger study called Project Valiant, Davies said.

“Valiant is examining the requirements for the next generation of police computing, and Linux is just one of 13 strands to the project. Valiant is looking at everything from the recruitment and retention of IS staffing to desktop software,” Davies said.

U.K. police forces are currently using either Microsoft Corp.’s Windows NT or Window 2000 on their desktops, and the study is looking at the possibility of using Microsoft software as well, Davies said. “One of the reasons we are looking at Linux is because it is an open standard which is something we were interested in. At this stage of the study, we are trying to establish whether Linux is mature or stable enough to potentially meet police service needs. We are expecting the study results by the end of March,” she said.

The U.K. police force isn’t the only government agency thinking about making the switch from Microsoft to alternative forms of desktop software. Both the Society of Information Technology Management (SOCITM), the group representing local government IT workers, and the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), which is representing the government on a national level, have been in negotiations with Microsoft over new software licensing terms.

Last November, OGC revealed that it was in talks with Microsoft over a single contract to supply its Office and Windows software to the country’s 497,600 public servants. The OGC said that under its new licensing program, Microsoft was looking to raise fees on government contracts by between 50 per cent to 200 per cent and that the government had not ruled out the idea of ending its contract with Microsoft to find cheaper software elsewhere if a deal could not be reached.

Meanwhile, though PITO is waiting for Netproject’s report to make a final decision on its own move to Linux, Netproject officials already seem convinced that a move to Linux would be beneficial.

“The move to Linux is inevitable. Windows with XP licensing has made life a lot easier (for Linux advocates). The total cost of ownership for Linux is 20 per cent of what it costs for Windows,” said Eddie Bleasdale, managing director at Netproject as well as an e-business security consultant.

Bleasdale, who first began installing Unix-based computer systems in 1980 and also worked together with West Midlands Ambulance Authority to develop and deploy Unix-based ambulance command and control systems, is an enthusiastic supporter of Linux.

“When I teach seminars on Linux, I have people from all types of corporations and government agencies who are there because they’re angry over Windows licensing, but I tell them that’s not even the issue. The main issue is that you cannot make Windows secure. The design is fundamentally flawed,” Bleasdale said.

Netproject believes that PCs configured with Linux can be made highly secure with user identification technology such as smart cards and biometrics, he said. The software can also be updated over the network, Bleasdale added.

With the development of other software tools that enable Microsoft Windows applications to be ported, Linux is currently ready for deployment on the desktop, according to Bleasdale.

There are number of applications that have been developed for PITO that run under Microsoft Windows, and Netproject will examine the strategies and software tools that would enable these programs to be ported to Linux, Bleasdale said.

“We’re vendor neutral. The only way to move forward is to have a vendor neutral architecture. But what is most important to look at in terms of e-business is security and we can lock Linux down so that a system can be safe from virus infection. What we’re looking at now are the practical issues of the implementation of these systems,” Bleasdale said.

According to Bleasdale, any organization looking to switch over to Linux can expect to spend five to six years doing so. “The move from Windows to Linux is going to be a major undertaking for any organization, and will be one that is going to dwarf the issues of preparing for Y2K. IT managers have to manage that and most of them are very risk adverse. To be honest, if you’re an IT manager that is looking at retiring in five years, there is little chance that you’d want to take that sort of project on,” Bleasdale said.

The Police Information Technology Organization, in London, can be contacted at +44-20-8358-5555, or at

Netproject, in Morden, England, can be contacted at +44-20-8715-0072, or at