Thursday, 8 October 2009

Isn't it about time Brighton and Hove City Council abandoned Microsoft?

Getting big organisations to shift the way their IT systems work is a bit like trying to deviate a container ship away from its planned course to save passengers from a sinking ferry: it doesn't usually work, it takes ages, officers on the container are reluctant (worrying about both the safety of their own mission, and the idea of the huge costs involved), but if it can be done the savings are huge and, while the benefits turn out to be real, none of the risks turned out to be very serious anyway.

Take Brighton and Hove City Council - despite the fact that Microsoft, one of the world's largest corporations, charges the taxpayer millions to use their 'Windows' operating system, and that it's prone to viruses, slow and crashes a lot, the Tory administration simply refuses to consider abandoning the system in favour of a free, Linux-based alternative.

And now they've just signed a new contract to use Microsoft systems for the next 10 years - as if we can really imagine what alternatives might be out there by 2019!

To be fair, they are consistently advised by senior officers that abandoning Microsoft would be too expensive and difficult: the main problem being that most of the IT staff (and 'end users') are well-versed in using Windows-based systems and retraining everyone would simply cost too much - and take too long. The same argument was probably made when some bright spark suggested automating council tax bills instead of working out everyone's rates on paper and filing the results in vast wooden cabinets in a dusty basement room at Brighton Town Hall. I'm glad it didn't prevail then and I'm not much more impressed with the argument now.

Of course retraining takes time and money - but if it will allow the council to save money on day-to-day costs of software licenses (Linux is free, after all, and Microsoft charges millions) then it will surely save the taxpayer cash in the long run. It should even be able to borrow money to pay for the training and pay it off with future savings so no-one even notices until everyone's bills start coming down.

Another argument offered against adopting a free open-source operating system is that part of the deal with Microsoft is that the Council receives external support - and emergency help if and when things go wrong. Well, maybe it's true that external support for Linux systems is a little harder to come by - but not too hard for all the other organisation that have made the switch. The London Stock Exchange, for example, Munich Council, in Germany or, most recently, Bergen Council in Norway. This is a bit chicken and egg, really: as more organisations switch to Linux-based systems, obviously there'll be more knowledge about fixing and customizing them, and more support services will become available. If everyone waits - we'll be stuck with Microsoft, and the high bills and poor performance for ever. Personally, I want our council to reflect the city's reputation for being a trailblazer. I think we are one of the most innovative cities in the country, if not the world, and we really deserve our council to show some leadership on this.

Security is another issue: though this one really seems to be a red herring based on the best efforts of Microsoft's marketing department. The simple truth is that Microsoft software and platforms are far LESS secure than open source alternatives. Organisations for whom security matters most have already realised that and made the switch.

Take the New York Stock Exchange. It switched to Linux in 2007 to IMPROVE its security, amongst other reasons. No computer industry watchers were that surprised when the Microsoft based TradElect system used in London, and running on Windows machines, crashed about a year ago, causing billions to be wiped of the value of shares and trading suspended for most of a day.

Of course there are other arguments - and perhaps we'll come to them another day. I'm certainly not trying to dodge them - and I hope Microsoft junkies will air them on this 'blog so we can discuss them further. I'm not saying these arguments are clear cut, just that if the council is prepared to take the gamble of closing a parking office in Brighton to save a few thousand quid, despite the inconvenience that seems to have caused just about everyone, then it ought to be a bit more bold about ditching Microsoft's expensive, and not very good, software, to save a lot more - and show some of the digital leadership residents of this city rightly expect.

Of course everything I've written above has been about the respective merits of the different systems - but for me the best argument is that Microsoft has repeatedly been found guilty of anti-competitive practices and is a bit of a corporate bully, and I don't think Brighton taxpayers should have to put up with, effectively, paying for a corporate bully's protection racket techniques.

1 comment:

  1. Spot on!

    Free Software is not just about price ("free as in beer"), it's about freedom ("free as in speech") - the freedom to be able to modify the software to one's specific needs. Being dictated to from Redmond as to what your business is allowed to do with their software is ridiculous, and it's about time something was done.

    If Brighton & Hove Council took a lead then with the amount of skilled Free Software professionals in Brighton available to help them through the process I'm sure it would prove a success, it just takes someone with guts to spearhead the idea.

    If Brighton is to be this "Digital Super City" then surely we should be leading by example?