Open Source

Linux champion Munich takes decisive step towards returning to Windows

The city will investigate how long it will take and how much it will cost to build a Windows 10 client ahead of a vote on whether to replace its Linux-based OS from 2021.

munich-panorama-620px.jpg

Munich's next vote on replacing LiMux, a custom version of the Linux-based OS Ubuntu, across the authority from 2021, is likely to be a formality.

Image: Björn Kindler

A decade ago, Munich was at the vanguard of a movement towards open-source software, switching thousands of staff to Linux from Windows at a time when a move on that scale was almost unheard of.

After spending nine years and millions of euros on the project, today the city's politicians agreed to begin preparing to return to Windows by 2021.

Under a proposal backed by the general council, the administration will investigate how long it will take and how much it will cost to build a Windows 10 client for use by the city's employees.

Once this work is complete, the council will vote again on whether to replace LiMux, a custom version of the Linux-based OS Ubuntu, across the authority from 2021.

Dr Florian Roth, leader of the Green Party in Munich, who was deeply critical of the move to drop LiMux, said Munich was now very likely to return to Microsoft.

"The final decision will be later, but it's a formal decision. It's only that we will decide again, once we know everything about the costs, but the direction stays the same."

Thomas Ranft, Munich councillor and Pirate Party member, said LiMux has been held responsible for a host of unrelated IT problems, "and that's the basis of this decision that's going to cost the town a lot of money and even then there's a question about whether it will actually improve quality".

"It's a really sad day," he said. "We don't have a software problem in Munich, we have a problem with IT structure."

The council also backed the use of the use of "market standard" software, to provide "the highest possible compatibility" with "internal and external" software, casting doubt on the long-term use of open-source software such as LibreOffice and the Thunderbird email client, with some SPD politicians already talking about a return to Microsoft Office.

Don't miss: Munich: The journey from Windows to Linux and back again (free PDF)

At the time Munich began the move to LiMux in 2004, it was one of the largest organizations to reject Windows, and Microsoft took the city's leaving so seriously that its then CEO Steve Ballmer flew to Munich, but the mayor at the time, Christian Ude, stood firm.

More recently, Microsoft last year moved its German company headquarters to Munich, and now, less than four years after the migration of some 15,000 staff to LiMux was completed, the city has taken a decisive step towards swapping the Linux-based OS for Windows—whose use has been reduced to a minimum in the city.

"The change to LiMux saved about €10m Euros. Spending that money to do another migration, which will not assert further improvements, instead of solving the real problems is quite a bad idea. After all we are talking about taxpayers money," said Nadine Englhart, chairperson of the Pirate Party in Munich.

The proposed move to Windows is being justified based on estimates, not revealed to the public on grounds of commercial sensitivity, that the move will save the council millions of euros by improving staff productivity.

For the move to save money overall, using Windows would need to be considerably more effective as an operating system, because past estimates have put the price of Munich returning to Windows at more than €17m.

This 2014 figure, produced by mayor of Munich Dieter Reiter, estimated it would cost €3.15m to buy new PC hardware needed to run Windows and that €14m of work to support LiMux and open-source software would have to be written off. These costs were for a return to Windows 7, and are likely to have increased further due to more work having taken place to support LiMux.

The figure also did not include software licensing and new infrastructure costs associated with Windows. He also revealed that the move to LiMux had saved the council about €11m in licensing and hardware costs, as the Ubuntu-based Linux operating system was less demanding than if it had upgraded to a newer version of Windows.

The Document Foundation, the organization that manages LibreOffice, said moving to Windows 10 and MS Office 2016 could cost the city close to €90m over the next six years, and also stressed that money would no longer be spent in the local economy.

It described a move away from open-source software as "a significant step backwards for the City of Munich, with a substantial increase in expenditure, an unknown amount of hidden cost related to interoperability, and a questionable usage of taxpayers money."

The proposal to move to Windows, put forward by the SPD and CSU coalition, is based on recommendations in a report released by Accenture and German consultancy arf. The consultants' report recommended investigating "whether it makes economic sense to continue using Linux as a client operating system", once a new Windows client was in place.

The consultants' report said the move to roll out Windows would be part of a larger €18.9m 'architecture and client' project. The four-year project would see Munich city council take on two new "Windows experts", who would help develop a "powerful" new Windows client for use by staff, it said.

The Green Party's Roth was skeptical that any money would be saved by moving to Windows, describing it as "not realistic".

Beyond being suspicious of the savings, Roth pointed out that the four-year timetable for switching to Windows wasn't realistic, pointing out that the LiMux migration and wider IT restructure had taken nine years, and the council was again about to reform the IT organization.

"We have several challenges surrounding IT. We have more citizens in Munich, we have the process of e-government, we have reform of the organization," he said.

"We have a lot of challenges and now, without need, we say we want to have another challenge, a migration to Microsoft and it's too much," he said, adding the council may also need to restructure its personnel, reducing open-source specialists and employing Windows experts.

"I think it will be a greater change than the people who proposed this believe," he said.

Is LiMux at the root of the problems?

Kristina Frank, party member with the CSU, said she is not opposed to open-source software but that the continued use of LiMux was no longer viable.

"I really don't care what the OS is called. I don't care where it comes from. For me all that matters is that it works," she said.

"We've taken this step because Munich is alone struggling against the tide. This experiment has not ended up where we would have liked it. Munich took a unusual path. Most workplaces in Germany and worldwide are running other clients. Linux may be the right choice for many users but it's not for Munich.

"Our LiMux client fundamentally works but it's not efficient or intuitive and there are regular problems when you have to add other software, regular compatibility problems."

Rather than blaming LiMux or the minority of Windows machines as being at the root of the problem, the report prepared by Accenture and arf identified issues and inconsistencies in how systems are managed and updated, with difficulties caused by the fragmented nature of its IT department and outdated backend infrastructure. The upshot, according to the consultants was "obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity".

Users complained of intermittent, rather than persistent, issues, with problems cited included printing, viewing and editing documents, unstable programs, poor usability and difficulty exchanging documents with outside parties.

On the point of difficulty swapping documents with external organizations, Roth pointed out that Accenture highlighted that switching that from OpenOffice to LibreOffice—which is currently under way—would be a good solution to these incompatibilities.

While employee surveys typically aren't especially critical of LiMux, OpenOffice or LibreOffice, correspondence with the council last year showed some departments blame the move to LiMux and other open-source software for their IT problems. However, Roth said these problems stemmed from the shortcomings in how IT is managed and outdated backend infrastructure highlighted by the consultants.

"Some of the staff don't know where the problem comes from and it is easy to say 'LiMux and OpenOffice'. In some departments the problems are more to do with the fact we're not using the newest versions [of software]," he said, referencing the slow speed at which updates are rolled out due to organizational problems in IT.

A member of Munich's IT department, who didn't want to be named, said the difficulties reported by staff aren't caused by the use of LiMux or open-source software but by inefficiencies in the multi-tiered structure of the IT organization in the city.

"The main issue is that there is no "IT department". Each department of the city administration has its own it personnel," he said.

"The organisational structure makes it nearly impossible to fix them fast and sustainably."

The council also backed a restructure of the city's IT department at the general meeting today, which the IT worker said would be sufficient to fix the problems.

"For 80% of the workstations running in Munich, the operating system doesn't matter," he said, adding that if the council agrees to replace LiMux with Windows at the same time as restructuring IT, "the problems will be solved and it looks like Windows has solved them, but it won't have".

Once the work needed to create a new Windows client has been assessed by the council, the full council will vote at a later date on whether to replace LiMux with the Windows client by the end of 2020.

The Pirate Party's Englhart suggested the move towards Windows was driven more by politics than being a sensible attempt to resolve issues with the council's IT.

"The governing coalition of SPD-CSU misinterpreted the report for their own convenience," said Nadine Englhart, chairperson of the Pirate Party in Munich.

The IT department representative saw the decision in the same light, saying, "It is not a technical or money-driven decision. It is only a political decision".

Paradoxically, given the appetite for returning to Windows, the proposal also stated that the ultimate goal should be for software used by the city to run "independently of the operating system of the end user's machine", suggesting the use of web applications, virtualization and remote desktop services.

Peter Hofmann, the then lead for the LiMux Project said in 2013 the goal for LiMux was not about saving money, but about freedom from relying on any one software vendor.

If Munich ultimately decides to return to Windows, The Document Foundation said Munich will be forgetting the main reason it left Microsoft behind in the first place.

Read more on Windows and Munich...

About Nick Heath

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic. He writes about the technology that IT decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox