Open Source

Is open source really harder work? Munich's experience shows it's more complicated than that

Claims the shift to free software left the mayor without access to email on his phone are wide of the mark and ignore genuine issues organisations can face when switching to an open-source office suite.

Earlier this year the newly elected mayors of Munich raised the possibility the city could return to Windows, despite the authority having spent years switching to a Linux-based OS and free software.

The suggestion, in an interview with German website sueddeutsche.de, prompted a flurry of articles stating the council was on the verge of abandoning Linux on the desktop.

That turned out not to be the case, but the council is now conducting a study to see which operating systems and software packages - both proprietary and open source - best fit its needs, which also takes into account the work already done to move the council to free software. No decision will be taken with regards to the future of open source software at the council until the review is complete.

But the ongoing debate about the use of open source has seen some examples given of how the move to free software had negatively impacted the council. But it could be that what these really reflect is the complicated nature of enterprise technology and way it is implemented.

For example one of the main issues cited was that mayor Dieter Reiter had to wait weeks for IT staff to set up a dedicated server so he could access his email and calendar on his smartphone.

But while this failing was given as an illustration of how open source applications lag behind proprietary, it now seems the problem was unrelated.

Georg Greve is CEO of Kolab Systems, the company that recently began implementing groupware software to manage mail, calendar, task, and contact lists for the council.

The reason the mayor was unable to access email through his smartphone is due to how a legacy server had been set up, he explained, and would still have been a problem if the council had stuck with Microsoft.

"They had a system in place which was a plain old mail system, an IMAP server, the same system they've been using for a very long time," he said.

"It's behind a firewall and the firewall is configured in a way that a mobile phone shouldn't be able to access it, because all of this goes back to pre-mobile phone days.

"It's the same server they had before they migrated to Linux, [that] was serving all of the Windows mail and workstations as well. There's absolutely no bearing whatsover in a Linux vs Windows, simply because that system is the exact same system that was serving Windows. If you were migrating back to Windows on the desktop then you'd still have the exact same system."

Kolab is currently implementing a new system that will provide full email, calendar, address book and task access to mobiles - Android, Blackberry, iOS and Windows Phone devices - as well as Linux and Windows-based desktops, which is expected to go live in the first half of next year.

A separate project will rollout smartphones to Munich employees "12 to 14 months from now", he said.

Genuine issues when switching from Microsoft

Munich migrated from Windows NT and Office 97/2000 to an Ubuntu-based OS called Limux, a custom-version of OpenOffice and is in the process of migrating to LibreOffice. And such a migration is not without its complications.

A common complaint from staff is incompatibility between formats used in OpenOffice and Microsoft Office, a Munich city council spokesman told TechRepublic earlier this year.

That incompatibility issue is perhaps the main stumbling block for authorities that have made the switch away from Microsoft Office, said Matthias Kirschner, vice president of the Free Software Foundation Europe.

"As other authorities often just send proprietary formats, eg Microsoft Office files, it is difficult for public bodies to switch to free software."

Earlier this year, the UK government decided all government bodies should make documents available in the Open Document Format, an XML-based file format for charts, documents, spreadsheets and presentations developed as an open standard. It took the government several years to be able to settle on a policy, in the face of heavy opposition from groups such as the BSA and major software vendors.

Other authorities in Germany and elsewhere in Europe have followed Munich's lead. But Kirschner said the success of future moves away from proprietary software will be heavily influenced by whether national governments follow the UK's lead and attempt to lessen problems of incompatibility.

"If we want to enable public administrations in Europe to use free software, the politicians have to agree on open standards and make sure that this decision is implemented," he said.

"Else it will be very difficult for a public administrations to switch to free software."

The office of the deputy mayor of Munich Josef Schmid, who also criticised the move to Limux alongside mayor Reiter, did not respond to a request for comment.

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.

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