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Open-source pioneer Munich debates report that suggests abandoning Linux for Windows 10

Exclusive: An external report into IT at the city authority suggests the trailblazing council could move away from using open-source software.

The city of Munich

Image: Björn Kindler

As an open-source software pioneer, Munich spent years moving away from Windows, but now politicians are debating a report that suggests the city could eventually abandon Linux.

If the authority ruling Germany's third largest city backs proposals to make Windows 10 and Microsoft Office available across the council, it would be a significant step away from open-source software for an organization once seen as its champion.

Over a nine year period starting in 2004, the council moved about 15,000 staff from using Windows and Office to LiMux--a custom version of the Ubuntu desktop OS--and other open-source software. At the time, Munich was one of the largest organizations to reject Windows, and Microsoft took the city's leaving so seriously that then CEO Steve Ballmer flew to Munich to meet the mayor.

Now a report commissioned by current mayor Dieter Reiter to help determine the future of IT at the council has outlined a project to make Windows 10 and Microsoft Office available to all departments, and give staff the choice about whether to use Windows or LiMux.

If Windows subsequently became a popular choice, the report says "it could be investigated whether it makes economic sense to continue using Linux as a client operating system".

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

This work, part of a wider €18.9m 'architecture and client' 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.

This renewed focus on Windows would be a dramatic departure from the council's current policy, which has reduced the number of Windows machines to a minimum, keeping only those needed to run software incompatible with LiMux.

Backing Windows

The council has previously said that the bulk of users had not taken issue with the move to LiMux and free software. However, in correspondence with the council, there is support from various departments for replacing LiMux and LibreOffice with Windows and Office.

The city's human resources department (POR) is particularly critical of LiMux, saying that since 2006 when the POR started using LiMux and OpenOffice, later switching to LibreOffice, that "the efficiency and productivity of the POR-supported workplaces has decreased noticeably" - referencing crashes, display and printing errors.

"Even 10 years after the start of the LiMuX migration, the users and users of the POR are dissatisfied," says the letter, claiming that, even after updates, LiMux and LibreOffice are "far behind the current technical possibilities of established standard solutions".

Contrary to Munich's stated goal of freedom from proprietary software, the POR representative says the city of Munich "is still dependent on Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, etc., since many requirements can only be met by the products of these manufacturers". Aspects of these proprietary systems are incompatible with LiMux, according to POR, citing the council's SAP security system, and errors in how PDFs are displayed by the open-source viewing software. Another department describes the use of Windows as being "mandatory in many areas of the city of Munich, whereas Limux clients are not".

"The POR strongly supports a swift and structured transition to Windows, Microsoft Office products and standard applications," the letter states.

Even if the council were to accept the report's suggestion that Windows be made available across the council and LiMux eventually dropped, no change would be made immediately. Under architecture and client project, the consultants report recommends that LiMux continues to be improved, as both LiMux and Windows continue to be used side-by-side at Munich for at least the next couple of years.

Fighting lock-in

Matthias Kirschner, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), said it would "sad" if the council were to implement the Windows-focused changes on the basis of the information set out in the report.

He points out that the report only mentions abandoning LiMux in the future, not Windows, wording that he says "makes clear" the report is written with a view to "get rid of the LiMux client, and that other options might not even be considered".

Kirschner also questioned why Accenture was chosen to co-author a report assessing the use of Microsoft software, when the consultancy runs a joint venture with Microsoft called Avanade, which helps businesses implement Microsoft technologies.

"Such relationships are problematic and people should interpret the results considering that," he said.

For its part, Accenture said it has an "independent view of the technology landscape".

Under the four year, €18.9m architecture and client program, the council would undertake various work including "modernization of the applications", more timely updates to the LiMux client, implementing a new administrative network, a new directory service, a new "workplace" and unified identity and access management.

"The goal of the client and architecture implementation project is to eliminate legacy in the infrastructure, as well as to introduce a powerful Windows client and related basic services," the report states.

Kirschner said there needs to be more details released on the cost of buying, running and supporting Windows 10 PCs compared to LiMux machines, as well as new infrastructure spend the project would require. In particular, he called for more information on whether Windows 10 machines would cost more, given that LiMux can run on lower-specced computers.

Across the council there are about 20,000 Linux-based PCs used by staff alongside about 4,163 Windows-based PCs, with Windows generally used where line of business software cannot run on anything else.

The high cost and complexity of maintaining a Windows- and Linux-based client side-by-side is classed as a "high severity" weak point in the report.

In Kirschner's view, if Munich were to return to Windows, it would illustrate how difficult it is for public administrations to free themselves from being locked into using Microsoft software, rather than any fundamental weakness of open-source alternatives.

"Of course it will be portrayed by opponents as a failure of Free Software, instead of a failure of decision in procurement over many years," he said.

"A lot of the software used specifically by public administrations locks the users to Microsoft Windows, often a certain version of it. This makes switching to any other system cost intensive and difficult.

"Not just a migration to a Free Software desktop, but also to newer version of proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows or for example to Mac OS X or Chrome OS."

One area where the FSFE and the consultants' report are in agreement is on the need for platform-independent software. Part of the work undertaken under the wider architecture and client project, would be to replace more platform-dependent software with browser-based alternatives, with the report describing the decoupling of operating systems and applications as "critical".

Obsolete software

The wider architecture and client project is itself only one of a series of IT transformation projects outlined in the report, which says change is needed to address user complaints about outdated and unreliable software at Munich.

The report doesn't make it clear whether problems are primarily related to LiMux or the remaining Windows PCs, but where users are dissatisfied, they complain of problems with printing, viewing and editing documents, unstable programs, poor usability and difficulty exchanging documents with outside parties.

These intermittent problems stem from the variety of PC clients being used, and the use of old versions of operating systems, office software, browsers and infrastructure, according to the report.

"The LHM [city of Munich] works with obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity," the report states.

The lifecycle of the operating systems on client PCs is very long, with the rollout of new clients taking up to two-and-a-half years.

The staggered nature of updates to client PCs is reflected in the spread of operating system versions used by the council. At the time the report gathered its information, the most up to date clients ran LiMux 5.x, based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which was run on about 45 percent of machines, 32 percent were running version 4.1 and 23 percent were running version 4.0.

Of the Windows machines, about 77 percent ran Windows 7, nine percent ran Windows XP / Vista and 14 percent ran Windows 2000. The report gives the impression that managing Windows clients is more difficult because of the extent to which the configuration of each machine and installed software varies between departments, as well as processes for managing Windows machines being less well-established.

What's next?

To help address these wider organizational problems, the report recommends that the three tiers of IT management within the city are merged into one central IT department.

Elected officials in the administrative and personnel committee are due to discuss the consultants' report today, Wednesday November 9, followed by a full council debate at a later date.

At present, officials are not considering the Windows-focused architecture and client project, and the resolution before the administrative and personnel committee asks members to approve proposals set out in the report to merge the city's IT departments.

Philippe Louis, spokesman for education, sports, finance, IT and municipal employment with Munich Green Party said his colleagues will continue to support the use of open-source within the authority.

"The Green Party are always for using open source. At the end of the day, there are always things that are not working very well but this would be the same for Microsoft," he said.

"The persons in the administration, sometimes they are yelling out that the office products are not as good as Microsoft and so on. But I think this is more about 'I was used to it for 20 years and then you changed something'."

However, Louis doesn't believe the council will make a decision related to the Accenture's report in the near future, describing the 450-page document as being 'too complex' to consider in a matter of days and saying that councillors will ask for a further one or two months to consider its findings.

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