A German city that undertook one of the world’s largest shifts from Windows to Linux is struggling with buggy and outdated software.
Munich city council spent years migrating more than 15,000 staff to LiMux, a custom-version of Ubuntu, and other open-source software – a move the city said had saved it more than €10m ($11m). Microsoft’s attempts to avoid such a high-profile shift by Germany’s third-largest city saw the then CEO Steve Ballmer fly to Munich in 2003 to meet with the mayor at the time.
However, questions were raised over the future of LiMux at the city in 2014, when, soon after his election, the new mayor of Munich Dieter Reiter announced he would commission a report to evaluate how IT should be run at council in future — including whether the authority should continue to run LiMux.
Now an interim release of this report by consultants Accenture has highlighted user dissatisfaction with outdated and unreliable software. However, when detailing the problems with desktop PCs, the draft report fails to specify whether it’s Linux-based machines that are affected or the minority Windows PCs retained at Munich.
The report outlines the workings of IT at Munich and its effectiveness, based on interviews with staff and IT workers and analysis of documents, and cites a variety of problems related to operating systems used by staff.
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 problems stem from the variety of PC clients being used, and the use of old operating systems, office software, browsers and infrastructure, according to the report. The report cites evidence of these IT problems causing intermittent, rather than persistent problems for staff. When employees at Munich were surveyed last year, 85 percent said software problems interfered with their work at least once per month, with 55 percent blaming hardware problems. The council has previously stated the bulk of users had no issue with the move to LiMux, outside of a couple of councillors.
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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.
On the issue of whether the problems with the PC software are linked to LiMux or Windows machines, a Munich city council spokesman said it is unable to clarify where the problems identified by Accenture lie. He declined to comment further until the authority has access to the details in the full report, due to be finished by the end of June this year.
Nevertheless, the interim report found departments were critical of how long they have to wait for fixes to be rolled out to PCs and cited complaints that each update to operating systems and software results in new bugs being introduced or old bugs resurfacing.
According to Accenture, because the quality of the software images being rolled out to client PCs can be “bad”, more time is needed to test each new release.
“Everything has to be repeatedly tested, since it cannot be expected to work reliably,” the report states.
“The LHM [city of Munich] works with obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity.”
According to information provided by Munich’s central IT organisation, €82m has been spent on measures to remove problems with legacy infrastructure.
The way responsibility for configuring and testing new releases for client PCs is split between the central and local IT departments hampers Munich’s ability to provide the necessary performance, security and up-to-date features to PCs, according to the report. This division of labor leads to repetition of tests and uneven distribution of expertise for handling client upgrades, Accenture found.
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 report notes that often improvements have been made to client software, but these aren’t made available to all users for a long time because of the slow pace of upgrades.
The staggered nature of updates to client PCs is reflected in the spread of operating system versions used by the council. The most up to date clients run LiMux 5.x, based on Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, which is run on about 45 percent of machines, 32 percent run version 4.1 and 23 percent run version 4.0.
Of the Windows machines, about 77 percent run Windows 7, nine percent run Windows XP / Vista and 14 percent run 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.
Munich carried on using XP and 2000 due to these OSes being needed to run 41 applications used for essential work in the city, from monitoring emissions for air pollution to flood protection.
To secure the unsupported OSes, Munich runs them on virtual machines and on standalone computers, as well as using what it calls “restrictive data interchange”, quarantine systems and additional protective measures.
What Munich says
Some of the interim report’s findings echo information already released by the council. Last year, a member of the IT team at the city of Munich, Jan-Marek Glogowski, said the long periods between new releases of Ubuntu LTS — a new version of which is released every two years — meant the authority was having to update the Ubuntu-based LiMux to support new hardware.
While the report doesn’t specify whether it is LiMux or Windows that is suffering from prolonged roll outs, in his speech last year Munich’s Glogowski said the authority wants to cut the time it takes to push new versions of LiMux to staff.
Glogowski said it had taken more than two and a half years to release LiMux 5.0.
“We started on 12.04 in 2012, we had [to wait] for the first point release because there were so many bugs,” he said at the time.
Further delays were caused by having to deal with problems with associated software, with Glogowski specifying the need to resolve “shortcomings” in LibreOffice 4.1.2 and deal with issues around KDE 4 being “broken” and “mail merge being broken and slow”.
Munich’s Glogowski also alluded to the difficulties the city was having with testing software rollouts to PCs in his talk last year, where he said the process was complicated by there being 22 IT organisations within Munich City Council managing 50 sites across the city.
“That’s really a lot of work, and a lot of work that’s not done in the central IT but in the distributed IT,” he said at the time.
He added it was “normal” for problems with the updates to appear on hardware managed by these smaller IT outfits that didn’t crop up in central IT testing.
What happens next?
As for the implications of this interim report, Matthias Kirschner, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), said its assessment of Accenture’s findings is that the problems don’t lie with the PC clients themselves but with the way they are managed and their associated backend infrastructure.
“The study does not mention any concrete problems with the PC clients (neither GNU/Linux nor proprietary). It highlights, that IT security, especially at the client level, is perceived as bad for getting things done.
“Further the majority of backend services and inhouse developed services seem to be or depend on outdated software components which leads to instabilities.
“Finally there seems to be tension between the first and second level support.”
When it comes to how the conclusions of the report may be used to support a move away from LiMux and other open-source software, the FSFE singled out one of the report’s findings as a possible concern.
“The report highlights that the market share of GNU/Linux and other free software client tools like Thunderbird is smaller than was expected in 2006. That might lead to the argument by council members who have been against free software in the past, that while the implementation is at least on par with a “more common” proprietary setup, it still makes the city’s IT something special. If the council decides that it does not want to be special (not that special indeed, nowadays) anymore, that might be bad for free software.”
Munich city council will not take any decisions on the back of Accenture’s report until after its findings are finalised in June. A council spokesman said the authority expects to debate the full report in the fourth quarter of this year.
The FSFE’s Kirschner added that while he understood the final report would make recommendations about how Munich runs its IT, that the FSFE would not expect those recommendations to be directly implemented.
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