The German city of Munich, famous for ditching Microsoft in favor of open-source software, today agreed to stop using Linux and switch back to Windows, in a pivotal vote.

If the decision is ratified by the full council in two weeks, Windows 10 will start rolling out across the city in 2020.

The vote marks a major shift for an organization once at the vanguard of the open-source software movement. A decade ago Munich made headlines for switching thousands of PCs from Windows to Linux, at a time when a move on that scale was almost unheard of.

At the time, the leader of the project talked about the city having won its independence by cutting ties with Microsoft. But after spending nine years and millions of euros on switching from Windows, today politicians in Munich’s administrative and personnel committee voted to reverse that work.

While the decision will need approval from the full council on 23rd November, Dr Florian Roth, leader of the Green Party in Munich, says committee decisions are normally simply confirmed by the council, without change. However, he said the Green Party would be pushing for a detailed discussion and consideration of the decision by the full council.

“I think it’s a great mistake,” adding it would place unnecessary burden and cost on Munich at a time it was already restructuring its IT department and implementing new laws on e-government.

“I have the feeling that the IT department don’t want to do this, but they have to do it because the two parties who have the majority in the government want this.”

While the two- to three-year rollout of Windows 10 would begin in 2020, preparatory work for the switch would begin next year. Windows 10 would be installed on every PC, about 29,000 machines, and would replace LiMux, a custom version of the Linux-based OS Ubuntu that is currently used across the council.

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

Alongside preparatory work for the migration to Windows 10, an external expert will assess whether the move to Windows 10 represents good value for money and report back next year. Dr Roth queried the wisdom of beginning preparatory work for the migration before this assessment is complete.

“If they say this is not a good move then we will have wasted money,” he said.

The move to Windows 10, as well as a separate move to Microsoft Office, is expected to cost millions and is rumoured to be more than €100m, although the precise figure is not being released to the public.

In 2014 Munich mayor Dieter Reiter said that moving to LiMux had saved the council about €11m on hardware and software licensing costs.

A return to Microsoft Office

Politicians at the committee meeting also backed a trial of Microsoft Office 2016, to see if it should replace the open-source office suite LibreOffice currently used by the council. They supported a proposal to use Office 2016 on 6,000 computers across the council, and then assess whether to roll it out across the city.

Roth has particular concerns about the complexity and cost of returning to Microsoft Office, due to Munich’s reliance on macros and other software designed to work with LibreOffice.

“We have 12,000 to 20,000 macros and apps that are connected to LibreOffice. When it comes to changing them to Microsoft Office, we don’t know how difficult it will be and we don’t exactly how many of them we have,” he said.

While there have been some complaints about software at the council, only a minority of staff had severe issues that they believed could be solved by migrating to Windows and Microsoft Office.

Italo Vignoli, one of the founders of The Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice, said that despite today’s vote, Munich had proved it was possible for a major organization run Linux-based desktops.

“History demonstrates that a large city with a large number of civil servants can run on Linux for years without major issues,” he said.

A bigger factor driving the decision to return to Windows appears to be changes in the political make-up of the council since the LiMux project began in 2003. A turning point was the election of Dieter Reiter as mayor in 2014, replacing Christian Ude, the mayor of 21 years who played a key role in making the LiMux project a reality. Today the CSU political party, who Roth says have always been opposed to LiMux, are also part of the ruling coalition in Munich. It was this coalition of CSU and SPD politicians that put forward the proposals to switch back to Windows 10 earlier this year.

When the switch was proposed in February this year, Kristina Frank, party member with the CSU, said the continued use of LiMux was no longer viable due to being incompatible with software inside and outside the council.

“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,” said Frank.

However, when consultants Accenture and arf produced a detailed study of IT at Munich, they didn’t pinpoint open-source software as being to blame for problems. Instead they identified issues and inconsistencies in how systems are managed and updated, with difficulties caused by the fragmented nature of Munich’s 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”.

In March the city’s IT chief also said there was ‘no compelling technical reason to return to Windows’, pointing out the authority had “solved compatibility and interoperability problems” related to running software on LiMux. Roth said that the recent move from OpenOffice to LibreOffice had also resolved many of the issues staff had.

Since completing the multi-year move to LiMux, the city always kept a smaller number of Windows machines to run incompatible software. As of last year it had about 4,163 Windows-based PCs, compared to about 20,000 Linux-based PCs.

Despite this dual-system setup being a long-term arrangement, last month the city of Munich suggested it would cost too much to carry on using Linux alongside Windows.

The one hope Roth has for the continued use of LiMux is that, given it would be five years before the migration to Windows 10 would be complete, that future elections will see Munich elect new politicians who decide to keep a mix of LiMux and Windows machines.

“If we change only step-by-step then in some years, either when we have a bad experience or a change in the government, we could say ‘OK, stop the process’, and we can stay with a mixture of open-source and Microsoft.”

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