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U.K. Throws Weight Behind Open Source

Open source in the U.K.
The U.K. is taking an aggressive stance on open source software, giving new teeth to directives designed to push and promote open source within the British government.

The new policy from Tom Watson, the U.K.'s Minister for Digital Engagement, directs government agencies to adopt open source in new ways while even preferring it over proprietary software in some cases. It builds on an earlier, less-ambitious policy that aimed chiefly to encourage consideration of open source software.

Watson said he intended the moves to ensure that the national IT infrastructure isn't locked into proprietary software, and that open standards become the building blocks for government IT services.

"This Government has long had the policy, last formally articulated in 2004, that it should seek to use open source where it gave the best value for money to the taxpayer in delivering public services," Tom Watson, the U.K.'s Minister for Digital Engagement, wrote in the action plan. "So we consider that the time is now right to build on our record of fairness and achievement and to take further positive action to ensure that open source products are fully and fairly considered throughout government IT."

The directive comes as governments around the world are seeking ways to lower costs for IT projects and infrastructure -- which has long been a claim among open source supporters. At the same time, a number of national technology standards bodies have rallied around the cause of open data formats. (They haven't always been able to agree on the formats, however.)

In the U.K. the new plan calls for government agencies to specify that data is available in an open standard format, such as the OpenDocument Format, or ODF.

The U.K. isn't saying that open standards necessarily need to be from open source software, though. As part of the action plan, the U.K. will also support emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards, such as Adobe's PDF format and Microsoft's Office Open XML formats.

Going further, the U.K. will also aim to choose open source software in bids where the cost of proprietary software is the same.

"Where there is no significant overall cost difference between open and non-open source products, open source will be selected on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility," the U.K.'s open source action plan states.

Avoiding proprietary software lock-in is a key plank of the U.K.'s plan as well. The plan calls for the government to require proprietary vendors participating in procurement bids to specify exit costs for their software.

Open source is already deployed within the U.K.'s various IT infrastructures, according to Watson. He said that 50 percent of the main departmental Web sites use the open source Apache Web server. Additionally, the National Health Service (NHS) in Britain is moving to an open source operating system. Currently, NHS uses Novell's Netware but is in the process of moving to Novell's Open Enterprise Server, which provides Netware services alongside Linux.

"The replacement of Netware by Open Enterprise Server will mean that 35 percent of NHS organizations covering almost 300,000 users will be supported on Linux infrastructure," Watson said.

Open source advocates are already applauding the U.K.'s moves.

Simon Phipps, Sun's chief open source officer, applauded the new U.K. action plan in a blog post, noting that it, "significantly revised the brave but toothless policy of 2004."

Ned Lilly, CEO of open source enterprise resource planning vendor xTuple, told InternetNews.com that he feels the U.K. is showing leadership in proactively directing its departments and agencies to consider open source alternatives on a level playing field with proprietary software.

"In a way, they're just codifying old-fashioned common sense," Lilly said. "If there is at least functional parity, significantly lower cost and significantly greater freedom over your IT investment in going with an open source solution, what government or business can afford not to consider such an alternative?"

"I expect that other governments around the world, including the new U.S. administration, will continue to follow this growing trend," Lilly added.

Open source advocates earlier this month called on President Obama to strongly consider an open source policy for the United States. Jaspersoft CEO Brian Gentile, one of the original participants of the industry's letter to Obama, said he is also keen on the U.K.'s new policy.

"I applaud the U.K. in making the most progressive move to date on adopting open source in the pubic sector," Gentile told InternetNews.com. "This plan includes real detail that will surely save money for taxpayers and for CIOs in government organizations. Both the recent Open Letter to Obama, which I signed, and this move, I hope, will encourage other nations to follow the lead of the U.K. on this aggressive, smart approach to government IT."

Others, however, said that any impact from Watson's policy would be gradual -- and isn't likely to phase out proprietary software entirely.

"It's great that the U.K. government is embracing open source software. However, I don't expect the UK government to make the transition to 100 percent open source overnight," Justin Steinman, vice president of solution and product marketing at Novell, said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

"That's why it's important to select open source software that is interoperable with existing heterogeneous IT environments," he added. "The reality is that mixed-source environments are probably the ideal IT infrastructure, and the U.K. decision to put open source software on equal footing with proprietary software is a most welcome step toward that end state."