Public Services > Central Government

Inflexible contracts only increase public sector open source potential

Published 10 June 2014

Proprietary suppliers on “thin ice” with inflexible contracts, but open source counterparts must embrace cost honesty, writes Hampshire County Council CIO Jos Creese


The debate about the pros and cons of open source over proprietary software is certainly not a new one, and evangelists and vendors alike have strong and coherent arguments on both sides.

In the public sector the debate can be particularly heated, with government ambition to discriminate in favour of open source software on the basis that it should reduce cost and break the dependency on big IT suppliers' proprietary solutions.

Advocates for open source liken its benefit to generic medicine - you can buy a packet of aspirin for a few pence or the equivalent brand name aspirin for five times as much. So why is the public sector not using open source everywhere?

In practice, 'aspirin' it is not the same as computer software.Whatever policies the public sector promotes regarding open source, these must be set in the context of total cost of ownership not just initial licence costs. That is where efficiency will be gained or lost. Those costs include things like training, cost of change, integration, system management, cloud adoption, seamless security, and the physical architecture on which the software sits. Ignoring these in a simple view that open source is always cheaper will probably create a range of new costs.It is for these reasons, more than 'habit', that Oracle, SAP and Microsoft for example, are so widely used.

Yet most IT departments and data centres in the public and private sectors already deploy more open sourced software than most of us do at home or on personal devices (think Microsoft and Apple for a start). The challenge for open source providers is to be open about total cost of ownership - the idea that open source is 'free' in a corporate environment is usually neither helpful nor true. Honesty about the cost economics will also help to promote the real potential of open source in a corporate environment. And whilst open source solutions will become more prevalent, there will remain a role for proprietary solutions to co-exist.

The challenge for proprietary suppliers is to be aware that they are on 'thin ice'. Inflexible and aggressive contracts, or significant unexpected price increases will increase the appeal of open source tools, especially in the public sector.They need to adopt maximum flexibility to justify their position in an increasingly competitive market.

Let's also support those CIOs and CTOs tasked with technology architecture management and sourcing strategies which underpin IT efficiency, sustainability, resilience and flexibility to adapt to future unknowns. It is a challenging job to ensure the cost effective, secure and well-integrated IT architecture to support complex, changeable and disparate business requirements. Those are the priorities for an IT sourcing strategy.

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