A tale of two open source cities

Two Canadian municipal government departments have come out of the closet about their computing preferences.

And while one open source consultant isn’t calling for any pride parades, he does argue that all public sector organizations, including health care and education, have a “”moral obligation

almost”” to examine the open source software option and to develop clear policies about its adoption.

An open source policy should spell out “”first of all that it’s not taboo, that you’re not going to get fired by trying it, that it’s clear what your standards are, that they are open and can accommodate open source and that your purchasing methods are such that open source is considered alongside other options on an equal basis,”” says Joseph Dal Molin, founder of Toronto-based consultancy e-Cology Corp. and author of last year’s fact-finding study on open source business opportunities in Canada.

Although the government in March released a policy that could encourage use of open source software at the federal level, Dal Molin notes that municipal governments are often the most likely candidates for adoption due to the fact that they’re frequently on the receiving end of major-impact budget cuts. This drives them to look for lower-cost solutions, he said. As well, the investments tend to be smaller and therefore less risky.

“”When there’s enough pain in the system it’s easier to give up your old ways of looking at something and try something new,”” he says.

That was the case for the City of Calgary, one of several organizations that outlined public sector success stories at the recent Real World Linux conference in Toronto.

Dan Ryan, the city’s manager of infrastructure and desktop management, says “”downward budget pressure”” contributed to the city’s decision to look at Linux a year earlier than it had planned to.

There were concerns or perceptions that Linux was not yet enterprise-ready, he says, but Ryan’s research indicated otherwise.

“”We found out that both HP and IBM have been investing significant dollars and resources to get this ready for prime time, so the infrastructure in terms of support was there for us,”” he says. “”It was a nice surprise.””

But the turning point came when Oracle became certified on Red Hat Linux, he adds, an important step for an organization that already uses Oracle database products extensively.

Then there was the fact that so many other large organizations — including the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. postal service, DaimlerChrysler and Verisign, to name a few — have already taken the plunge, says Ryan. “”We would hardly have been the first to use it.””

The taxing tests

To test it out, the city ran four “”wildly successful”” pilot projects over three months in 2003. HP led the first two, and Unix-trained city staff acquired the Linux skills necessary to take over the following two.

One of the test applications was on the city’s tax instalment plan. Ryan explains that residents pay property taxes once a month. There are about 175,000 records in the file. The application used to run on a Unix-based CPU box and took 73 minutes. In the test, it ran on a Linux-based two-CPU Intel box in 31 minutes.

In another example, he says, the city’s annual tax account balance, which comprises 330,000 property tax records, used to take about 60 hours to process on an eight-CPU Unix box. It was over in 13.5 hours on a Linux-based two-CPU Intel box.

“”We went into this thing knowing the economics were going to be better,”” Ryan says. “”What we didn’t know was that the performance was going to be substantially better.””

Not that the cost savings are insignificant: Ryan says capital and operating costs have dropped by 75 per cent on a five-year total cost of ownership basis.

“”In the old days I paid more than $650,000 for equipment maintenance on these (Unix) servers,”” he says. “”By the end of this year I will pay less than $150,000. Not only that, but I can now afford to do a five-year replacement cycle. And because we decided to keep the machines for five years, now we pre-buy the maintenance for years four and five up front.””

Penguins on the desktop

Toronto’s Children’s Services division is reaping similar savings. The agency has taken the relatively rare step of putting Linux on about 450 desktops at a cost of about $250 per PC, as a opposed to about $1,200 to $1,500 for Windows-based machines, says Randell Clarke, an IT configuration specialist for the division.

Linux on the desktop was not such a big leap for the division’s staff because they had been used to green screens and dumb terminals from the start.

“”We’ve always been a thin-client shop so it has been an evolution from one thin client to another,”” he says.

The product users have on their desktops now has no floppy or hard drives, reducing the most common points of failure, not to mention viruses, and eliminating the potential for unauthorized software on the network. It features an all-in-one motherboard with video, network and sound cards, with 512K RAM and no floppy drive. It boots off a CD, meaning when the OS is updated, all Clarke and his crew have to do is burn more CDs which they send out with instructions to users. If a PC fails, it’s often cheaper to throw it out than for IT to spend their time fixing it.

There are no operating system licences to worry about and there are lots of cheap or free applications available. As well, there are only six IT staff looking after 450 users.

That’s the upside.

The other side of the equation is that staff and users all have to be trained on Linux, but “”if you hire smart enough people they can pick up Linux quickly,”” says Clarke. But, he advises, “”if you’re going to do this yourself you’d better get yourself a Linux guru.””

As well, not all software is compatible with Linux yet.

Small is all

Despite the savings, Toronto’s open source advances seem limited to small projects such as Children’s Services.

“”The other departments are certainly aware of what we run and how we run it and some have come to have a look at it,”” says Clarke. “”The thing with the city is each department has some autonomy, so they have their budgets they use to purchase hardware and software with and they make decisions according to what they think is best.””

And if the desktop doesn’t look exactly like Windows XP, that can be scary for some people, he says. “”They look at it and say it’s nice but it doesn’t look like Windows. You can show them versions of Linux that look exactly like XP, but it’s up to them.””

And that decision won’t be forced on them by corporate IT, he says.

“”Corporate services is going to do what they see fit. We are a very small and unique situation. We’ve always been a thin client so there wouldn’t be that radical shift as there would be in other departments. I personally think it’s a fear of the unknown.””

But public sector IT would do well to embrace open source, not just for the altruistic purposes of cutting costs and boosting performance, points out e-cology.ca’s Dal Molin.

Dal Molin, who worked in the public sector for about eight years before joining the private sector, says open source affords a wide range of career opportunities — opportunities that are currently being farmed out to outside companies and countries.

“”I think one of the neat things about open source is it does open up career paths. It’s a very empowering thing. We’ve kind of gone too far in the last number of years putting our eggs in the baskets of consultants and external organizations, and to some extent we’ve kind of dumbed down our own IT capabilities within our own organizations. There are a lot of smart people in these typical user organizations that are probably under- utilized in a lot of ways.””

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

–Illustration by Robert Carter

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