[This post was originally written in Nov 2015, and was updated in February 2017 with many new examples and updates of previous examples]
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is an important topic on the ITGS syllabus. Usually I introduce the concept of FOSS, ensure I have cleared up a few common misconceptions, and then have students work with real life examples and case studies. It is really important to ensure students can fully understand and evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of FOSS in the real world.
I have found education based case studies work well, with students assessing the viability of moving a school from a Windows or Mac OS X based environment to an open source platform. This works well because students are familiar with the specific requirements of the educational environment. Schools and students also typically have a lot invested in hardware, software, and data. These lessons therefore provide opportunity to discuss issues like data compatibility, software availability and functionality, and the need for training. It is also useful to compare case studies of FOSS in schools (such as Penn Manor High School in Pennsylvania or Westcliff High School in England) with the situation in your current school.
However, ITGS students do sometimes ask where else in the ‘real’ world FOSS is used – so I set out to find some examples of FOSS in governments.
FOSS in Munich, Germany
Munich seems to be the poster-child for FOSS in governments. The city started its migration to open source alternatives in 2006. Some systems were changed to the Debian Linux operating system. Others retained Microsoft Windows but switched to open source application software such as Thunderbird (email client) and LibreOffice. Later the city moved to their own custom Linux-based operating system.
What is interesting about Munich’s move to FOSS is that although it was reportedly 10 million Euros cheaper than upgrading their commercial software to the latest version, the cost was still in the region of 23 million Euros. This is a really important point for discussion point in ITGS class, and could really help students understand Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and why ‘free’ does not necessarily mean ‘zero-cost’. Indeed, the final bill for the switch from commercial software to Debian Linux and then Ubuntu Linux reportedly cost 30 million Euros over 10 years.
Interestingly, it was recently reported that Munich were considering a switch back to commercial software. The reasons for this are essential reading.
TechRepublic reports on a number of German towns and cities, including Treuchtlingen and Schwäbisch Hall, that are making partial or complete moves to open source.
FOSS in UK Government
Another government considering using FOSS is that of the UK. TechRepublic reports that the UK’s approach is somewhat different to the other governments covered here: instead of migrating to Linux directly, users are first being moved to the Google Apps platform. This makes quite a lot of sense as an intermediate step. Google Apps supports both the Microsoft Office file formats which the government are leaving behind, and the OpenDocument formats which will be used with LibreOffice in the future. This could help alert users and administrators to potential file compatibility problems.
An interesting aspect of this deployment is that the UK government are procuring their software from a company called Collabora Productivity. A check of their enterprise solutions page reveals that they are providing regular updates, security fixes, and 3 year long term support (LTS) for their LibreOffice based software. This is a good chance to answer the question ‘Why would people pay for open source software?’, which students often ask, and a chance to better understand the concept of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO).
FOSS in Italy
Recently Italy announced a move towards Open Source software. Although maintaining their existing operating systems, the Italian Ministry of Defence will move from Microsoft Office to a version of the LibreOffice suite. You can read more about the move in English and in Italian. Elsewhere in Italy the Emilia-Romagna region switched to OpenOffice in 2015, before deciding to switch back to commercial software in 2016. This is a good example of how non-technical factors can affect the viability of a computer system.
Other FOSS case studies
France: La Gendarmerie Nationale, a division of the French police, switched 85,000 desktop computers to Linux in 2010, saving more than 2 million Euros per year.
Lithuania: The Lithuanian police force switched to LibreOffice in 2016.
Bulgaria: In July 2016 a law was passed requiring (most) government software to be open source.
Why pay for open source software?
A common question asked by ITGS students is “Why would you pay for free software?”. It can be difficult to understand why organisations would pay money for something which can also be acquired for no cost. Students often don’t understand the sheer size and complexity of IT systems in large organisations, or how absolutely essential technical support and uptime are in such places. The Ubuntu Store is a good way of seeing why organisations might want to pay for a Linux distribution.
ITGS lesson ideas
Overall these case studies can provide ITGS students with excellent examples of FOSS in governments. Useful lesson ideas include examining the benefits as well as the technical and social issues experienced, and analysing the reasons for any failures. It can also be useful to ask students to apply these examples to their own countries. A debate about how well their government might fare in a move to open source is a good classroom activity. Another idea is to present an argument for or against the use of open source, as if presenting to government ministers.