Newly in Newham

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Those with good memories may recall that Richard Steel and I had something of a, er, discussion about open source in our respective blogs. This culminated in a suggestion from Richard:

What I propose is that Glyn and I meet-up and I’ll take Glyn through the requirements I have, as a CIO, for ICT infrastructure to support an organisation like Newham Council.

I’ll be completely open about the products we use, the costs and the benefits achieved, which he’ll be able to see for himself. Glyn, then, can take me through how I could achieve as much at the same or a lesser cost using “Open Source” products, and we’ll both publish the results.

It would, of course, have been churlish to refuse the offer, and so I found myself travelling across the London Docklands to the futuristic offices of Richard and his Newham team, which sit across the water from London City Airport. I'm probably easily impressed, but the immense atrium of Richard's building, combined with the sprinkling of real, soaring palm trees, was undeniably grand.

Striking, too, were the serried ranks of LCD screens in Richard's department – although the effect was rather spoiled by the fact that they were all running Windows, mostly XP. One interesting fact that emerged from our meeting was that future plans include skipping Windows Vista for most users, and moving straight to Windows 7 – just like most of the saner part of the Windows computing world.

Another fascinating insight into the realities of running a big local government IT department was that email is, as they, “deprecated” in favour of instant messaging. The reason? Because the former is subject to Freedom of Information requests, and the latter is not. In practical terms, this means that people need to watch what they write in emails, but can sound off freely in an IM. Amazing how behaviours are determined apparently tangential aspects.

The majority of the meetings was introductory, getting to know how Richard's systems work. The real meat, as I noted to him, would be on the server side: nobody in the open source world would claim that the desktop is currently better than Microsoft's (although a few hardy souls might venture it's as good), so any important savings are likely to be on the server. We'll be exploring that more next time that we meet, and I'll write about that in due course.

Just one tiny thing I must clarify. In Richard's post on our meeting, he writes:

I think we agreed that the term “Open Source” isn’t particularly helpful, and is misused. The real issues are Open Standards and interoperability.

Well, that's not quite how I'd put it. Open standards are certainly important, as is interoperability, but that doesn't mean that they are the “real issues”: they are part of it, but open source still has virtues that no proprietary open standards solution possesses – notably in terms of the ability to pass it on to others, and re-use it.

We agreed, I think, that open source as a term is misused, but that it does have a well-defining when applied properly. What is true is that in practical terms – very much Richard's focus - commercial open source solutions can look extremely similar to those offered by purely proprietary vendors in terms of how they are sold and supported. Clearly, what matters for people like Richard is finding solutions that work and are cost effective. Those are aspects we'll be exploring in due course.

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