Why the public sector is opening the doors to open source technology

Government adoption of open source software and cloud computing models could reduce its IT bill by at least £600m per year, argues Roger Burkhardt, CEO of Ingres.

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With the public sector spending plans of all political parties coming under close scrutiny, IT is being labelled in equal measure as the cause and saviour of the current spending crunch that the public sector is facing.

However, it is not a simple either/or argument. It is not a case of should the country have an eGovernment strategy, but rather what that strategy should be.

The debate reached a new height this week with the Conservative Party’s announcement regarding its suggested alternative to the spiralling costs of the NHS database project. Moving on from general statements of intent, this was the one of the first acknowledgements that government technology purchasing is under the spotlight and seen to be an important part of a party’s manifesto.

The idea of moving NHS data into the ‘cloud’ through providers such as Google is a bold choice; however it mimics strategies that have been adopted across the private sector. There is no doubt that the landscape of public sector technology purchasing is changing and the adoption of open source/ open standards technology provides a more transparent, democratic approach to technology purchasing.

As public bodies look to reduce CapEx, the traditional IT project looks anachronistic in light of today’s economic environment.

This migration to a more flexible methodology is part of a wider trend towards a New Economics of IT. Before open source adoption, as budgets were squeezed, organisations were forced to either reduce the number of projects or personnel working on them.

However, with the emergence of enterprise-legitimate open source vendors, such as Ingres and Red Hat, public agencies can reduce the amount of licence revenue locked in projects as a subscription model becomes the norm.

According to the National Audit Office, the current bill for the NHS IT project stands at £12.7 billion and rising, the bulk of which will be sunk into software licensing. Instead, by moving from an upfront license fee to a service based model, capital expenditure will be reduced and the saving can be funnelled into other areas of public spending.

At the heart of this New Economics of IT is open source, which earlier this year was given a massive endorsement by the UK government with the publication of its open source strategy. Looking at the cost savings that have been achieved by companies and governments all over the world, it is estimated that the UK Government could reduce its annual IT bill by at least £600m a year if more open source software was used as part of an effective procurement strategy.

As all political parties search for the policy options that will enable them to cut costs without cutting services, one could be forgiven for being a little skeptical. After all, it seems the impossible balancing act of trying to reconcile the irreconcilable. However, taking costs out of IT projects does not have to mean shelving those projects all together.

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