Friday, December 07, 2012

Triumph and disaster: Two migrations to OpenOffice

It must have seemed a sure thing. With costs for Microsoft Office around $75 per seat per year for public administration, the city of Freiburg in Germany embarked on a migration to, figuring it'd save a bundle in license fees. With 2,000 users, the move would amass $150,000 annually. So the city tried.

Five years and at least $600,000 on, with unhappy staff complaining of interoperability problems with Microsoft Office documents, city administrators called in a consultant from a Microsoft partner to support the city council in fixing the problem. The solution proposed: a complete reversal of course, switching back to Microsoft Office for a sum of at least $500,000, with a $360-per-seat cost for licensing Microsoft Office and no firm estimates for undoing the earlier migration.

[ Open source suites go beyond Microsoft Office [1] | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Technology: Open Source newsletter [2]. ]

What went wrong? Was it simply that the open source software was incapable of delivering the functions that Freiburg needed? The first hint that the answer to that question would require some digging came when, almost simultaneously, another German city -- Munich -- announced that the success of its open source migration had netted savings around $13 million.

When two almost-simultaneous announcements on the same topic have opposite conclusions, you know complexity awaits, with deeper lessons to be learned. Working out exactly what's been happening has been involved, first because there is an amazing volume of paperwork to digest and because everything beyond the superficial is in German. With help from friends in Germany, I've worked my way through some of the information about both Freiburg and Munich.

Cost cutting, two ways
The contrast between the approach taken in the two cities is striking. Freiburg -- a smaller city administration -- focused on cost cutting. It recognized there would be one-off costs to pay from template and macro migration, as well as user training, but it stuck with Windows desktops, retained certain existing applications, and even allowed some staff to opt out of the migration entirely and keep using Microsoft Office. It seems there was a limited uptake of migration training, too. The result was an environment with both 3.2 and Office 2000 in use throughout the attempted migration.

Because Office 2000 did not support the OpenDocument format standard, this guaranteed a flow of documents in the formats used by both office suites, maximizing opportunities for incompatibility. By all accounts, the city stuck with those old versions of both Office and and allowed the mixed environment to persist throughout. No two word processors can ever be 100 percent compatible with each other's file formats; only a well-defined, standard format implemented by both stands any chance of interoperability. Unsurprisingly, staff ran into problems with document compatibility; equally unsurprising, the crew blamed the "new" software for the problems.

Looking at the numbers (see my article in ComputerworldUK [3] for more details), it appears that the expenditure in Freiburg was dominated by the idea of cutting licensing costs. I may be missing it in the reports, but I couldn't find any sign of investment in the open source software itself. The report -- and the subsequent PR from Freiburg -- talks about the "uncertainty" of the software (forked to create LibreOffice [4], abandoned by Oracle, then repurposed by IBM and others at Apache) but makes no mention of investment in the software.

Investing in empowerment
By contrast, the city of Munich's migration was all in, full on, and nonoptional. The city switched to Linux desktops as well as to It hired staff to work in the open source community, developing features and fixing bugs. The government invested in software, helping develop the comprehensive WollMux [5] tool to manage its usage, as well as the LiMux platform [6]. Administrators stayed up-to-date, switching to LibreOffice once it was obvious it was the vendor-supported and active forward path for the productivity suite. The crew engaged expert vendors to improve the open source software for them [7]. As well as investing in IT and technology, Munich's workers invested in the user community, hiring staff to manage communications inside and outside the organization too.

If your primary assumption is that an open source migration saves money [8], this sounds crazy. Why spend so much money and effort? The reason is Microsoft's desktop environment is largely immune to drop-in replacement. Switching away involves breaking the lock-in and changing the software. This is the big lie of "interoperability." Any time you see that word in the context of a software migration, you can be sure that someone somewhere wants you to believe you can switch suppliers without breaking the lock-in.

Munich realized the importance of open source software came from empowerment rather than license price. Yes, it saved $13 million, with more cash likely to come. But to do so involved using software freedom to break the lock-in holding back the city. Achieving this was a long-term strategy, one that involved learning and course corrections. It also involved investment -- in software, in community, in engagement.

As Munich frees itself from vendor control over its IT architecture, it is increasingly able to prioritize its own decisions and gain greater control over software budgets, eliminating the worry over arbitrary price rises [9] or non-negotiable fees. But that doesn't mean no spending; value always costs money. Freiburg tried to save money in the short term without breaking the lock-in and failed. Munich invested in open source empowerment and created a long-term strategy to break the lock-in. Now it's sitting pretty.

This article, "Triumph and disaster: Two migrations to OpenOffice [10]," was originally published [11]. Read more of the Open Sources blog [12] and follow the latest developments inopen source [13] at For the latest business technology news, on Twitter [14].

Posted via email from ninjahippie's (pre) posterous

No comments: