December 5, 2005 12:32 PM PST

One city's move to open source

In Mannheim, a preference for "open" standards--not cost--is driving the German city's shift to Linux.

The technology decision makers have already moved the majority of Mannheim's 120 servers to the open-source operating system. Next, they plan to shift its 3,500 desktops to the open-source productivity application OpenOffice.org, running on Linux.

The migration should help the city with its aim of using programs that support open standards, which can be used by any software, whether closed source or open source. Some U.S. states--notably Massachusetts--and local and national governments have been embracing standard file formats such as the OpenDocument format used by OpenOffice, a move that ensures that public documents won't be beholden to a particular proprietary program.

"We want to decide our IT strategy in Mannheim, and not have Microsoft make the decision for Mannheim," said Gerd Armbruster, the IT infrastructure manager at the German city.

"We want to decide our IT strategy in Mannheim, and not have Microsoft make the decision for Mannheim."
--Gerd Armbruster, IT infrastructure manager, Mannheim

The city's IT department changed from Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 to Oracle Collaboration Suite because ODS supports open standards, even though it is proprietary software, Armbruster said. The switch to Linux was predominantly driven by the department's wish to use OpenLDAP, an open-source software package, rather than Microsoft's proprietary Active Directory, he added.

On the desktop, the planned migration to OpenOffice was similarly driven by the city's desire to use OpenDocument, which Microsoft has said it will not support in its Office application. In September, the state of Massachusetts decided to standardize on desktop applications with OpenDocument, a move that has attracted controversy. The decision has come under fire from state officials. Last week, the Massachusetts governor's office said that it is "optimistic" that Microsoft's Office formats, once standardized, will meet the state guidelines for open formats.

In contrast to many other large-scale moves, the cost of the Linux shift was largely irrelevant in Mannheim's decision, Armbruster said.

The city recently paid approximately 1 million euros (about $1.18 million) to Microsoft to migrate from Office 2000 to the 2003 version, but that was not important in internal discussions, Armbruster said.

"We never said to our mayor that if we switch to Linux, we won't need to pay 1 million euros to Microsoft," he said.

Although the city will save some money by switching to open-source desktops, it is likely to have to spend a considerable sum migrating desktop applications from Windows to Linux.

"We need to change 145 applications so they will work on Linux. This will cost millions of euros," Armbruster said.

Migrating those applications will not only take money, it will take time. Because of this, Mannheim's shift to Linux on the desktop is not due to start for five or six years. However, the move to OpenOffice on Microsoft Windows will begin next year, with the aim of putting the open-source productivity application on 3,500 desktops across 40 departments by 2009.

"The migration to OpenOffice has to end when support for Office 2003 ends, so we have about four or five years to complete the migration," Armbruster said.

Talk to customers
The infrastructure manager believes that one of the most important factors for a successful migration is acceptance by the people who actually use the software. "It is important for me to have no resistance from users," he said. It is so important that the Mannheim IT department is providing every city employee with copies of OpenOffice and Linux for their home PC and will even provide support for home users.

The department is attempting to include those employees in the desktop migration project by arranging meetings where they can discuss their concerns. Armbruster thinks that the lack of user engagement is one of the main problems causing a delay in Munich's migration to open-source desktops.

"Most of the problems in Munich are due to resistance from users--they don't want to change to Linux," Armbruster said. "It's important for an open-source project that you inform your users. You need to talk with users and speak about their problems."

CONTINUED: Going into OpenOffice…
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