A healthy debate

Health Board CIOs are keeping their options open

District Health Board CIOs this month made their unhappiness with Microsoft’s licensing fees very clear. In a forthright statement, the CIOs announced they will embark on a trial of open source desktops, want more say in the upcoming licensing negotiations with Microsoft, and are asking third party vendors to consider supporting their apps on Linux.

It’s clear, however, that the boards’ plan was carefully considered. The CIOs decided on their plan in February but did not disclose it until April. This isn’t a rushed decision, and the boards are comfortable making the issue public.

However, the boards indicated the depth of their unhappiness by disclosing how much they expect to pay over the three years of the G2003 licensing agreement between Microsoft and the Government — over $20 million. (I can confirm that trying to get an indication of the money involved when G2003 was signed was a frustrating and fruitless task — time, it seems, will reveal all).

Of course, this is all about money. The open source trial is a means to an end: to pay less for desktop software. The CIOs are looking forward to negotiations over the G2006 deal which will replace G2003, and are putting the acid on Microsoft now by making clear they're prepared to look elsewhere for their desktop software.

The ante has been upped, however, by confirmation that other government agencies are keen to see the results of the open source trial. Microsoft can probably afford to lose some of the DHB business — and nobody is suggesting at this stage that the boards would drop Microsoft altogether — but it will regret losing those licences if an open source rollout does happen and is successful. There are plenty of successful Windows and Office shops around, but a large-scale Linux and OpenOffice.org deployment will attract plenty of attention from other Government agencies and from the private sector.

It’s tempting to dismiss the health CIOs’ plan as simply an attempt to leverage better licensing terms from Microsoft. No doubt that is a prime objective, but Wanganui DHB CIO Steve Rayner wouldn’t run the pilot if he believed there was no likelihood the open source desktop could be widely adopted. Interestingly, the health boards have approached vendors of third party Windows apps asking them to consider supporting Linux. It’s unlikely they would put vendors to that time and expense unless they can imagine buying the Linux apps.

Regardless of the outcome, the health boards’ decision to run a Linux trial is a savvy one. It places them in a much stronger position for the G2006 negotiations. Microsoft knows it will need to offer a compelling package — and it will.

Microsoft is using its familiar argument that it’s actually the cheaper solution over time. Revealingly, Novell’s government sector manager, David Currie, told Computerworld this month that his company could provide a desktop solution “at as little as a third the cost of a Microsoft desktop”, which, given the current Microsoft licensing costs, suggests he’d be comfortable supporting the DHBs’ desktops for about $7 million over three years. That’s a starting point for Microsoft, and the company will need to demonstrate that any extra licensing costs are worthwhile.

IT departments tend to stick religiously to their chosen platforms and tools, so it’s heartening to see organisations think outside their traditional IT box. The DHBs will get all sorts of advice, internally and externally, from platform zealots, bean counters, pensive users and under-resourced IT staff. They’ve raised the issue because they want to reduce their IT costs; they’ll need to show an unwavering concentration on demonstrated benefits and costs to get the outcome they desire.

We’ll all be watching with interest.

Cooney is Editor of Computerworld

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