DHBs to test open source alternative to Windows and Office

Boards band together to reduce their software licensing costs

New Zealand's District Health Boards plan a trial of open source desktop software in an effort to reduce the licensing fees they pay to Microsoft — more than $20 million over three years, according to one estimate.

Microsoft licences are a major element of DHBs’ software costs, says Phil Brimacombe, CIO of Waitemata and Counties Manukau DHBs and healthAlliance, the shared services organisation owned by the two boards.

While there are some “power users” likely to need the full capabilities of Microsoft Office and related applications, users with less elaborate IT demands may be able to use OpenOffice.org and other open source software at much-reduced cost, Brimacombe says.

At a quarterly meeting of DHB CIOs in February, a joint three-part plan to reduce software costs was adopted.

First, the DHBs will pilot an open source desktop environment, being put together by Steve Rayner, CIO of Wanganui DHB, to assess how many users it will serve adequately. Rayner plans to support two categories of user: "power users" with Microsoft desktop software, and "regular clinical users" with Novell Enterprise Desktop, OpenOffice.org and GroupWise running on Suse Linux.

The pilot will seek to establish how many users there are with basic needs and whether it is possible to meet them with an entirely non-Microsoft environment, Brimacombe says.

“The majority of users don’t use Access databases, for example; they wouldn’t use PowerPoint; they’re not advanced users of Excel and they probably only use about 20% of the functions of Word. They may manage quite well with OpenOffice.”

There are also open source options for clinical database access clients, “but we don’t know how practical those are”, he says.

Brimacombe expects one of the knotty problems will be DHBs’ extensive use of Outlook and Exchange. They will have to find some practical email alternative, he says.

Another initiative is to approach suppliers of health software to see if they are willing to develop open source versions of their applications. At least one major provider of clinical systems, Orion, has told the board that it is looking seriously at supporting the open source Mozilla Firefox browser with its its clinical portal, Concerto, as an alternative to Internet Explorer, Brimacombe says. Laboratory software developer Sysmex has also indicated a willingness to explore open source solutions, he says.

The third part of the DHBs' plan is to push for stronger representation on the public sector committee negotiating the details of G2006, the next iteration of the New Zealand Government’s bulk licensing agreement with Microsoft.

Steve Mayo-Smith, CIO of Auckland DHB, will be the DHB CIO representative on the public sector negotiation group. He says DHBs will collectively have spent over $20 million on Microsoft licences during the three year of the previous agreement, G2003.

“In particular the DHBs with a large user population end up with little choice within the G2003 agreement, and feel captured by the structure of that agreement into paying the highest charges, often for products that are not widely needed,” Mayo-Smith says. “The potential cost efficiencies of open source are also attractive to smaller DHBs who do not have the resources of the larger DHBs.”

“We’re not expecting any stunning short-term breakthrough,” says Brimacombe, but the joint initiative, alongside individual DHB plans in the open source direction, could go some way to reducing Microsoft expenditure, “which is a big number for the taxpayer”.

The push to reduce licensing costs has been building for many months, Brimacombe says; one catalyst came in mid-2004, when Dr Ross Boswell, clinical director of information systems for Counties Manukau and an open source enthusiast, addressed the quarterly CIO meeting. Discussion since then has built up to the point of a formal agreement among the boards.

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Tags licensinghealth

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