People-mover gets off the Microsoft bus

Stagecoach New Zealand is re-evaluating its IT needs after the company's Scottish headquarters issued a worldwide decree not to sign up to Microsoft's new licensing regime Software Assurance. Instead Stagecoach will buy new licences when it buys PCs.

Stagecoach and Fullers IT manager Stan Low (above) used to describe himself as a Microsoft man. He regularly ripped out non-Microsoft products in favour of software from Redmond, Washington.

He was about to do just that when Stagecoach’s Scottish headquarters issued a worldwide decree not to sign up to Microsoft’s new licensing regime Software Assurance. Instead Stagecoach will buy new licences when it buys PCs.

Low says the decision was made purely from a cost perspective. Under Software Assurance, users pay a licence cost plus an annual maintenance fee of 29% for application and desktop software and 25% for server software, two years in advance.

“That’s totally unrealistic. All the vendors whom I’ve dealt with for maintenance never required more than 15% per annum and that included support. If they had dropped the subscription rate down to something like 15% I wouldn’t have had a problem.”

Now Stagecoach New Zealand is re-evaluating its IT needs. Although a large organisation, its use of IT is not sophisticated, says Low. Across Stagecoach and ferry operator Fullers there are about 200 PC users, mostly using word processing, spreadsheets and email. Stagecoach runs Windows 98 and Office 97 and Fullers runs Windows 98 through Citrix MetaFrame sitting on a Windows NT 4.0 server.

Low says the company will run Windows 98 and Office 97 for another four years quite happily, and although its Upgrade Advantage has expired the company is entitled to upgrade to Office 2000.

“I have to say the company has survived quite adequately on Office 97. I have asked people whether they’d prefer a faster machine or the next version of Office and they all want a faster machine. If I’m going to spend the money I want to improve the productivity of the people. I don’t see a requirement to upgrade.”

Low admits there is an indirect pressure to upgrade to new versions of Microsoft products because of trading partners.

“Our bank has indicated it is not able to support software on the Win98/WinNT platforms. We might have to get one or two machines upgraded for that or ask the bank to reconsider other platforms such as Linux, or we could investigate using a web interface instead.

“With the exchange of documents, I have already indicated to one major trading partner we should look at XML format so that we aren’t tied down to a particular platform and version. But for the day-to-day exchange of documents with external partners — which is very infrequent — we should be able to provide an acceptable version using Office 2000 or StarOffice.”

Low has loaded Sun StarOffice on his laptop to see how it functions. He has sent Star Office documents to other Stagecoach operations around the world and says no one has noticed any difference. However, if the company does go to StarOffice it won’t be for at least two years.

On the server side Low had been about to migrate the company’s ticketing database from Oracle running on Sun Solaris to MS SQL Server but instead has upgraded to Oracle 9i running on an IBM RS/6000. The company was also considering MS Exchange to replace an aging but reliable mail daemon server. Now it is looking at Cyrus — a mail server recommended by Auckland Linux integrator Asterisk, as well as using Linux for file and print services.

There are also operational databases written in Microsoft Access for duties, scheduling and shifts which Low says might take a while to replace. “In fact we may not replace them at all.”

Also problematic are a number of spreadsheet macros and VBA applications.