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Bristol Switches to StarOffice

by Jono Bacon
02/23/2006

In southwest England lies Bristol, England's eighth most populous city. With more than 390,000 residents, Bristol is well populated with strong local government representation. The Bristol City Council, a large and comprehensive administration, runs the town. The council uses thousands of computers for a variety of tasks, one of the most fundamental being office productivity and document creation.

As a user of a range of software solutions, Bristol's council has always committed itself to finding the right solution for the right problem and trying to deliver that solution at the lowest total cost of ownership (TCO) possible. As a primary user of Microsoft Office, the council saw the change in licensing policy at Microsoft as an opportunity to explore the options available to possibly unify its computing into a software standard.

There were two main drivers for its work on a new office software standard--one internal, one external. Within the council, staff responded to a survey about what standards they should incorporate--part of a Best Value Review of information and communication technologies (ICT)--and the top issue the respondents asked the council to fix was the mixed environment of Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and Microsoft Office. Users complained of spending too much time on converting documents, even for internal sharing, and without a corporate licensing agreement there were many versions of each product in use. Many of these tools did not support the newer features of Microsoft Office, which made collaborating with partners more difficult.

The obvious solution was to standardize on Microsoft Office, but that is where the external driver came in. Microsoft's changes to its volume licensing terms removed upgrade rights and introduced Software Assurance. The council assessed the impact of this new policy and discovered that it would increase its costs significantly.

A New Direction

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Gavin Beckett, Bristol City Council's IT strategy manager, took up the challenge of building a business case to determine whether and how Bristol's 5,500 computers could migrate to an alternative office suite. Open source software had become a prominent option, and Beckett was keen to identify what open source could potentially offer.

Ultimately, the council decided to move over to Sun's StarOffice suite. Based on the open source OpenOffice.org suite, StarOffice provides a complete, supported, cross-platform office solution. Although StarOffice itself is not available under the same Open source license as its OpenOffice.org brethren, the move to StarOffice signaled a key win for open source supporters. StarOffice not only opens the door to open source, but it also firmly closes the door to the dreaded vendor lock-in that plagues its closed source counterparts. This vendor lock-in is evident in closed source file formats (such as those of Word and Excel) and would help to keep the user base locked into those applications to continue to be able to open the files. StarOffice and OpenOffice.org's support for the OASIS-standardized Open Document Format (ODF) and adoption of that software in Bristol eliminates vendor lock-in.

The attraction to open source came in a few forms. "Clearly the cost of procuring Microsoft Office for the whole council was a major reason for our interest in low-cost or freely licensed software," Beckett says. "We knew that the council would have to find a large amount of money to invest in the migration project from the mixed environment to a new standard. If the standard product also came with a high purchase cost, we would find it very difficult, or even impossible, to find the budget for it. Our council had frozen Council Tax for three years running, and capital reserves were being used to fund essential services to vulnerable people--if we could provide a good-quality office suite within existing budgets, and invest in staff training and support at the same time, that had to be a better solution."

Despite the potential of a low-cost solution, Beckett was also eager to explore open standards. "If short-term cost was the overriding factor, it wasn't the only one. Bristol has been using open standards and open source for years in our web server infrastructure, and more recently in our work on e-trading. We recognized the value of avoiding proprietary lock-in, and saw the XML file format used by StarOffice/OpenOffice.org as a key to this. We think that the move to Open Document Format and the support for XForms within StarOffice 8 will provide significant opportunities for integration and interorganization messaging over the next couple of years. We didn't make this a key part of the business case, unlike Massachusetts, but their arguments make sense to us too. Government bodies are not the same as commercial organizations--we have far greater and longer lasting responsibilities to the public for the information we hold on them."

Beckett had difficulty finding negative reasons that related specifically to the open source basis of StarOffice, but identified mind-set as the most compelling problem. "Our biggest challenge was encouraging staff to be open-minded about anything that wasn't MS Office. Microsoft have become so dominant and ubiquitous that the default assumption for many people is that everything else is inferior and that the only way to accomplish work is to do it in the exact way that an MS Office product does it. When you combine this with the idea of software that doesn't cost money, you end up with comments like 'If it's cheap, it must be nasty.'" Beckett believes that part of the solution to this problem was to provide some peace of mind for his users. "We had to face a lot of fear, uncertainty, and doubt; do a lot of listening; and show people what StarOffice could do before they began to relax. Sun were very supportive during this process (as you would expect!), and I think the council needed the reassurance of a big IT vendor behind the product. They worked with us on a large-scale pilot in the local housing offices, and put in lots of engineering resources to follow up and fix the issues we found."

The Numbers Game

Although Beckett identified that cost was only one of many issues to consider in the business plan, TCO was a large factor that affected which way to move. It was apparent, however, that StarOffice was a compelling solution. "Clearly, having weighed up all of the relevant costs, we decided that the TCO of StarOffice was lower than Microsoft Office; otherwise we wouldn't have recommended the council adopt it. If you look at our Open Source Academy report on Building a Business Case for StarOffice, you can see that we looked at a very wide range of TCO elements. We based our evaluation on the Gartner office automation migration cost model but decided that some factors should be excluded, as they were effectively neutral between the two options."

Talking to organizations about moving over to open source typically identifies support and training as the key costs involved in a migration. Beckett needed to consider these factors too. "It was difficult to be certain about some of the costs relating to support and training, so we erred on the pessimistic side, assuming that StarOffice would involve higher costs and that existing Microsoft Office users would not require any training at all." He continues, "You could say that we stacked the deck in favor of Microsoft Office to reflect users' views. Despite this approach, we found that the TCO calculations favored StarOffice. So far, the experience of migrating users has proved that the cost of migration is low and ease of use is high. We now have concrete evidence that less effort is required to deploy the software [and] support and train users than we estimated. We have provided information on our approach through the Open Source Academy in our Deployment and Training Packs for other councils to use in their planning."

In winning large contracts, it is common to see fierce competition between different vendors. It was no different in Bristol. "Clearly, Microsoft didn't want to lose out to Sun, and they were very keen to persuade us that we should choose MS Office as our new standard. We met with them and discussed the concerns we had, around cost and lock-in, and listened to their point of view. They tried very hard to convince us that every penny we spent with them could result in greater savings from efficiencies down the road. Ultimately, although Microsoft were able to show us the best way to procure licenses at the lowest cost under the nationally agreed OGC terms, they simply did not respond to our key point--that each MS Office license was 12 times more expensive than the equivalent StarOffice license for the public sector. This isn't the case in education, where the academic license is only three times as much, but Microsoft wouldn't or couldn't extend this to us."

Beckett is keen to point out that the discussion period was as open as possible to all vendors. "We made sure that Microsoft had the opportunity to contribute information to the decision-making process. Our discussions were amicable, and we made it clear that Microsoft would continue to be an important supplier to Bristol even if MS Office wasn't chosen. They've recently provided some input to a project that will roll out Windows XP across the council."

A Difficult Position

In recent months, the migration case in Massachusetts has gripped the industry. This huge case study not only grabbed headlines because it was a huge rollout of the Open Document Format, but it also sparked interest in the behavior and pressure certain vendors placed on the man doing much of the work, Peter Quinn. With so much controversy, Quinn later resigned. There has been much speculation as to why he resigned and how it affects the move to open standards in Massachusetts.

I asked Beckett if he had a similar experience to Quinn as someone in a comparable position. "No, not the same degree of public, commercial, and press attention," he said, "but I do get a sense of deja vu when I read what's happening in Massachusetts. Remember, Massachusetts aren't migrating to OpenOffice.org, they are proposing to standardize on the OASIS Open Document Format. If Microsoft decide to provide support for ODF within Microsoft Office, Massachusetts won't need to move off it (although they will face the cost of migrating to a new version--which would be massive across their 50,000 desktops)."

Beckett feels that the accessibility aspect to the migration was an important issue. "Although we are ten times smaller than them, we share many similarities. One of the most important is that our community of disabled staff was also very concerned about the accessibility issues involved. We've worked closely with them over the last 12 months and have developed a range of measures that support them. Basically, the assistive technologies that have been designed for Windows and MS Office just don't work effectively with StarOffice/OpenOffice.org--[for example], the JAWS screen reader or Dragon voice control/dictation software. It's a very emotive area; many disabled people have to fight hard for their access rights and jobs, and fear technology change that may sweep away their security. They trust the specialist vendors but had never heard of Sun."

Beckett also defends the position of Sun on accessibility. "Ironically, Sun are world leaders in the development of accessible technology. They were awarded the Helen Keller award for their contributions to GNOME accessibility. They have developed a robust, API-based approach that provides a much richer set of hooks and cues for assistive technology and is less prone to breaking when software is upgraded. [See Peter Korn's Weblog for more details.] Unfortunately, this doesn't help our disabled users on Windows, because the key software vendors have so far been unwilling to develop full integration with the Java Accessibility API." Beckett feels this is an important area in which to raise awareness. "The events in Massachusetts over the last year have been instrumental in raising the profile of this area, and we know that more resources will be directed to solving these issues now."

When Beckett and his team made the decision to move to StarOffice, the story was certainly not over. "We had many intense debates about the proposal and eventual decision to use StarOffice. Many people questioned the sense of the decision, and wanted to know that we had considered all angles. On a smaller scale, we had to provide answers and engage in similar discussions, but whereas Peter Quinn and MA's ITD have had to deal with live blogging and podcasts of their every word, we had the luxury of conducting our debates internally."

Beckett was keen to ensure that his group conducted every step of the process with the utmost care and attention to keep the proposal on track. "We took care to consider all of the objections and concerns, to investigate them and provide answers, and to build consensus at all levels of management. Once the corporate management team had approved the proposal, we sought and received political approval from our executive member, the council equivalent of a minister. Our business case was centered on the costs and savings rather than the wider open standards issues, and ultimately this proved compelling."

Implementing StarOffice

With the proposal to move to StarOffice accepted, the next step was to perform the actual migration. This process in itself is a complex and time-consuming job, and it continues, but Beckett is pleased with the progress. "I'm pleased to say that it's been smooth so far, in large part due to an able project manager and a very hard-working and skilled support team. We attracted some excellent people and have built a small team that includes some long-term council IT officers with some newer recruits. The combination results in a team with energy and experience; I keep hearing positive comments from users about the quality of support they're getting. Overall, we've found the council's staff are willing to work with us, and once we get to visit them and sit side by side, looking at StarOffice on their PCs, people are open to trying it out."

Beckett shared some of the techniques, activities, and methods in which he has helped to ease the migration process. "We spend a lot of time preparing before arriving on site. We gather information about the team locations [and] names of staff, and use various tools to scan and analyze their files--looking for potential issues that will need technical support. We communicate with the team in a variety of ways, and work with them on any complex document conversions. We provide half-day familiarization courses for key users, and help managers to decide who else to book on longer training courses. A lot of this has been documented in our Deployment & Migration, Communication and Training Packs for the Open Source Academy."

As with any migration plan, naturally some difficulties arose in Bristol's migration too. "Of course there are hiccups and challenges--we are interrupting the operational flow of activities in service delivery teams, which sometimes means that users don't get round to telling us about all the important documents before we arrive, or aren't available on the day they are due for their 1-1 session. But none of these things have seriously affected the migration process. We expected some surprises, and planned in 'mop-up' weeks between migration phases, in which we book return visits and finish off document conversions. This has worked well so far, and we've migrated over 2,000 staff. One thing we've had to manage carefully is our exceptions process--which exists to enable people to register their need to retain Microsoft Office, if for instance they have to complete Central Government financial returns in Excel that use VBA. We set a target of no more than 15 percent exceptions across the city, and so far it's well below that. Quite a few of these exceptions relate to users of business systems that currently use Microsoft Office for letter production or data analysis, and our disabled staff whose assistive technology doesn't work with StarOffice. We've been working with several of the big local government system vendors to develop and test StarOffice integration. You'll see more information about this from the Open Source Academy later in 2006."

With Beckett's experience on the front line in migrating a council over to an alternative platform, he believes that other councils can make the move depending on their circumstances. "Councils will benefit most if they share many similarities with our context--a mixed software environment, significant financial constraints, a recognized need for more user training in IT. We have reflected on this at more length in the Building a Business Case report."

With such experience behind him, where does Beckett feel like the process could be improved? "We aren't waiting for the next project to improve our migration processes--each section of the council that we have migrated has an end-of-stage report, which details what we have done for them and identifies any issues. Alongside this, the project team review what went well and what could be improved. We've made small changes here and there to our approach; for instance, we are going to start distributing our getting-started guides when we first visit the team to gather basic information, rather than waiting until we arrive on site for the 1-1s."

Moving Forward

The Bristol case study has been a superb example of a migration performed sensibly. From speaking to Beckett on the phone and via email, it is clear that he has a great degree of patience and time to ensure that the research, proposals, migration, and retraining is as smooth and supportive as possible. In some other cases, the migration team has taken a less patient and understanding approach to its users--it's good to see Beckett has employed some grounding to his work. Another impressive aspect in this particular case study is that the migration team has worked to produce a number of supporting documents and research papers that outline its findings and work. As such, Bristol has not only developed a sound migratory path, but also has documented the process, providing feature comparisons, business cases, and more for the benefit of other people in similar positions.

What is in store for Bristol? Is it going to move other parts of its organization to open source? "I recall reading an article last year which made the point that you need to treat the use of open source for strategic purposes with the same discipline and rigor as you would use for commercial solutions," says Beckett. "That's essentially how we approach it. We're very open to open source, but it has to meet the same criteria as anything else--things like functionality, robustness, sustainability, interoperability. In a sense, every area of the ICT infrastructure and business applications that might be reviewed in the future could be a candidate for open source solutions. For instance, we're reviewing our ICT strategy and technical architecture over the next six months, and this will include looking at how we provide file and print services, email, application servers, the desktop OS, and more. In each of these areas we'll take a hard look at the options."

An obvious choice for migration is its Netware solution. "Our current file/print server platform is Netware, which everyone knows will be gradually phased out by Novell as they ramp up their Linux-based OS services. So we will look at whether our next step is to Novell SUSE Linux, or another Linux, or Windows Server, or even Solaris. I don't know what the answer will be yet--but we'll consider all factors in our decision, just as we did with the office suite."

Jono Bacon is an award-winning leading community manager, author and consultant, who has authored four books and acted as a consultant to a range of technology companies. Bacon's weblog (http://www.jonobacon.org/) is one of the widest read Open Source weblogs.


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