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Bristol Switches to StarOffice

by Jono Bacon

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 suite, StarOffice provides a complete, supported, cross-platform office solution. Although StarOffice itself is not available under the same Open source license as its 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'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/ 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."

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