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Firefly reignites open-source duel

FREE software that does the same job as Microsoft products but isn’t susceptible to the myriad security concerns of the software giant’s products sounds like a great move for business.

So why hasn’t open-source software proliferated within organisations, particularly in an era when business is increasingly focused on reducing the IT bottom line?

Microsoft still dominates workplaces in Western Australia and that trend isn’t about to change, despite the recent open source versus proprietary software debate — or perhaps more correctly ongoing Linux versus Microsoft debate.

The software argument has re-ignited following the announcement of Telstra’s Firefly project — a large scale trial in which open-source software will be installed, including on the desk top, in a bid to slash the telco’s IT bill.

Many in WA’s IT industry say they will watch the trial with great interest to see how successful it will be, and if Telstra’s predicted savings of 40 per cent will be realised.

While much of the coverage of the Firefly project, and indeed the open-source debate, has focused on the total cost of ownership argument, there are many other considerations to be taken into account.

According to many in WA’s IT industry it’s a case of horses for courses, with each system needing to be judged in its merits.

Businesses, not unjustly, want a reasonably priced system that works.

Supporters of Linux say the system can deliver without the security concerns and what some deem to be exorbitant licence fees charged by Microsoft.

Further, they argue, Linux is more stable and requires fewer server reboots than its Microsoft counterpart.

However, businesses also want a proven system they trust and that is compatible with the systems used by those they do business with.

Accordingly, most businesses continue to favour Microsoft, while arguing that Linux hasn’t yet matured as a reliable system.

Linux has been used widely as a web server for many years, but implementations of open source on the desktop (with the exception perhaps of organisations in the software development industry) is relatively new.

Most industry sources contacted by WA Business News agreed that wide scale implementations of Linux in WA workplaces is still a long way off.

Gee Lightfoot, general manager of the Information Service Branch of the Department of Industry and Resources and immediate past chair of the WA branch of the Australian Computer Society, said the conversion costs of changing systems were a major argument against implementing an open-source system.

“There is an advantage of looking at it [open source], but not in terms of replacing Windows,” she said.

“For many companies the conversion costs are a major consideration. It is a major outlay initially.

“To maintain three boxes of Unix it would cost the same as to maintain 100 boxes of Linux.

“However, there would be huge conversion costs for Unix to Linux, so it doesn’t make it viable for our organisation.”

Ms Lightfoot said another consideration for organisations was the number of different platforms they maintained.

Would adding an open source platform add, and not detract, from the maintenance budget, she asked?

“At the moment we have three platforms and that is enough to maintain Windows, Unix and Oracle,” she said.

And while Linux had certain advantages over Microsoft systems, such as better back-end system multi-tasking, Ms Lightfoot was concerned that the system needed to mature.

Edith Cowan University’s head of Computing and Information Science, Wojciech Kuczborski, said graduates of the university were trained in both Microsoft and Linux systems to improve their future employment opportunities.

“We are the largest school of information technology in WA it is our view that students must know both [Microsoft and Linux] for future employment opportunities,” he said.

“At the moment IT is dominated by Microsoft and there is a smaller number of Linux users. On the other hand, the system is changing towards Linux. For example Linux now has strong support from IBM.”

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