In association with heise online

20 September 2010, 16:24

A crash landing for Linux?

by Andrea Müller

Note: All links in this article are to German language pages.

Nine years after the Canton of Solothurn decided to migrate its computers to Linux, the Swiss authority has made a radical U-turn: All its desktops will run Windows 7. Has Linux failed?

The Linux migration project in the Swiss Canton of Solothurn was ill-fated from the start, those who followed the reports concerning the project over the past few years couldn't avoid the impression that it was nothing but a series of failures, faults and unfortunate events. Particularly, Swiss media like the Solothurner Zeitung and the Berner Zeitung re-ignited discussions with crotchety headlines such as "Auf Irrflug weg vom Fenster" (Erratic flight to avoid windows) and "Wieder Ärger mit dem Pinguin" (More trouble with the Penguin).

Implementation delays, immature software, disgruntled employees whose displeasure allegedly culminated in the creation of a home page dedicated to venting their gripes and who were so busy grappling with Linux that they no longer managed to do their jobs – all of this smacked of tax payers' money being pumped into an inherently doomed project. Failure has now become a reality, but pointing the finger at Linux alone would be as short-sighted as it is convenient. A look behind the scenes reveals that many factors contributed to the project's demise.

Agreed in December 2001, the migration to Linux was supposed to be completed in 2007. This was an unobtainable goal because, for example, some of the project's calls for submissions were only launched in 2006. Nominating the Scalix web interface as a replacement for Outlook proved to be an ill-advised choice: Even last June, the Scalix web mail client still lacked a task manager and various convenience features found in native mail clients.

A number of custom applications couldn't readily be replaced with Linux solutions. Then there were problems with the Konsul database Solothurn uses for processing government council decisions. Because the existing Windows data couldn't simply be migrated, the Ambassador project was chosen to provide the required interoperability with programs such as OpenOffice. However, although now completed, the introduction of Ambassador was postponed until the end of 2010 to fix some performance issues. The dependency on Konsul meant that none of the government council members used a Linux system.

Not a good signal to those users who migrated and found themselves facing not only a new operating system, but also new applications. Humans are creatures of habit and like to stick with the things they know, if only for convenience. Every software migration will produce a certain percentage of employees who refuse to adopt anything new. The leader of a migration project needs to take such issues seriously, rather than brush them off as "a certain amount of sluggishness" on part of the employees – which is how Kurt Bader, the director of Solothurn's Office for IT and Organisation, spoke of the problem when talking to Neue Zürcher Zeitung. The newspaper quoted the project leader as saying "They all but blame the system with the penguin mascot when the bakery runs out of croissants, Bader continued to elaborate".

The Canton's IT director probably felt safe because of an internal staff survey: The H's associates at heise open were told by a project-related source that 80% of the affected Cantonal staff were happy with the new environment, 10% complained about various teething troubles, and "only" 10% were entirely unhappy. However, that 10% amounted to more than 100 employees – and they are the ones who shouted the loudest. The disgruntled staff reportedly even created their own home page – now no longer available – for letting off steam.

The Swiss media, in turn, eagerly picked up on even the most irrelevant expressions of annoyance by members of the Cantonal administration. A temporary printer problem that was soon fixed, turned into "constant printer trouble"; employees who said that they are more productive at home than at the office were gratefully quoted in print.

When there was no bad news to report, the papers simply made some up: The headline "Wieder Ärger mit dem Pinguin" (More trouble with the penguin) promised a big screen production but delivered no more than amateur dramatics. In May 2009, the Solothurn public prosecutor's office hosted a lawyers' convention for 400 participants from all over Switzerland, but failed to prepare a Windows system for rendering PowerPoint presentations. The Cantonal Police, who, according to Berner Zeitung, had "successfully warded off Linux", were able to help out with a Windows system and saved the Solothurn prosecution from embarrassment. Linux can be blamed for many things, but the convention hosts' lack of organisational skills isn't one of them.

All this eventually led to IT director Bader having to step down last summer, and to a Cantonal spokesperson announcing the switch to a dual strategy which was to involve both open source software and Microsoft solutions. The definitive end to Linux in the Canton of Solothurn finally came yesterday: desktop computers will apparently be migrated to Windows 7 in 2011, and Outlook will replace the Scalix web mail client.

That this U-turn is happening now of all times, when the completion of Ambassador has solved the biggest migration problem, is probably also a result of the public pressure. Whether the public will continue to back this decision when the re-migration costs are announced remains to be seen.

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