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22 February 2011, 11:35

Background: German Foreign Office drops Linux

by Oliver Diedrich

The German Foreign Office will migrate its desktop computers from Linux back to Windows. However, no truly compelling reasons for the decision appear to exist.

Various German Foreign Office documents leaked, for instance, to netzpolitik.orgGerman language link and then in part published, demonstrate that the German Foreign Office has no compelling reasons for its recent decision to migrate its desktop and notebook computers from Linux back to Windows. On two previous occasions, the German Foreign Office had asked management consulting firm McKinsey for an appraisal of its IT strategy, and both times the market researchers' studies concluded that Linux and open source software constitute a perfectly viable solution on desktop computers.

How did Linux get into the German Foreign Office in the first place? In 2001, the authority began to set up a secure intranetPDF to connect the more than 200 German embassies with their headquarters in Germany. At the time, the decision to build a VPN using free software was based on financial considerations. In 2004, the government authority began to introduce open source solutions on desktop computers, at first with OpenOffice, Firefox and Thunderbird under Windows. In 2005, Linux was introduced as the only operating system on mobile computers, and in a dual-boot configuration with Windows on desktop PCs. This decision was made for security reasons.

At that time, the authority's IT decision makers were no longer choosing Linux and other open source solutions for their cost-effectiveness, but rather for their functionality and security. This was confirmed by McKinsey in its first appraisal of the German Foreign Office's open source strategy in 2009. Nevertheless, after introducing Linux on its desktop computers, the German Foreign Office was proudly able to report that is was spending considerably less per IT workspace than any other German federal authority – despite such added difficulties as a globally distributed infrastructure. On the whole, the use of open source solutions at the German Foreign Office appeared to be a successPDFGerman language link.

In 2009, a new studyPDFGerman language link by McKinsey concluded that, despite a need for action in certain areas, the German Foreign Office's open source "strategy could generally be considered sound." Problems were mainly identified in the areas of interoperability, particularly affecting the sharing of office documents, in the concentration of important expertise in a small number of IT professionals, and in the low level of acceptance among staff. McKinsey said that with a few improvements the German Foreign Office could successfully continue implementing its open source strategy and overcome existing problems and risks. For example, the interoperability problems that were among the causes of the low acceptance level, could be reduced by installing up-to-date versions of OpenOffice on all Linux desktops instead of working with various older versions, as was the case at the time.

In spring 2010, by which time Guido Westerwelle was the German Foreign Minister, and Dr. Michael Groß had taken over as head of the Foreign Office's IT department, a second study by McKinsey compared the Foreign Office's potential client options: exclusively Linux on desktops, dual-boot systems with Windows and Linux (the current solution for the Foreign Office's desktop computers), or a purely Windows solution. This study also concluded that purely Linux desktops are a "viable option", although "currently existing user prejudice would need to be overcome." The market researchers considered purely Windows desktops technically possible and attractive from a user perspective; however, they warned that migrating systems back to Windows would involve considerable cost and effort, that there would be a danger of losing expertise, and that significant licence and migration costs would apply in the medium term.

Despite these concerns, the Foreign Office's IT commissioner, Dr. Michael Groß, informed ministry staff in a memorandumGerman language link circulated in late 2010 that the decision to switch back to Windows clients had already been made in August 2010. Under the headline "Spotlight on users", Groß listed "massive user criticism of the many unsolved interoperability problems" and the fact that no other German federal authority had adopted the Foreign Office's pioneering Linux strategy, as the reasons for the switch. The result: in 2011, all Linux systems will be migrated back to Windows XP, which is to be the "uniform basis for the actual step towards implementing a new system using Windows 7 and Office 2010 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint), and Outlook as the new email system".

This caused the SPD parliamentary group under the aegis of member of the Bundestag, Oliver Kaczmarek, to submit a question on the "use of open source software in the Foreign Office and other Government departments" in parliament. Two main aspects have been at the centre of attention: costs and security. In its responsePDFGerman language link the German government argues: "This will not give rise to any indirect costs; on the contrary, the introduction of standardised software products and the use of software solutions that already exist on a federal level is expected to produce [...] efficiency gains." However, no actual figures have been released. The response also said that protective measures for improving IT security are "generally independent of the question whether open source software or proprietary software is being used." This is not enough for the SPD representative – he has asked another question in parliament requesting further details.

Of course, this won't change anything: the German Foreign Office's "Linux on government desktops" experiment is probably over. The recently disclosed documents show that there are no compelling factual reasons; the decision is ultimately a strategic one. Incidentally, so was the decision to implement Linux a few years ago.

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