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12 May 2011, 10:28

German Foreign Office explains open source elimination

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The German government has given details of its reasons for migrating the German Foreign office from Linux and free software back to Windows and Microsoft software. The SPD (Social Democrats, the main German opposition party) submitted an initial question on "the use of open source software in the Foreign Office and other Government departments", but, according to the Green parliamentary group, the German government's response left various questions unanswered. These questions have now been addressed by Cornelia Rogall-Grothe, the German government's IT commissioner in a documentPDFGerman language link.

The 39 questions concern both the German government's overall IT strategy and the migration of the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt, AA). The government's answers in terms of its IT strategy remained rather vague: the commissioner said that free software is not "inherently more secure than proprietary software", and that the German government supports the use of open source "wherever it is suitable and economical". The distribution of open source solutions is promoted by the Centre of Excellence in Open Source, she added. The use of open standards – originally one of Rogall-Grothe's central demands – is apparently supported by "updating and revising the 'Standards and Architectures for e-Government Applications (SAGA)' document", and on a European level.

In terms of the German Foreign Office, the German government said that its decision is by no means a complete dismissal of its previous strategy: open source will apparently "continue to be used wherever this makes sense technologically and economically" – mainly in the backend and for protecting the network infrastructure. Windows 7 and MS Office 2010 are to be introduced on desktops from 2012; the migration is scheduled to be completed by early 2014. The IT commissioner said that the decision to migrate back to Windows was based on "substantial user complaints about the operability, user-friendliness, lack of integration and insufficient interoperability" of open source solutions. For example, users reportedly encountered problems when exchanging data between different Open Document Format (ODF) implementations that resulted in "a continued need to support proprietary document formats" – even though the German government's IT commission had already agreed to introduce ODF in administrations in 2008.

According to Rogall-Grothe, the high personnel costs generated by the maintenance of the custom-built Linux distribution were among the basic problems with the German Foreign Office's Linux strategy. In its response, the German government said that, because there is no product liability for open source applications, the "risk of severe functional and safety deficiencies" rested entirely with the Foreign Office's IT department, and that the developed software was therefore "only updated if the achievable benefit was greater than the corresponding effort and risks". As a result, some users apparently had to work with program versions that were several years old – which reportedly even affected such widely-used applications as Thunderbird and OpenOffice.

The government report said that, in the end, the high personnel costs made the use of free software uneconomical; additionally, the expected savings in terms of licence fees weren't realised – workplaces were apparently set up as dual boot systems with Windows and Linux in order to support a number of existing Windows applications. According to the German government, migrating back to Windows is eventually even expected to save money as there will be no further Linux system maintenance and driver development costs. Furthermore, less training will reportedly be required, and the German Foreign Office said it will no longer need to buy special Linux-compatible hardware and can now obtain cheaper hardware through a federal framework contract.

On his blogGerman language link, the Green parliamentary group's spokesman on internet policy, Konstantin von Notz, called the answers "slightly bizarre". In the parliamentarian's view, the payment of Windows licences for computers that had been migrated to Linux and the years of insisting on the use of obsolete program versions could be reasons why the Foreign Office staff were so dissatisfied with their free software. The cost of running parallel systems is not a plausible argument for moving away from the open source strategy, said the spokesman. In view of an existing market of Linux and open source service providers, the argument that free software offers no product liability also sounds rather dubious, he added. Overall, the parliamentarian said that the impression that "the German government continues to have no coherent free software and open standards strategy" has been substantiated.

In the Free Software Foundation Europe's opinionGerman language link, the answers demonstrate that the German government has "either failed to understand some important aspects of free software, or that it has [...] deliberately attacked free software in general, and free software companies in particular". The foundation said that the German government is deliberately spreading the old myths that free software is less user-friendly, incurs higher hardware costs and doesn't offer any product liability. The answers also raise new questions, added the FSFE. The foundation has set up a platformGerman language link where the questions and answers can be left.

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