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Does LAMP offer more than the Desktop?

This article appeared in Linux User and Developer magazine in November 2005.

In discussing government spending there is always a tendency to take on the grumpy old man role. Public sector budgeting can often seem perverse to the outsider and even worse to the tax payer. But the open source community is unlikely to change public sector budgeting policy in the near future. Therefore, to make greater in-roads into local and national government, we must focus on delivering the right products in the way that is most appropriate to them.

The majority of mainstream IT press attention which has been given to OSS in the public sector has gone on far flung Desktop and Open Office implementations in Munich and Bergen, or similar trials in UK councils such as Birmingham and Bristol. Whilst this feeds the public desire for Microsoft bashing, it doesn't really represent where OSS is having the greatest impact on public sector IT. In a recent survey of 99 UK councils and other public sector authorities, Socitm (The Society of Information Technology Management) found that whilst only 8% of respondents had PCs with open source desktops anywhere in their organisation, 34% were using OSS as a part of their broader applications infrastructure.

OSS applications offer vast potential savings for the public sector as a whole: Develop an open source PHP application for one social services department, and the code can be shared with every other local authority around the country for adoption, adaptation or simply as a source of ideas and components for their own developments. In addition to more general code sharing through Sourceforge and the like, specialist public sector shared code repositories are under development through the Open Source Academy and Schoolforge for the Education sector.

Ask the end users, and the public sector is full of tales of proprietary software woe, with specialist applications that are inadequate even at the design stage because of budgetary limitations. Add to this the constant change in regulations, performance frameworks, goals and deliverables, and even well designed software can be obsolete by the time development and implementation are complete.

In this environment, open source application development offers the perfect solution. Using technology bundles such as the LAMP stack, hardware and license costs can be reduced to a minimum allowing budgets to be channelled into more effective application development and ongoing customisation and tweaks.

Applications can be installed, updated and reworked without organisations being left at the mercy of a single proprietary software vendor. With the source code open, this can be used to bring an element of competition into support and development work. And if applications are based on commonly used open technologies, in-house staff and, indeed, even clued-up end users could contribute to making software more ergonomic and better suited to the realities of the job.

Importantly, the lower total cost of ownership arguments used to justify many OSS solutions are not always relevant to the public sector. "Government departments have fixed yearly budgets, and if you haven't spent the budget then you don't get the money the next year," as Alex Bax, senior policy officer at the Greater London Authority (GLA), pointed out in a speech at last year’s Linux Expo.

Whilst they might please the tax payer, for individual public sector organisations, the simple savings offered by OSS Desktop and Open Office implementations could result in an ongoing cut in overall IT budgets if new projects are not found instantly to soak up the budget.

By contrast, the LAMP stack offers public sector bodies a way to channel available funds into application customisation and development, providing a way to get more for your money, rather than purely reducing cost. With more efficient, ergonomic software, organisations can then increase efficiency and produce higher level savings which will not jeopardise future IT budgets.
Case Study

One organisation which has seen the benefits of using the LAMP based application development is the local authority serving the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES).

Helen MacKenzie and Andrew MacKenzie of CnES with Jon Staines, a consultant of the Linux CentreEarly last year CnES decided to implement a new performance management system. The Council had developed a Corporate Strategy setting out clearly defined aims and objectives for the organisation. However, important information and key performance indicators for monitoring success against these objectives lay trapped on paper in individual departments and often only surfaced for use by management in quarterly reports that were compiled centrally.

"We needed a regular ongoing overview of the performance in individual departments against the Council's stated objectives," explains Andrew MacKenzie, the council's Head of Strategy (Internal), who commissioned the project. "Performance management software was the obvious solution but, as a small council, budgets were tight."

CnES had seen bespoke systems developed for neighbouring councils using proprietary technology, and believed that the budgets involved would be too high. "At the price we could afford, I was fully expecting to have to shoehorn our processes into a badly fitting off-the-shelf solution," recounts project manager Helen MacKenzie.

Demonstration of the system within the council chambersThe council did not initially set out to find an open source solution, but after assessing several potential suppliers, local OSS specialist The Linux Centre submitted a quote that demanded further attention. Offering a system based on the LAMP stack, the centre was able to remove all software and license costs and minimise necessary hardware expenditure, channelling the budget into the type of bespoke solution that CnES had thought would be completely out of reach. After a series of meetings to assess the council’s exact needs, CnES were amazed when the company produced a working demonstration system in under a month.

"Using rapid application development tools based on PHP, people are always surprised at how quickly systems can be mocked up," comments The Linux Centre's managing director Malcolm Macsween. "I think that traditionally much of the proprietary software world has tried to portray application development as far more complex and costly than it really is. With open code, developers are making themselves more accountable."

Having sealed the deal with the working demo, the centre set about coding up the finished product. The initial development work was finished well within budget leaving time and capacity for further refinement and customisation. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, CnES convened a user-group with representatives drawn from throughout the organisation to provide end-user input on the final refinements to the new system.

"The additional customisation work was a blessing for the entire project," explains Helen MacKenzie. "It is all too easy for staff to perceive this type of performance management system as 'big brother', imposing a system to keep tabs on them. By incorporating ideas from the user group, we were able to design a more inclusive system, which now fits with the end-users' ways of working and actually helps them to do their job."

For CnES, the ability to channel the budget into customisation was not the only benefit of basing their system on the LAMP stack. The grounding of the MySQL database on an Apache web server means that the council's entire performance monitoring system is a highly flexible web application.

With projects and services often split between the council’s four main offices, this flexibility enables the system to handle both disparate activities and remote and mobile workers. Staff moving between offices can now access data and update systems from any machine with an authorised connection to the council extranet. Officers travelling further afield to meetings in Edinburgh and Glasgow can use the internet to access up to the minute data, and work on the system between meetings.

"The system is effectively accessible from any computer with internet access, which fits perfectly with our decentralisation, modernisation and accountability programmes. In the future we can offer staff flexible working arrangements and even provide members of the public with limited access to monitor the council's work," predicts Helen MacKenzie. "The openness of the technology, and the speed and ease of the development mean that we are considering future work to add workflow functionality. We would also like to integrate the system with the document management system and even the financial ledger."

"We commissioned a system to monitor our achievement of the Corporate Strategy. The cost benefits of using the LAMP stack have enabled us to incorporate frameworks for departmental business plans, capital programmes, and even Best Value reviews of services into the same system," concludes Andrew MacKenzie. "With everything based on open source software, we can scale the system up, make it available to new users and there are still no licensing costs. Having seen what can be achieved, we are now viewing this as a pilot project for a far broader use of open source technology."
Key Links

Soctim Open Source Survey
Open Accademy
The Linux Centre

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