Callanish Stones

You are here: Home / News / Company News / EMC In The Media / The feast of freely available software

The feast of freely available software

This article appeared in Executive Magazine in March 2006.

If I were to offer you a "free lunch", you might be somewhat sceptical. If on the other hand, I told you that it is possible to save thousands of pounds on software costs and licensing by running your business on free software, scepticism would be unwarranted.

Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) now offers everything from the operating systems that run servers, desktops and notebooks, through to even the very latest software applications. Office software, software to build and run a website, email applications, communications and telephone systems and every conceivable business application are all available free of charge.

FLOSS is essentially software developed by end-users and enthusiasts, which can be downloaded from the Internet. It has the added bonus that the source code, the language in which the programme is written, is also freely accessible, which dramatically simplifies customisation and integration between different software packages.

But for organisations without a team of in-house programmers, access to the source code offers little comfort when problems arise and applications crash. Choosing free software and then being left without helplines and technical support, you may get the feeling that the lunch bill is coming back to haunt you. As a result, it is mainly large enterprises with in-house support teams that have been able to capitalise on the FLOSS phenomenon.

But with the right company providing IT support any organisation can capitalise on the wealth of free open source software available and achieve massive savings in comparison to using typical proprietary software. One organisation that has taken advantage of FLOSS without having its own in-house development team, is the Western Isles Council or Comhairle Nan Eilean Sair (CnES).

Back in early 2004, CnES had developed a corporate strategy document setting out clearly defined aims and objectives for the council. 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 the management in quarterly reports.

To help overcome this, the Council began searching for a new performance management system which would provide a greater degree of accountability for its activities. 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 Helen MacKenzie, project manager at the council.

The council did not initially set out to find an open source solution, but after assessing several potential suppliers, CnES approached The Linux Centre and was stunned by what could be provided with open source technology. By commissioning a system based on FLOSS, CnES were able to remove all software and license costs, minimise necessary hardware expenditure and channel the majority of the budget into developing the type of bespoke solution that they had thought would be completely out of reach. After a series of meetings to assess the Council's exact needs, CnES was again surprised when The Linux Centre produced a working demonstration system in under a month.

Using open source software to build tailored applications people are always shocked at how quickly systems can be mocked up. 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 having to make 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 working with The Linux Centre. The system was developed using the freely available MySQL database running on an Apache web server. This 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. 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 responsiveness of The Linux Centre also means that we are considering future work to add workflow functionality, and 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 open source technology have enabled us to incorporate additional functionality for departmental business plans, capital programmes, and other service review frameworks into the same system," concludes Andrew MacKenzie. "With the whole thing 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 Linux and other open source technology."

Right menu

Company News

EMC awarded D&B Rating 1

EMC are proud to announce that on 13th July 2010 we were awarded Dun & Bradstreet's Rating 1 status.

Only 15% of businesses in the UK are in receipt of this rating, which reflects companies with the highest level of creditworthiness and the minimum risk of failure.

Highlands Council Chooses Open Source for Latest Web Project

Enterprise Management Consulting chosen to implement and support content management system for the Northern Potential Project.