Proprietary licences that are very complex, impossible to comply with, and abused to squeeze customers are frustrating public agencies in their effort to make IT infrastructures more open and interoperable. On the other hand, these licensing problems are motivating the same agencies to move to open source software. The Swedish National Heritage Board, the Dutch City of Ede, and the Dutch DUO agency all mention complex licences from their traditional proprietary suppliers as an important reason to deploy PostgreSQL as an open alternative for their database systems. At the same time, suppliers are abusing their inscrutable licensing models to hinder public agencies in their migration and consolidation efforts.
For example, the Swedish National Heritage Board (Riksantikvarieämbetet, RAÄ) was forced to renew the support contract for an old version of a database system it was running, even though the support itself was scheduled to end soon. Börje Lewin, at the time IT architect at RAÄ, threatened to inform the media. An executive at the database supplier then allowed the agency to keep using the system without the soon-to-be-worthless support contract.
RAÄ had a licence to allow it to run Oracle Database 9.3, but Oracle insisted that the agency also renew its support contract for the system. According to the supplier, a customer must have the same level of support for all copies of Oracle Database used in the organisation — and RAÄ had recently renewed a support contract for a more recent version of Oracle Database. So according to Oracle, the agency had two choices. It could have the existing licence — bought and paid for — nullified and stop using the database software now. Alternatively it could renew the support contract for a software version that soon would no longer be supported by Oracle anyway.
Bordering on a scam
In a follow-up comment, Lars Danielsson, a reporter at IDG Enterprise Sweden, called these practices "bordering on a scam".
Oracle is not the only supplier whose terms cause this kind of frustration. The same is true for IBM, SAP and Microsoft. It's hard to avoid the impression that these licence agreements are so complex on purpose, so that customers do not understand how expensive the software really is. It's not easy to replace a database system, so customers are locked in to these products and in practice have to pay whatever they cost. The only way to improve these impossibly-complex licensing models is to stop using this software. Money is the best lever.
Impossible to comply
The wish to avoid vendor lock-in and enable interoperability were important reasons for the Danish Municipality of Aarhus to reduce its dependence on proprietary applications. Along the way, Aarhus also has experience of suppliers frustrating the move to open standards.
We prefer solutions that do not result in recurring payments for licence fees, said project manager Camilla Taekke.
We insist on solutions that support our demand for vendor independence.
Open source gives you access to free software and allows you to break free of the often rigid licensing terms of proprietary vendors. In Aarhus we have systems and services whose functionality we helped to define, and which have subsequently been sold by suppliers to other customers. We have systems where access to our data is limited or completely absent, and where we have had to pay for it to be transferred to another system. We have licence bills that are so complicated and change so often that it is practically impossible to comply.
Centric, one of the largest suppliers of municipal applications for allowances and taxes, also sells Oracle licences as part of their business, Bart Lindeboom, then Computerisation and Automation director at the Dutch City of Ede, told us.
In fact, in the market for municipal applications they are the main supplier. So they absolutely don't want you to switch to PostgreSQL, because they would lose both sales volume and margin. So they have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, and keeping us on the Oracle drip. That's how they make money.
According to Lindeboom, people at Oracle are still laughing during the transitional phase of moving away from proprietary database systems.
Municipalities are splitting off parts of their infrastructure and organising new collaborative partnerships. From Oracle's point of view, however, each one of these is a new entity, requiring separate licences. So at this moment, consolidation brings additional costs. That's why we are so eager to migrate to PostgreSQL, despite this huge municipal application landscape. We're currently working our way to freedom.
When the City of Ede moved to LibreOffice and Zarafa, Lindeboom expected a visit from a Microsoft sales representative. Instead the Business Software Alliance (BSA) showed up.
Two years ago they installed a sniffer in the network, because we weren't as "organised" as we should have been. So we had to buy additional Microsoft licenses.
Despite all this, Ede managed to achieve huge savings using open source software: in 2013, the Dutch Berenschot benchmark for municipal ICT costs showed that the City's licence costs were 92 percent less than what other, comparable municipalities were paying for their software.
More examples of similar frustrations are easy to find. For instance, the complexity of proprietary software licences has encouraged the Greater London Authority (GLA) to increase its use of open source alternatives.
An important reason for the German City of Leipzig to move to LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice for its office productivity was a large fine imposed on the municipality after its IT vendor did not accept the registered licences.
It seems that the licensing model of the large software firms is aimed at raising turnover and profit, said a spokesman at the City's internal IT service provider.
Worldwide, there are only a handful of people who can understand and perhaps explain the licence rules.
DUO, the Dutch government agency responsible for managing the financing of the country's educational institutions, last year said it was studying alternative software for its relational database systems.
And it will not be the usual proprietary product with its licence complexity, said a spokesperson.