Open Source Software Migration in the Belgian City of Schoten

Schoten adopted open source software within its server IT environment and replaced numerous proprietary applications. According to the municipality, the migration was a big success. Due to the new server environment, Schoten could not only reduce related IT expenses but also increase productivity and operation ability.

Introduction

Schoten is a municipality located in the Belgian province of Antwerp. The municipality only comprises the town of Schoten proper. On January 1, 2005 Schoten had a total population of 33,230. The total area is 29.55 km² which gives a population density of 1,124.45 inhabitants per km². The IT environment of the administration consists of twenty servers. At the client side there are 200 desktop or portable computers.

Migration Motives

Due to the following reasons, the city of Schoten decided to introduce open source software.

1. Licence costs
Licence costs for closed software are high. Especially the client access licences increase the total amount of IT expenses. According to Jan Verlinden, person in charge of IT at the municipality, an upgrade from MS Exchange 2000 to Exchange 2003 would cost the city about 15.000 euros (a huge reduction of the price already included). The same principle counts for a print server, fileserver or proxy server.

2. Ease of configuration
System configuration can be realised by using the graphical user interface of Linux systems. The GUI is similar to Windows or even better and changes can be made directly via configuration files.

3. Interoperability
OSS can communicate with any other program or software that is based on open standards.

4. Principle of mutuality
Open source software knowledge can be shared with other cities. The city of Schoten considers sharing investment costs of open source development projects with other local authorities.

5. Public interests
According to the city, citizens (tax-payers) ask more and more questions about the expenditure of their tax money. “It is sign of good management to be able to answer that no huge amounts are anymore spend for licence costs,” said Jan Verlinden.
Schoten aims to use open formats for the communication to citizens. “It is not defendable to use closed source client software like MS Word and to oblige citizens to buy expensive software to be able to read information from the Government,” stated Verlinden.

6. Stability
OSS is more stable. One open source software component does not influence other OSS components. They are all independent processes. In Windows systems, numerous processes are connected through the Active Directory system.

7. Security
Linux systems are better protected from viruses and other intruders.

8. Clustering
The city has not to pay for proprietary clustering software.

Migration Conditions

1. Hardware
Jan Verlinden insisted on the need of a testing environment and a fallback-scenario in the case of an unsuccessful migration.

2. Costs
The OSS investment costs were so low that the management has to be convinced that the OSS-solution assures the same quality as closed software.

3. Employees
According to Jan Verlinden, it is essential to insert employees willing to learn the use of open source software. Motivated IT employees allow realising migrations to OSS in a relative short period.

4. Support
The city of Schoten did not achieve support from the Flemish organisation of system administrators for local administrations (http://www.v-ict-or.be/).
Due to the policy (“They have a policy not to compare prices because of the sponsoring of some big closed source software companies,” said Jan Verlinden.), the institution could not provide the requested cost comparison between closed and open software.
“So there is a huge need of a - really independent - OSS competence center in Flanders to share all the experiences and to mutually exchange information! Such an OSS center could also be very useful at a European level,” explained Jan Verlinden.

Migration Process

The server migration has been done server by server. The migration of a Windows fileserver was quite easy; just installing the Samba server, configuration of the permissions and copying the files on the new server. Hardware was not replaced.

Every migration is and was very well prepared. New servers are tested in a test-environment before systems will be put into operation. There is always a "fallback scenario" so if there would appear a serious problem after the migration, the administration could activate immediately the old  environment.  “A good preparation of the migration, testing of the new servers and having a "fallback scenario" at hand, makes every migration to OSS a piece of cake, to my opinion,” stated Jan Verlinden. Until now, the city didn\'t have to use any fallback scenario.

The migration of Exchange systems is delayed to the beginning of 2007 because of migrations following in the next months and in 2006: VoIP, wireless datanetwork or Firewall adoptions. Due to the importance of the mail system in the operational environment, Schoten prefers to do this migration "last in the row". In the meantime, users are softly urged to migrate their group agenda from Outlook to eGroupware. Until the beginning of 2007, the migration will be realised only in the back office. Schoten is also focusing on web-based applications.

Used Software

Function

Suse Pro 10, Suse LES 9, Fedora Core 4   Operating System
Apache   Web server
 Samba   File server
 Cups   Print server
 Squid   Proxy server
 Squidguard   Web filtering
 Spamassassin   anti-spam server anti-spam server
 Clamav   Anti-virus
 mySQL database 
 OpenOffice   text, spreadsheet
 Joomla   intranet + extranet
 eGroupware   groupware calendar
 Moodle   courses
 Owl  Knowledge base
 MBRS   reservations
 SugarCRM  extended contact database
 Asterisk  VoIP telephony
 Firewall Builder configuration firewall 
 SSL Explorer   ssl vpn solution
 Snort  Intrusion Detection
 Helpdesk  OTRS

 

Initial installation was mostly performed by external companies. Especially complex adoptions like SSL or VPN were done by an external OSS company. But there was always a “knowledge shift” so that the city could handle all further configurations by his selves. Schoten does not have a support contract for OSS software, only for the hardware.  “The \'control\' of knowledge must come from us,” stated Jan Verlinden.
According to the municipality, there is no need for external support. ”The internal knowledge is already so good that the additional value of external support is little,” he said. Employees were prepared via a few external training courses. Most open source knowledge was provided through internal exchange. More external courses will be followed aiming to increase in depth technical knowledge.

Migration Example

Schoten bought a module for a central database that is used to send invitations to citizens for special occasions. In the past, many invitations were sending double or not at all, etc. After the implementation, the IT employees noticed that the software wasn\'t able to do the job into detail. Schoten has more than hundred categories; most people are member of different categories and the software was not able to handle different relationships. So the Belgian administration looked for an OSS solution and found it in eGroupware. The contact database is able to handle the more complex situations in such a manner that the database could be kept up to date by a user without IT-knowledge or experience. All those contacts are stored now in a MySQL database. The backup of such a database is very easy a powerful, explained Jan Verlinden.

The city encountered the following advantages of OSS in comparison with closed software solution:

  • ease of configuration (now GUI based but the configuration files are similar)
  • ease of backups
  • ease of installing copies if necessary (without additional costs)
  • ease of connection with other OSS software (SugarCRM and Asterisk)
  • ease of testing

Experience

 

Jan Verlinden explained that he could see only costs of investigating time in the preparation and testing of the migration. He did not observe additional financial costs.
According to the person in charge of IT, FLOSS could completely replace proprietary software. Jan Verlinden refers to the GIS (Geographic Information System) as an example. Two years ago it was not possible to find high-quality OSS software for GIS. Now it has been changed. “In general, the quality of OSS software has become so good that there is no functionality needed by a SME that can\'t be fulfilled by OSS software,” he said.
”For users there is no difference between OSS and licensed software: software is software and it just has to work, that\'s all that matters to them. And the look and feel of OSS software is very look alike with Windows programs. So they do not really realize that they use OSS. A good example is Firefox: the average user doesn\'t notice the difference with IE! And that\'s even more the case with web-based OSS applications like Joomla, eGroupware, Moodle, SugarCRM, Owl,” Jan Verlinden mentioned.
Jan Verlinden admits that missing language translations of some open source software products into the Belgian does not always meets the requirements of the public administrations. 
Furthermore, the city had to fight with personnel restrictions. “You can\'t do such migrations on your own! In September 2004, I engaged the first competent colleague, April 2005 the second one. Since then the implementation of OSS software goes quit fast,” explained Verlinden.

Evaluation

Jan Verlinden evaluated the realised open source software adoption as a big success. Besides an increased productivity, also confirmed by the employees, the city specified the following advantages of FLOSS:

  • more stable software systems (gain in less support efforts)
  • more adaptable software systems
  • gain in knowledge acquirement for the personnel
  • better investment of taxpayer money
  • gain by mutual exchange of software and information with others
  • better backup procedures
  • no licence costs
  • less \'errors\' like in Windows based systems

“We do more with less and with better results,” the person in charge commented.
The municipality estimates that due IT environment (200 desktops, coming along with huge licence
costs), the IT expenses could be reduced by more than 50%. Additionally, the city gained enhanced operation ability by the open source software implementation. In the next years, the municipality plans to adopt OpenOffice.org on desktop workplaces.
Despite a successful open source software adoption, Schoten is asking for an independent open source software center (also on the European level) that supports public institutions to implement free software solutions.

Further Information:

City of Schoten
 
Paper Versions of this Case Study:

 Open Source Software Migration in the Belgian City of Schoten (PDF)
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