Absent interoperability in de…

Absent interoperability in desktop applications locks-in Mannheim city


The 4200 desktop PCs used in the public administration of the German city of Mannheim are completely locked-in by proprietary software, says head of the city's IT infrastructure department, Gerd Armbruster. The city quietly abandoned a move to open standards and open source in 2007. "Vendor independence is no longer a political topic, here."

Eight years ago, the administration was among the first of Europe's cities that decided to rid itself of IT vendor lock-in. "Our decision was not based on cost calculations, it was a purely political choice to go for open standards", says Armbruster. "This set us apart from other cities, that wanted to reduce licence costs. For Mannheim the only argument was getting rid of vendor lock-in."

The city's decision was reported by many IT news publications, national and international, in late 2005, recalls Armbruster. "After that spike, we deliberately keep a low profile and never actively contact the media. But if someone asks, we will share our experience."

The city decided early on to limit its approach to only the IT infrastructure, and to not make major changes on the desktop. This tactic, Armbruster now says, wrecked the entire migration. "By not changing anything on the desktop, the migration failed for the IT infrastructure."

Giant failed
Consultants from one the worlds' largest IT services firm in vain tried to move Mannheim to, for example, open source OpenLDap to offer directory information services. They also failed to reliably combine Samba, open source tools for file and print services, with the proprietary office applications on the desktop. "The mayor still remembers how one day, we had no access to our files for four hours. Our administration grinded to a halt."

Mannheim at the same time contracted a global provider of proprietary database applications. "We deliberately chose their email server solution because it was based on open standards. Also because it was offered by one of the biggest IT companies in the world." The giant failed to get its servers working with their competitor's proprietary email client.

Replacing this proprietary mail application or any of the other desktop office tools was not an option. A feasibility study on the desktop, in 2005, listed 250 software applications used for Mannheim's public services, for example the tool used for managing driving licences, including renewal. One hundred of these relied on the same proprietary word processor.

Alternatives refused
Getting rid of all the desktop lock-ins proved prohibitively expensive. "Most suppliers simply refused to support open source alternatives, unless we paid for the changes."

The high exit costs, erroneously called migration costs by Armbruster, combined with the unreliable IT infrastructure services, made Mannheim abandon its vendor independent strategy completely in 2007. For the vast majority of its IT solutions, the city now relies on the same software firm that it tried to get rid of in 2004. "It is a bit of a disappointment."

The IT infrastructure department continues to rely on open source components, including content management system Drupal, database MySQL, web server Apache, network traffic manager MRTG, network security manager Nagios, mind mapper Freemind and the fax tool Hylafax. "We have 320 servers, ten of which are running Linux. All the others run a proprietary operating system."

Armbruster now hopes that cloud services and virtual desktops will help Mannheim get rid of vendor lock-in. "Many of our services are web based, and for those we use Firefox. More and more our civil servants bring from home their proprietary tablets. We recently moved to a cloud-based voice over IP solution. I don't even know what software that uses. I only care about the service level."

More information:
2005 Cnet news item
2005 Zdnet news item
2005 Heise news item (in German)

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