The city council of Limerick, Ireland's third-largest city, is making more and more use of free and open source, to rid itself of IT vendor lock-in. It began three years ago by switching to the free and open source suite of office tools LibreOffice, replacing a proprietary office suite.
Getting rid of IT vendor lock-in is the main reason for Limerick to move to open source, the head of the city's IT department, Mihai Bilauca, explained on 11 November last year at a conference in Zaragoza, Spain. The city in 2009 was confronted with "very high" costs for renewing the licences for the proprietary office and email applications that it was using at that time.
Limerick discovered that relying on a single IT vendor meant it could not use its purchasing power to reach an agreement. "We simply could not negotiate. That was a position that we wanted to change."
It made the city council consider several open source alternatives, including mail- and calendar server Zarafa, IT system management tool Zentyal and the office suites OpenOffice and LibreOffice.
"Replacing the office suite was easy. LibreOffice looks very similar to the 2003 version of the proprietary office suite", says Bilauca.
The project was initiated by Tom Mackey, Limerick City Manager, who advocated to senior management the benefits of using open source. "Limerick would not be using open source today to the same extent, and probably the uptake in other local government agencies would have not reached the same levels, where it not for Mackey's influence at a higher level."
Strategically, the IT department made sure that senior management at the city was the first group that moved to LibreOffice. Getting the support from senior management is essential, Bilauca argues. Switching them to the new software helped to convince the other city council civil servants. "The city manager and directors were already using OpenOffice, and it showed leadership for the change process."
LibreOffice is now used on all 450 desktops in use at the city's six main locations including the three public libraries, the fire department, the municipal museum and the City Gallery of Art.
The IT department also explained to the staff why it was necessary to replace tools they had been using for years. "It is not good for anybody to have only one supplier, nobody likes to have just one mechanic in the city, nobody wants to have only one supermarket."
Having replaced the proprietary office suite, Limerick next needed to ditch the proprietary mail server. Otherwise, says Bilauca, the city would be forced to continue to use the proprietary IT vendor's email client, which would mean paying in full the licences for the office suite and for a long list of other server software packages that are required by the previous email server.
It decided to move to the email, groupware, calendaring and contact server Zarafa, developed by a Dutch-German open source company. The migration from the proprietary email server to the open source alternative was managed with the help of Zentyal, developed by a Spanish open source company.
Zentyal's web interface helps to manage a multitude of IT services, including user accounts, passwords, file servers, printers. "We had little experience with Linux, but with Zentyal's easy webinterface we hit the ground running", says Patricia O'Dwyer, one of the city's IT administrators. "Zentyal enabled us to run both the proprietary mail server and Zarafa in parallel, obviating the need to create and manage duplicate user accounts and passwords."
"Asking people to pay a particular software supplier in order to be able to exchange documents with us, the government, is wrong, and that is why we're going to open source and open standards", summarises Bilauca, in a presentation on 1 November at a meeting in Limerick City with other Irish city councils.
To date all the 440 users are using the open source email system and at least half are exclusively using LibreOffice. The migration project went well for Limerick city council mainly due to the flexibility of the staff working in the council, says the head of IT. "The staff were great to take on the change. Everybody agreed to engage in a difficult learning process, and while under increasing pressure due to the limited resources in the public sector. They need our thanks, for having embraced open source."
Presentation at Local Government Open Source Workshop (January 2011)
Presentation at Open for Open Communities (youtube)
Zentyal Summit 2011 presentation (youtube)
Zentyal in Limerick City Council (pdf)
Open Source at Limerick City Council>