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Towards the freedom of the OS: French Gendarmerie goes Ubuntu

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In 2001 the Gendarmerie Nationale, France's national police force, started introducing open source software. The main goals were to gain greater independence and flexibility than proprietary software could offer. The decision to migrate all new workstations to Ubuntu, taken in January 2008, was the most important step in this transition so far.

Policy context

In 2001 the IT direction of the French Gendarmerie decided that it would be necessary to make the IT system more modular. This would allow more flexibility and make the introduction of new standards easier. Already then they had realized that open source software would meet their needs in the most appropriate way, as it offered greater transparency and was easier to adapt and change.

In 2005 the Gendarmerie took another step towards free software. As the first great software transition the office suite Microsoft Office was replaced by the open source counterpart OpenOffice, which not only was available at no cost, but also allowed for exactly this modularity and transparency the Gendarmerie required. 

In the following year another step towards "the freedom the operating system" was taken, as one-by-one Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook were replaced by Mozilla's Firefox web browser and Thunderbird email client.

When Microsoft announced its new operating system Vista in 2006, it became clear for the Gendarmerie that at some point in the near future, a migration of not only applications but also the whole operating system would be necessary. The circumstances were right: Not only had the IT group gained considerable expertise in working with open source software through the several projects implemented since 2001, but the desktop usability of several GNU/Linux distributions had also significantly improved since that time. The choice which direction to take – Vista or a version of GNU/Linux – was therefore not very difficult. Since many programs were already open source based, and more importantly the servers were already running on Debian GNU/Linux, the Gendarmerie started to develop a plan for the migration to the Debian-based Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution. Eventually the French Department of Defence supported this decision by putting a moratorium on the implementation of Vista.


Description of target users and groups

The operating system affects basically all levels of the French Gendarmerie: from the headquarter in Paris to all local stations all over the country.

Description of the way to implement the initiative

The team in charge started with the questions: What do we need? Which applications are Microsoft dependent, and which are compatible with Ubuntu? Where are those workstations deployed? These were addressed in a study that aimed at mapping out a plan for a standard workstation, which would suit the needs of the Gendarmerie in all ways. After this study was finalised in mid-2007, a total of 35 applications were found to be essential for a standard workstation.

From an end-user perspective, the transition went unexpectedly smooth. Almost no additional training was required for the local police forces using the computers in their daily work. This was in part thanks to the fact that the software applications remained the same, but also because the Ubuntu user interface was easy to get used to.


Technology solution

The choice for the Ubuntu distribution was mainly based on the existing expertise that the team had gained from administrating the Debian GNU/Linux based servers. Since Ubuntu is also based on Debian, the team was able to apply their existing knowledge to the new system. The user friendliness of the Ubuntu user interface further supported their choice, as it made the transition from Windows 2000/XP to Ubuntu on the desktop relatively easy.

Since many applications remained the same and could run perfectly on Ubuntu (i.e. OpenOffice, Firefox), or were web-based, the transition process to the new operating system did not pose many technical difficulties. Although a number of problems did occur,  compatibility with the open source operating system was not generally an issue. Small issues, with MS Outlook, for example occurred. Nonetheless a solution was found at some point, which in this case was presented by OBM (Open Business Management), an application that could replace, at least to a large extent, functions of MS Outlook. Eventually, the Gendarmerie hopes to be able to fully move away from Windows applications at some point. The goal for the year 2009 is the migration of up to 15.000 workstations to the new operating system.

Main results, benefits and impacts

Since the beginning of the project in 2001, there have been many developments towards the present migration of the operating system. The migration process therefore has to be considered within the context of earlier developments. The careful planning of the Gendarmerie's every step in the migration to open source software was an essential ingredient for success in this project. To recall once more, these developments were as follows:

From 2002 to 2004 the Gendarmerie created a more centralized architecture by putting all applications on the Intranet, which also allowed for greater modularity

In 2005 the decision to replace Microsoft Office with Open Office was made

Not much later, Mozilla's web browser Firefox and email client Thunderbird were introduced

After the announcement of Windows Vista in late 2006, the decision was made to migrate to Ubuntu.

Compared to other projects, the IT team found that a "soft migration" towards an Open Source environment is much more beneficial than a "hard migration" (everything at once).

There is a lively exchange between the headquarters and the Départments, which enables them to react to problems rather effectively. A conference was held in Paris in early October 2008 where not only officials were invited to discuss the IT infrastructure, but also local officers had the chance to express their opinions. These hands-on experiences provided very important feedback, as this went beyond official assessments of the project. 

Migration costs are always higher than staying with the status quo. Nonetheless it is important to look at the costs in the long run, and  compare those to alternatives. Here, a migration to Windows Vista would by far have exceeded the costs of the Ubtuntu migration, as not only hardware updates would have been necessary, but future software updates involving costly licenses would further add to the bill. Since GNU/Linux has relatively low hardware requirements, can run even on older machines without problems, and can be obtained free of charge, the costs of such a solution can be lower. Moreover, the GNU/Linux command line interface has remained fairly stable for the last 10 years, letting administrators continue to use the knowledge they have acquired in the past..


Track record of sharing

While none of the people interviewed for this case study mentioned a cooperation with other public bodies on the migration to open source, the project is one of several similar migrations of French public bodies. To mention just a some examples: the French National Assembly in 2007 decided to run Ubuntu on their 1145 workstations;  the Ministry of Agriculture and Fishery switched their servers to the Mandriva GNU/Linux distribution in 2005; the Paris council will use several open souce applications on their laptops, as decided in June, 2008. These developments thus clearly show how open source software is used increasingly in the French public sector.

The Gendarmerie is already cooperating with Canonical, even though there is no formal contract. Canonical sees the scale of the project as an ideal situation to get feedback about their product. This unofficial cooperation started only in June 2008. Canonical is currently not providing support to end users. The company will only work together closely with a small group of 10 to 20 people within the core IT team of the Gendarmerie. At the moment the contact is limited only to Pascal Danek and a few colleagues of his.


Lessons learnt

Achievements / Lessons learned

The migration of the first 5000 workstations has been accomplished successfully. Besides a few pending issues, "there is no big problem remaining in our IT system with regard to Linux" says IT officer Pascal Danek. The openness of the GNU/Linux platform offers the Gendarmerie the possibility to constantly adapt and improve their system according to their needs, which brings many advantages compared to other operating systems.

For Nick Barcet from Ubuntu, the project is a very important and unique source of feedback. As there are only very few ventures in these dimensions, the insights gained here can be essential for the further development of Ubuntu in the future. As one example of this, there was an issue the Gendarmerie had with Ubuntu's Update Manager that required administrator rights, which were not available to every user. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, was thus contacted by the Gendarmerie about this issue, and a solution was found. Especially for larger institutions and organisations this was important, as the occurrence of the same problem could be avoided in the future. The cooperation of Canonical and the Gendarmerie is therefore mutual beneficial.

Future plans

For the future the team will try to resolve the few remaining issues in the migration process, such as problems related to the Samba file server application.

The IT team is optimistic about migrating all of the Gendarmerie's desktops to Ubuntu by 2015. They believe that this will not only dramatically improve the force's IT systems, but save large sums of money that otherwise would have been spent on licenses.



Target Users or Group:
Administrative, Civil society
Benchlearning Community, Communicating security using ICT (Archived), eGovernment, eGovMoNet [eGovernment Monitor Network], ePractice, IT-Governance, Meet Share Learn, Procurement, IT & Standards (PITS)
Case status:
Funding source:
Public funding national
Geographic coverage:
French, Gendarmerie, Ubuntu
eGovernment, Open Source, Services for Citizens
My languages:
Type of service:
IT Infrastructures and products
Technology choice:
Open source software
Overall implementation approach:
Public administration
Type of initiative:
Strategic initiative