NZ Post trials open source on desktops

Open source desktops about freedom and diversity of operating system choice, says innovation manager

Just weeks after one of its divisions opted to replace Microsoft software with Google Apps, NZ Post is preparing to expand a proof-of-concept trial of open source on the desktop.

The project is about freedom and diversity in the choice of operating systems, not about specifically moving towards an open-source desktop, says NZ Post’s technology innovation manager, Barry Polley. NZ Post already uses some open source software, for example Red Hat Linux in the company’s datacentre, but not on the desktop.

See: Computerworld's open source special feature
The trial is initially using Ubuntu 9.04, Polley says, but Linux Mint is being tested as a longer-term candidate.

The distributions come with Open Office bundled and also some paint tools and virtual display technology for remote desktops which Post will be using.

"That's the easy 90% part," Polley says.

Applications for the remaining 10% of tasks will require more thought.

NZ Post is the only government-owned agency that has gone public on its participation in the Remix open-source public-sector desktop programme (see page 14), coordinated by the New Zealand Open Source Society (NZOSS).

Polley says the organisation will run a proof-of-concept phase for two months, with a group of about four desktop users, but is already identifying a larger group – about 40 – who will be used for the next “pilot” phase, if the proof of concept comes up with a positive result.

“We’re looking at the business value of using open source on the desktop,” he says. “Can we make it work for us and what are the barriers to acceptance?”

The major challenge is likely to be the training required, but there is always some training workload and delay in achieving full productivity in a new environment, he says, “even if you’re moving from XP to Windows 7”. The extra cost, if any, of moving to open source will be evaluated against the savings from proprietary licence fees.

“We think about 90 percent of our tasks are bog-standard,” requiring little or no change in work practices, he says. But the impact of the 10 percent that are left – if it is 10 percent – is difficult to forecast in advance. “Will it mean that there’s 10 percent of your work you simply can’t do, or will it just mean using some different tools?”

Clearly NZ Post will have different needs and considerations from more mainstream government agencies, but experiences from the trial will be shared across all agencies, working through the NZ Open Source Society, he says.

“One of the benefits of open source is collaboration,” he says, so it’s appropriate that such a project be pursued in a collaborative way among independent agencies, pooling the lessons learned.

There will be no centralised co-ordination of the exercise from the government side, Polley says.

“In the old days an exercise like this might have been done through the State Services Commission, but that’s all changed now.” With the shift of responsibility for operational aspects of all-of-government computing to Internal Affairs, some aspects of former centralised control appear to have been loosened and this has probably made such exercises as the Public Sector Remix project more practical. “But, I don’t want to get into that; it’s not my area,” he says.

There will be about a dozen desktop users involved in the proof-of-concept phase across all participating agencies.

NZ Post’s Postal Services Group signed up with GoogleApps for email and document collaboration earlier this year and the moves can be seen as related in the sense that both involve taking a broader outlook on software options, beyond the safe ground of Microsoft, says Polley.

On the other hand, “if you were a hard-core, open source enthusiast you would say that and Google were very different,” Google’s applications being proprietary. “We moved to Google for pragmatic reasons, [such as] access to email from anywhere and bigger mailboxes.”

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