UK city council dumps Microsoft Office

Adopting Sun's StarOffice and ODF will result in huge savings on licensing for Bristol City Council. Matthew Broersma reports

Bristol City Council will save 60% on software costs over five years by ditching Microsoft Office and switching its 5,500 users to Sun’s StarOffice and the ODF (Open Document Format) standard.

The total cost of ownership for an all-Microsoft Office environment would have been £1.7 million (NZ$4.7 million) over five years, compared with £670,000 for StarOffice, the council calculated. The council began talking about its open-source migration in 2004, when it started with a mixture of Lotus, WordPerfect and Microsoft Office. Different users had different versions of each program.

The StarOffice figures include licence fees to Sun, as well as staff retraining, migration and support costs.

Gavin Beckett, Bristol City Council’s IT strategy manager, says the decision was mainly motivated by Microsoft’s controversial licensing practices in recent years, as Redmond looks to shift volume licencees to the Software Assurance subscription plan, while scrapping upgrade rights.

The main hurdle came from user expectations that any non-Microsoft alternative was bound to be second-rate, Beckett says. “Our biggest challenge was encouraging staff to be open minded about anything that wasn’t Microsoft Office,” he says.

The council worked with Sun on a large-scale pilot in the city’s local housing offices, following up to fix the problems that emerged.

While most of the up-front costs came from software licences and training, the council expects that switching to the ODF file format standard will cut costs by reducing the organisation’s dependency on a single vendor. ODF is based on an XML file format used by StarOffice and its open-source counterpart, OpenOffice.

The state of Massachusetts is also moving to require open document standards such as ODF, in an effort to move away from proprietary Microsoft formats.

Microsoft tried and failed to keep Bristol on board, Beckett says. “They tried very hard to convince us that every penny we spent with them could result in greater savings from efficiencies down the road,” he says.

“Ultimately ... they simply did not respond to our key point — that each Microsoft Office licence was 12 times more expensive than the equivalent StarOffice licence for the public sector.”

Other councils in Britain are trying open source operating systems as well as applications. An example is Birmingham’s trial of Linux, Gnome and other open source software at its libraries.

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