Linux gaining acceptance in Australian Government

The Linux operating system is finding a welcome home in Canberra as an increasing number of Federal Government departments and agencies look towards cost-effective open-source solutions.

Agencies are keen to trial Linux and to explore the costs and benefits, said Steve Alford, business strategies branch general manager for the National Office of the Information Economy (NOIE).

Alford cited existing procurement policy that states agencies are free to use open-source software where it provides a value-for-money solution to their needs.

While it was hard to gauge which agencies' IT systems would gain most from Linux, the potential savings alone have resulted in government interest, said Alford.

"As Linux is implemented by more users both within government and industry, we will have a better idea of where [in government] Linux can be implemented with most benefit."

Peter Gigliotti is the assistant director of computing at the Bureau of Meteorology. He has had no problems using Linux for about two months on a development cluster for one of the Federal Government's largest Web servers.

Gigliotti is typical of government IT managers turning to Linux. "Everybody's looking at the bottom line these days. I'd estimate we've made a cost saving of about 30 per cent, that's hardware and software," he said.

"I suppose what else made us use Linux was confidence of stability -- it's supported by the commercial channels now. There's been a lot of money spent on the development of it by companies like IBM. It can certainly provide a fair amount of computer power, too."

The scalability of Linux is also attractive for government agencies because it runs smoothly on mainframes, such as IBM's z Series mainframe used by the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA). Following an infrastructure upgrade, the DVA moved to a thin-client operation with one central data centre and moved file and print servers to the mainframe to run under Linux. The network supports about 3,000 PCs.

The reason behind the Linux move was "basically cost", said Alan Parker, information manager at the DVA. "We will reduce floor space and less operator support will be required, especially in managing growth."

Parker said the Department had not been actively seeking to replace Microsoft software, but had SuSE Linux offered to them by IBM.

Open-source supporters like IBM and Sun are also Federal Government-endorsed suppliers, which has meant that Linux has become more available to agencies.

A lack of credible information on the total cost of ownership for Linux systems has so far prevented agencies from trialling Linux, Alford said. However, this will be addressed when NOIE briefs government officials on Linux before the end of the year.

"Also, where agencies have outsourced their IT operations, using Linux may require contractual variations, and this may not be a simple exercise," he said.

This has been a huge wall for open-source acceptance that is finally crumbling, according to Con Zymaris, managing director of Cybersource, a Victorian professional services company that specialises in open-source solutions and training.

"What's traditionally worked against Linux in the government is that if something can't be used everywhere, they won't use it.

"The problem is that 80 per cent of people in government departments could use Linux desktops, but Microsoft contracts in effect lock the government down further than the contract period because it's difficult to get other software working on it."

Zymaris says mainframes are a big growth area for Linux with its scalability. "Now that mainframes can run Linux, you can use its full power."

With Linux already in use by some government departments and with the NOIE seminars yet to come, Linux will gain a permanent place in government IT, according to Zymaris. While he acknowledged the problems of integrating Linux in government IT systems, he said the NOIE seminars were evidence that agencies are no longer ignoring the benefits. Just the fact that government agencies are "so conservative means that Linux has finally made it", he said.

The NOIE seminars will be held for Federal Government officials by the end of the year.