Monday, October 11, 2010

Open Source Document and Content Management

BCS Manchester recently hosted a meeting on open source content management and document management in the Public Sector. The speaker. Graham Oakes, explained that the catalyst for this had been an article in the Guardian about the use of commercial software by Birmingham City Council and its attempt at building websites. They had already spent £2.8M and the question was asked ‘Why not use Open Source Software instead?’ Graham stated that there is an awful lot of mis-information around, in particular that the use of OSS does not mean it costs nothing! This led the BCS Open Source Software Group to run a conference in January 2010 looking at the use and adoption of OSS in the public sector.

After briefly outlining what OSS is (source code owned by the community which can derive new works), Graham outlined a typical software stack found in many organisations. At every level, there are good open source solutions available. Content Management normally fits in at the application layer below portals and webservers. Content Management has a number of very strong options including Plone, Hippo, TYPO3, Drupal, Joomla, eZ and Umbraco. Many of these have already been adopted by public sector in developing websites, for example a number of Police forces.Document Management is not as well developed as Content Management and there are fewer options.

Gartner and Forrester enterprise software reviews both report that OSS should be adopted and it is becoming more amenable to use in the UK but it is still necessary to consider the full life-cycle costs. OSS should be considered equivalent to proprietary – public sector should now consider and event contribute to OSS projects. However UK is some way behind other european nations (specifically Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Denmark) with the OSOSS project in Netherlands urging public administration to use more OSS and open standards.


The key advantages of adopting OSS within the public sector were identified as

  • The reason for adoption is low up-front costs. Low costs of initial ownership, but the organisation needs to consider normal software selection processes and consider the risks, requirements for the software etc. OSS should be considered no differently to commercial software. It is still necessary to look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) and an organisation may need to still involve a system integrator in order to deploy effectively.
  • OSS applications do not constrain the design. The public sector can can use it to start small, think big.
  • Many OSS is easier to work with because access to source code (only useful if you have skills to use it!) is always available. This can provide an additional option to documentation. OSS is also increasingly important with the cloud as proprietary license models don’t adapt readily.
  • Good to help the public sector to demonstrate openness (committed to visibility and open to the public)

Apart from the last one, the advantages are not particularly specific for public sector adoption.


Of course, there is always a downside, commonly called risks in procurement circles. The risks identified included

  • Getting over the perception that everything is free. This misunderstands the true costs of OSS. Most costs in using software are not in the licenses – it is actually in the content created/managed by the software. Most project costs are less than 10% on technology/license and the migration costs must always be considered as these can often be many more times more expensive than the base software costs.
  • Misperception around content management and reusability of OSS. Just because some OSS can be used securely, does not mean that all OSS is secure.
  • Public sector are use to working with large organisations. OSS needs a different approach which the public sector may not readily adopt due to the mismatch of scale. OSS developers often move at a far faster pace than the public sector does (or can). This can be difficult at the procurement stage as the existing procurement model (level playing field) is broken. The procurement approach needs to recognise that OSS is no more less secure than proprietary solutions
  • Unreasoned decisions still dictate the major procurement decisions. OSS might not be a perfect match to the requirements but may provide a suitable solution.


Graham presented a set of conclusions, which if I am honest are no different to proprietary software.

  • Remember not all OSS are not the same, different quality levels and capabilities
  • Always chose carefully – consider usages scenarios
  • Look beyond licensing costs, user adoption, change management, migration
  • A team still creates the success over the technology. Choose the right team!
  • OSS supports evolutionary delivery, try before buy, which encourages innovation and supports agile and lean practices. However, this is good practice for all software.
  • License fees for software bring costs forward and commit project for the duration (unless trial licenses are available). OSS does not have this commitment and it is (relatively) easy to change OSS software without excessive upfront costs.

So would OSS have solved Birmingham’s problem. No. The problem was not a cost of licences issue; it was not understanding the issue well enough. OSS would have helped to examine the problem in the small before the initial financial commitment was identified which might have produced a more realistic budget.