The UK Government Needs to Take a Stand on Open Source

August 26, 2015

Contributed by Pierre Fricke

Recent weeks have been strange in the world of enterprise software. It is as though we have properly broken a cycle of frustration among enterprise customers. You recognize the cycle. That’s when end users – public and private – voice complaints, pundits postulate, and articles appear, but then everyone shrugs and goes back to the same old routine of purchasing and maintaining IT systems with the same big vendors.

This is no longer the case. Gartner is actively urging enterprise IT users to consider open source databases as their first option for mission critical applications in their report, The State of Open-Source RDBMs, 2015. And a survey we did in spring underlined the point by finding that 77% of the Postgres community already uses PostgreSQL for their new applications.   

Still, there’s something missing in the UK. Certainly, we have seen alleged statements of frustrations with existing vendors. But there has not been the same public commitment as we have seen in documents such as the US Digital Services Playbook, which explicitly states, “Default to open source.”  In India we have seen the launch of open source preferences. In the Netherlands, open source is the preferred software for government projects. But in the UK, we have not had an explicit statement from central Government.

I believe such a statement in the UK would provoke healthy debate and would encourage more stakeholders – customers, systems integrators and software vendors –to focus on what is really the issue – solving the budget deficit. The Chancellor, George Osborne, is demanding £40bn in cuts from the public sector – a daunting figure, even for one of the few world economies that is growing. 

Perhaps in a typically understated British fashion, different Government departments have already been quietly establishing their open source footprint.  Sadly though, not many are talking about it publicly. We need to encourage more discussion of open source adoption to understand how it co-exists alongside and even replaces traditional solutions, in order to meet current budget pressures.

That’s why I was delighted to see a blog by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in the UK, one of the largest central Government departments. Responsible for collecting all of the UK’s tax revenue they are the one department – particularly in a time of budget cuts – who cannot afford systems to go down and fail. And yet despite its critical national infrastructure status it quietly revealed on a blog in July that, “We are committed to both using open source products and contributing back to the community to improve them based on what we are doing.”

Now if ever there was a statement of intent this is it. Not only does one of the most important central government departments in Britain believe that open source software is clearly suitable for its mission critical environment, it is prepared to declare that commitment publicly. 

We have seen multiple headlines that influential figures in the UK Government want to get rid of Oracle, one its largest traditional commercial software providers. Obviously a dramatic story, and I’m sure not one that would have been published without sources validating the allegation.

What troubles me is that this is a story of conjecture, not an open healthy debate, which central Government customers and their software providers can engage in.  I wonder whether this Government has been “schooled” by a previous administration’s attempts to shake-up central Government strategy.  Back in 2009, the UK Government openly committed its future to open source software. It created dramatic headlines, which were welcomed in some quarters as a bold and innovative move.

Five years later we do not appear to be any further on. 

Naturally, as the vendor of an open source based database you would expect me to say I believe open source software should play a central role in the future of the Government’s IT strategy.  However, the first step is for us to have a proper debate about the relative merits of our software platforms in the context of our customers’ needs.

It is not an understatement to suggest that central and local Government in the UK needs a radical solution.  We need to think differently about that solution, which is why we should be encouraging more debate about the role of open source software in Government. 

I applaud the HMRC and I eagerly await the next one. I know that other departments are already well down the path of adopting open source solutions. I just hope they too are encouraged to join the discussion and share their learnings.

Pierre Fricke is Vice President, Product Marketing, at EnterpriseDB. 

*The State of Open Source RDBMSs, 2015, by Donald Feinberg and Merv Adrian, published April 21, 2015. 

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