Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Category: green

Philip Green report on Govt spending; UK Free Software

For a number of years, the discussion amongst UK-based free software professionals has been about how to do more with Government. The most active discussions happened around the time of the UK open-source, standards and re-use policy was developed (around 2004; it has been updated since): it wasn’t great before, and it hasn’t improved an awful lot since.

In very similar ways people have bemoaned the accessibility of Government procurement processes for micro/small businesses, and it’s basically the same problem – the “big guys” tend to be pushing proprietary solutions.

So, it was with some interest I read Philip Green’s recent report on Government efficiency. I had some fears about what I was going to read; “efficiency” generally means driving costs down hard, which usually means bulkier contracts with fatter discounts. And that’s what we’ve got.

People who don’t work with UK Government on IT projects probably don’t have much of an idea of the state of play. Right now, discretionary spending within most of it is limited to contracts to £10,000 value. Above that, and you need more central approval, and there is an absolute bar on any project worth over a million. In my book, that’s basically micromanagement.

“Government must leverage its name, its credit rating and its buying power”

This is the central theme of the report. Basically, Government could be buying stuff in bulk, or doing things for itself, in areas that it currently is not. And by Government, I really do mean “Government”: right now, the various Departments often do things for themselves, and by business standards each department is a pretty large enterprise. Green is saying that Government, as a whole single unit, should be doing things.

This is a knock-out blow to free software and small business; it’s difficult to see how any SME will be able to supply Government with anything but the most specialist of services. What’s more, the principle of multi-vendorship enshrined (but rarely acted upon) in the open-source policy is more or less going to be a thing of the past.

Just major suppliers?

You see, here’s the problem. The Green review is mainly looking at main suppliers: contracts worth millions of millions of pounds. However, that doesn’t really mean that it’s not going to affect small contracts.

A good example is the NHS. For the last 12 years, there has been an NHS-wide agreement for Microsoft software. Who knows how much this has cost, obviously hundreds of millions, but equally obviously at a vastly reduced rate. Not only was the NHS able to deploy pretty much any Microsoft software it felt like, NHS staff were virtually free to take it home with them (ok, they had to pay £9 for Office). For those unfamiliar with the NHS they employ, one way or another, around 7% of the UK workforce. That’s a lot of Office installs.

Are NHS employees really likely to become Fedora users if it costs them a few tens of pounds to get the latest Microsoft operating system and office suite? I’m not sure LibreOffice is quite that compelling, and frankly people spend more money at the pub on a Friday night.

It’s the network (effect)

Once central IT platforms are bought and paid for, Government-wide, that puts a huge obvious limit on what applications can be deployed on it. No free software desktop, that much is obvious. But what about free software desktop apps? Having seen the likes of Fujitsu deploy Government desktops in what is commonly called “lock down mode”, I don’t see it that likely that many people are going to be Firefox users in that environment

And what about delivering software as a service? Many people have touted that as a way of doing an end-run around the desktop lock-down. But sadly, the picture is probably worse there, if anything. Government will have centralised hosting as an IT service, and they will expect their services to be hosted on their platform for reasons of security and reliability.

That platform is not going to be an Apache-based platform: being realistic, it will either be some grandiose Java application server (Websphere?) or it’s going to be Sharepoint. Which will mean any application you want to sell to Government will have to run on one of those platforms.

Whither the future

If Government acts on the Green report, and implements anything close to the full recommendations, what we will see in the next five to ten years is a central Government IT platform which is homogenised to a much, much greater extent than we have ever seen. Networking and telephony may be provided by a single central Government unit (Green called it “GovTel”), and computing is likely to be outsourced to a single organisation: an IBM, or a Fujitsu, or similar.

No more WordPress running the Number 10 website. No more small enclaves of innovative, independent projects trying to blaze a trail in Government IT. The future is going to be breath-takingly corporate, bland, and hostile to small business. Some readers may remember the APLAWS project: funded by Pathfinder, this was almost a fluke project which showed just what free software could do. It brought together some big open-source companies, charities and local Government, and developed a mostly-free CMS system that could have been further developed by any local authority that cared to look at it. Sadly, although still in use, project development seems to be dead and in this new Green world, it would never be procurable now.

It’s a very sad picture. Yes, we all want Government to be “efficient” and cost-effective. But there is an opportunity cost here. The opportunity cost is the small businesses and the people innovating in IT, whose products will effectively be beyond UK Government’s reach.

The NHS has also shown us a picture of what happens when these large agreements come to an end. Mass license compliance activity, which never had to be performed before. Large numbers of staff being asked to pony up £100 for an Office suite they already have but no longer have the rights to use. They’re expensive agreements to get out of.

Philip Green has managed to reduce the IT procurement problem to little more than finding the cheapest box of tea bags. I think it’s a poor way of thinking about the problem, because IT moves on so quickly. By centralising and planning IT to the extent being recommended (and this from a Conservative Government!), it will remove any and all flexibility to respond to changes, and impose an IT inertia on the country as a whole.

Sad times.

Asay and Tiemann, mano a mano.

Matt Asay has written another entertaining blog piece on his particular theories of open source economics, and Red Hat’s Michael Tiemann and he have engaged in what is superficially a bit of “Is not!” “Is too!“. Looking a bit deeper, though, it’s not really the pragmatics vs. the Stallmanites, even though that’s how Asay frames it.

Fundamentally, Tiemann is right on the money: a simplistic “supply and demand” view of how prices are set in a market place completely ignores the value that Red Hat offers to its customers. “Subscription” versus “box price” is not simply a semantic difference – indeed, that’s essentially labelling their customers as brand tarts unwilling to risk CentOS / Scientific Linux, and reduces the business decision to a simple money figure. That’s not how business works; the difference between “cheapest” and “best value” is huge.

Asay also bizarrely labels Red Hat a “distant second to Canonical” in the purity stakes. This is Canonical with the proprietary server management, proprietary file sharing, proprietary application store, etc.? I don’t even vaguely understand the argument here: either Matt is badly misinformed, or is just being very selective – the only thing I can think that Red Hat withholds is permission for others to use its trade marks. Which Canonical also does.

Then comes the claim that “The bulk of the best, most widely used open source is funded by proprietary dollars.” – followed by a call of thanks for the likes of IBM, HP, Intel. No doubt those companies do contribute a reasonable amount, but to credit them with the bulk of the best: that’s really stretching it. If you look at the actual factual information of who contributes what to projects like Linux, corporate interest is large, but “funded by proprietary dollars” – haha. What Asay is basically implying is “proprietary sales are underwriting the development of open source” – presumably some kind of mass corporate hallucination that has turned these businesses into charities, and pragmatism be damned.

Of course, the reality is these businesses would never underwrite development of software which wouldn’t make the money back, and indeed IBM’s vaunted “$1 billion investment” was apparently recouped in a single year. According to Matt, we should be thanking IBM for doing this: to my mind, IBM should be thanking the community for the contribution that has enabled it to recoup its investment so quickly (since 2002 presumably it has been making good money, too).

What Matt doesn’t seem to get is that this split-personality marketing of “we do all this open stuff, except for this scarce bit we’re charging you for!” is a prize example of a house divided unto itself. You can’t sensibly talk about the benefits of open source without contradicting yourself completely when it comes to the paywall behind which your proprietary software sits: basically you have to fess up that the open source bits are the bait.

What Michael’s post illustrates nicely is not just a clarity of purpose, but a 100% commitment to what they tell their customers: no ifs, no buts, but a single compelling story. Customers understand the value they offer, and that’s why they make money.

[Edit 20:24: just for clarity, my comparison of Canonical to Red Hat is not to denigrate Canonical: merely to illustrate that claiming Red Hat are a ‘distant second’ to Canonical in the purity stakes is utter nonsense. Also, my reference in the comments to “proprietary application store” should be parsed as “a store that hosts proprietary applications”, not “an application store that is proprietary”]

Come on, Facebook – re-instate Tom Brake MP

Now, I’m not a huge one for using web applications as a means civic communication – I tend to believe that communicating with your representatives is much better done in a public space rather than a private one like Facebook. However, this story (on the face of it) is quite disturbing.

Transport for London recently announced the removal of the N213 night bus service between Croydon and Sutton. For many people, particularly young people going out of a night in Croydon, although this service wasn’t overcrowded it was important. A number of people on Facebook started a group to protest this, and took to the streets of Wallington last night.

Our local MP, Tom Brake, has been a Facebook user for years now and has tended to be pretty good about using it intelligently: joining good local causes, using it as another way of letting people know what he’s up to, and that kind of thing. So, he also joined the “Save the N213” group and posted various letters that he’d sent to the Mayor / TFL.

Now, however, Facebook has suspended his account: it’s like he doesn’t exist on the site any more. No comments, no profile, unceremoniously de-listed from the various groups.

Fine upstanding local residents

Fine upstanding local residents

Why has this happened? Well, according to LibDem Voice, “his account was automatically suspended when their system detected an unusually large amount of traffic to and from his account“. That is to say, the protest against the N213 – which Tom was participating in, not really organising – was too successful, and Facebook assumed something bad was happening.

MPs need to be easily accessible by their constituents. On issues like public transport, children and young adults are particularly important because they don’t have the option driving. Representing them effectively means, realistically, being able to contact the local community via Facebook (and services like it) because that’s what these people use in the same way older generations write letters to the local newspaper.

It’s difficult to know what to do about this. It’s difficult to see how a kind of public service obligation could be imposed on something like Facebook; equally, setting up something genuinely public and civic-minded is unlikely to attract the demographic we’re talking about.

Further to yesterday’s post on water…

… today is World Water Day. There is a flashy 2007 website too, not sure why.

Green energy

Planet Debian has been a trove of green discussion today. Russell Coker and MJ both linked to a story about Spain getting most of its energy from wind, for the first time. 27% of their energy came from wind, 22% came from nucular power and 16% from coal power (where the other third came from, I’m not totally clear on – possibly imported?). Overall, in the last year, almost 10% of their energy has come from wind. I think that’s pretty amazing, especially since it meant for that small time, almost 50% of their power was coming from relatively carbon-clean sources.

Spain is one of the few places I “boycott” for environmental reasons (along with Kenya and a few other places, I refuse to buy products which require large amounts of water to create – for example, salad crops), but it seems we could learn a lot from them. I do wonder, though, if the large amount of wind power is somehow related to the more relaxed planning process over there, as that’s not something I would want to copy in many ways.

MJ also mentioned water temperature again, which has been a discussion on there recently. It’s also something I’ve thought a lot about, because our house has amazing heat potential in the roof (we actually have a hell of a time cooling our house in any kind of warmth – it’s easily comfortable at this time of year, and by April/May will start to get slightly uncomfortably warm). However, we don’t store hot water at all – our system is powered by a combi boiler, which is virtually impossible to integrate into solar heating systems, and is too new to be replaced (we think the previous owners had it installed maybe two years before we moved in just over a year ago).

I was thinking about the temperature controlled valves that are now mandated in various places (I think the US, and also Australia?), but there are issues associated with them. The basic types of valve are simple pressure balancers, which work ok, but means that the water takes a while to warm up. If it takes 5 seconds for the water to come hot from cold, and the valve mixes 60:40, it will take up to 10 seconds for the water to come to temperature because it’s mixing in much more cold water – that’s almost double the waste. The posher thermostatic non-balancing types are much more expensive, require servicing, and have similar wastage issues. I think it’s better to do it manually at the moment (though I wish there was a better way), especially if your hot water has to travel a reasonable distance.

Standby switches, mentioned by Adrian, are also something I looked into recently. In an ideal world, I would like to have remote control sockets: by allowing me to power off entire four-ways, we could keep some of the convenience (the sockets behind the TV are especially inaccessible, so it’s difficult to turn things off properly), but save a good amount of energy (the sat box in particular doesn’t seem to “turn off”). However, the stuff to do the job doesn’t seem to be available.

I don’t know whether it’s because switching mains in general requires physical switches to cope with high currents (most equipment turns off the DC parts, leaving the power supply more or less on – just consuming a lot less power), or whether demand just isn’t there. It seems to me, though, high time that equipment and mains sockets started talking to each other so that standby functionality can be delegated elsewhere.