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The Ballad of LiMux FUD


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

In between issues, this happened:

In 2003, the Town Hall of Munich, capital of the wealthy region of Bavaria, Germany, was considering getting rid of an annoying vendor that was forcing them to upgrade its software. The new software, without offering any substantial advantage over the previous version, came with new expensive licenses – several per desktop – because the Town Hall would have had to pay for the use of not only the new operating system but also all the new apps that came with it. It would have also meant the City Corporation would have had to renew many of its 15,000 workstations, because the current hardware, which was in perfect working order, would not have had enough oomph to run the new, much more power-hungry programs.

Instead, the techies at the Town Hall suggested building a custom version of Linux (that they dubbed LiMux), based first on Debian, later on Ubuntu, figuring that using free software would save the city money in the long run and would give the City Corporation control over what and when to upgrade their stuff. This proved controversial, and the company that licensed the original software dispatched one of its top executives to try and talk the city managers out of migrating. Despite being offered substantial discounts first, and threatened with legal actions later, the Munich officials decided to go ahead with the migration anyway.

The implementation team met with many obstacles. Decades of use of proprietary systems had led to the development of customized non-compatible applications that used closed formats for their files. None of these were easy to migrate. User resistance to change, a hurdle in any migration, was also a major headache. In the early stages, developers resorted to implementing virtual desktops running the legacy system within the LiMux framework to overcome both problems. Running an old system within the new kind of defeats the purpose of having the new system at all, but it gave the engineers time to find or create native solutions for the closed apps, while at the same time appeasing the civil servants by avoiding disrupting their normal day-to-day activities.

But, not all the problems came from the titanic effort of the migration itself. The company, which saw this situation not only as the loss of an important client but also a major PR issue, lobbied back, pitching Town Hall insiders against the change, and spreading FUD about the project. Unfortunately, for the latter, they found a willing echo chamber with lazy or biased tech journalists who were willing to hold up the "disaster" of the LiMux project as a warning to any other public administration that dared consider migrating away from proprietary software.

Twelve years on, although not without its faults, the migration is far from a disaster, purportedly having saved millions for the taxpayers. Admittedly, it has also cost millions in development and training.

However, one has to qualify the nature of both instances of "millions" in the paragraph above: Millions spent on licenses for proprietary software is money thrown down a sinkhole. What's worse, it's money that pushes you into the sinkhole and then forces you to dig yourself deeper into the void of vendor-lockinness (?) with every dollar you spend.

On the other hand, money you spend on in-house development and staff training is an investment in the City Corporation's own assets and personnel.

The advantages of the migration, however, have not been able to stop the FUD mills from churning out their drivel. Just this summer, a letter from two councillors requesting some changes to laptops purchased by the Town Hall immediately led to a barrage of headlines across the web that trumpeted "Munich, Germany realizes that deploying Linux was a disaster, going back to Windows". Seriously. Bizarre use of punctuation and all.

Interestingly, there is nothing in said letter that suggests any such thing . The councillors themselves have since denied that they had any intention of suggesting they wanted a return to the prior proprietary system.

The best bit is that not being able to install a certain office suite and Skype on laptops – which is what the councillors were asking for – has nothing to do with LiMux. As with any large organization, the Town Hall restricts what users can and cannot install on machines that are property of the corporation, and said office suite and Skype are not allowed due to security concerns.

Nearly exactly a year earlier, Munich's then new Mayor, Dieter Reiter, a self-professed "[Company name expunged] fan," found he couldn't access his email from his personal Nokia Lumia phone (running a non-Linux based operating system). He immediately blamed the LiMux project and, in the process, again set off the FUD-o-meters big time.

It turns out the problem didn't have anything to do with LiMux. The Town Hall's internal mail system was an ancient system running on even more ancient Sun Spark machines cobbled together by technicians long gone and which predated the LiMux migration by more than a decade. But, no matter: headlines.

The tech department had to tell Dieter to shut the flick up, because he had no idea what he was talking about. He just had to just let them do their job, which, as chance would have it, consisted at the time of migrating the mail system to Kolab, an open source email, calendaring, address book, general groupware, über-system, which would give Mayor Reiter what he needed.

I have told this story of the techies at Munich's Town Hall, because its worth pointing out that they only want to do good by the people who live in the city. Meanwhile, they have to put up with attacks from a company that has no sense of shame, treats their customers terribly, and will not hesitate to use shady tactics to sabotage the developers' and admins' work.

Be warned if you're thinking of moving your own organization to Linux.

Paul C. Brown,

Editor in Chief

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