Westminster eForum - Open Source

Earlier this week I went up to the Westminster eForum to speak at the Keynote Seminar “Open source software: in business, in government”. The Westminster eForum provides an environment for policy makers in Parliament, Whitehall and government agencies to engage with key stakeholders. The event was sponsored by Sirius IT, the company which advised us on our move to Linux and who now provide ongoing support for our Linux servers.

I caught a train from Woking, arriving promptly at 61 Whitehall at 0845. I was greeted warmly by Bash, the person organising the seminar, who showed me around and took my slideshow presentation.

Rupert Goodwins, Editor at ZDNet UK, was Chairman of the meeting and introduced Karsten Gerloff, President of the Free Software Foundation Europe. I recognised some of the themes of his speech, including the definition of Free and Open Source and the “Four Freedoms”, and I was already aware of some of the developments in countries like Brazil. That said, I was not the target audience for his speech and I am sure that it must have been a powerful message for those MPs present.

There were four more speeches before mine, starting with Alan Lord of the Open Learning Centre, an Open Source Software Consulting and Services business based in Surrey. Alan discussed the challenges of Open Source, in particularly the challenge of procurement, given that standard procurement practices struggled with the concept of free software. Alan went on to reassure the audience regarding the risks and vulnerability of Open Source. This is something about which I feel passionately; to my mind, if you have the source code and access to that incredible resource “The Internet” then any risks and vulnerabilities are solvable. This is in stark contrast to proprietary software, where you are completely in the hands of the supplier.

Next up was Paul Holt, Corporate Sales Director at Canonical. I was impressed that he avoided the temptation to do a big sell on Canonical, and this was a feature of all the speeches, no-one seemed to be overtly pushing their wares. He did labour the point that Open Standards are what is important, much more so than Open Source, and in this he is undoubtedly right; the world would be a rosy place indeed if we all ran a combination of Open Source and proprietary systems, all of which worked together smoothly according to common open standards.

Andrew Katz from Moorcrofts went on to reassure the audience on the safety of running Open Source software as an end user. I must confess that this was not something about which I was worried, but in the face of the usual FUD from its detractors, it was probably worthwhile to tackle this issue. It was interesting to hear from Andrew that he often asks the Chief Financial Officer whether software contains any Free and Open Source software to be told that it doesn’t, only to find that quizzing the Chief Technology Office gives the opposite answer. Having written some simple scripts, I can’t imagine how you could do so without using the myriad of Open Source libraries; it is interesting to hear that, all too often, proprietary software companies find exactly the same!

At last it was my turn. Thanks to the magic of organisation, my slideshow was up and Rupert Goodwins had announced me. Yikes. I ran through my speech, much as I rehearsed it, even remembering to switch between slides. The speakers were only permitted to talk for a maximum of 5 minutes, with a yellow card being raised at 4 minutes and a red card at 5 minutes. Nothing like a little time pressure to calm my nerves! In the event I needn’t have worried about yellow and red cards, as I completely forgot to look out for them anyway; hopefully my speech ended broadly on time!

Having been given the brief of the discussion, my first draft of the speech followed very closely to the other speakers, outlining the implementation of Open Source, the Challenges, and the Risks and Vulnerabilities. After reading my rather poorly written offering, I decided that I should leave the other speakers to follow that pattern and to treat myself instead as a case study, not attempting to address any particular issues, but merely to run through what we had done and why. My speech seemed fairly well received and I don’t think I made too many mistakes.

I had expected that there would be questions after each speech, but in the event it seemed that questions were to be left for the end of all of our speeches. I was somewhat astonished by the first question from Robert Onslow, in which he alluded to the fact that Open Source is not as flexible as proprietary software. I apologise to Robert, as I did laugh; which was most rude of me, but if Open Source is anything, then it is flexible and thus I was so taken aback by such a question. The fact is that Open Source is most often written as small components - “do one thing and do it well” - and combining these components together is what gives Open Source its incredible flexibility. And the fact, of course, that you have access to the source code and have the option of paying a developer to make changes to it.

I also laboured my hobby horse regarding the benefit of having access to the source code. I hear so many people, even Open Source users, saying that they don’t think that having the source code is really that big a benefit. I feel passionately that even non-developers can benefit from Open Source, partly through the wider community having access to the code, but also directly, by viewing the code to debug a problem, or even fix a simple typological bug. The best example that I have was when KDE changed one of their environment paths, which broke kiosk-tool, I was delighted to be able to track down that error and fit it. Similarly getting KAddressBook to work with LDAP resources needed a very simple code change.

There were a number of other questions, but none in which I played any key part.

After the session was a coffee break, and I got talking to Mark Taylor of Sirius and Rupert Goodwin and David Meyer from ZDNet UK. David Meyer showed me his netbook running Jolicloud, which seemed to be a very professional and user friendly implementation of Linux, in which Linux, Windows and Web software are offered seamlessly from the software centre. Very impressive, and I’ll certainly be looking at that soon.

I regret that I did not stay for the remainder of the day; whilst it sounded very interesting, the majority was related to the public sector, which is not directly relevant to me.

Thank you to Bash at Westminster eForums and Mark Taylor of Sirius. Oh, and Rupert Goodwins, for allowing me to share his taxi to the station when the heavens opened!

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