SITA braves open source

Kimberly Guest
By Kimberly Guest, ITWeb contributor
Johannesburg, 11 Jun 2008

The State IT Agency (SITA) is transferring its entire technology infrastructure to free, open source and open standards software (FOSS).

SITA CEO Llewellyn Jones says the organisation hopes to complete this process within the next four to five months.

"We are doing a lot around FOSS within our organisation. In terms of our back-end environment, we are already using open source to a large extent. Now we are focusing on our user environment; open source offerings are just as good as - and sometimes even better than - their proprietary competitors," he explains.

The organisation's chief information officer, Eghshaan Khan, says this is a positive move for SITA, but admits he has some concerns.

"This movement proves again that open source or FOSS is not a myth. We embrace the principles of FOSS: interoperability, building communities and sharing. The one concern I have though is change management. We are confident the software portfolio we have chosen is just as good, if not better, than what our people have been working on; but, they need to discover this for themselves in order to buy into the project," he explains.

SITA has engaged the services of a change management specialist "to take the employees on this trip with us", says Khan.

Pick and choose

SITA has chosen Ubuntu for its desktop operating environment. Running on top of this will be open office, as well as several other FOSS applications, aimed at improving SITA's collaborative and engagement environments.

"Initially, we will allow both open source and proprietary applications to run on top of Ubuntu, but we have decided that those licences we have will not be renewed at the end of the term. Our early calculations predict that doing a complete reinstallation will cost us around $22 per desktop," says Khan.

SITA has around 2 300 permanent employees and 1 300 contractors. At today's exchange rate, the desktop refresh will cost the company around R625 680, although SITA will not confirm this value.

It also says it cannot as yet determine what the cost will be of migrating its back-end infrastructure. However, the large majority of this infrastructure is already running FOSS, says Jones.

As for savings, Jones and Khan predict these will be considerable, but would not like to make such a figure public until the installation is complete.

All the same, a source close to SITA reveals the organisation signed a three-year contract with Microsoft a "little while back" for its desktop and office applications.

"This contract was valued at R18 million and, once the term is ended, the company will see that saving immediately," he says.

Lobbying government

SITA's transition to FOSS is seen as an important step in its promotion of open standards to government departments.

Jones explains: "How can we encourage our customers to adopt FOSS when we ourselves are not far enough advanced with our transition? Yes, we have seen Cabinet adopt an open source policy; but our responsibility is to be a proof point to our public sector customers."

Despite government's policy on FOSS, Jones says the agency has received mixed reactions from its customers on adopting open source software.

"The question is always going to be around comfort levels and interoperability concerns. Some departments already have strong open source philosophies, like Home Affairs, while others would rather delay as long as possible."

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