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[wlug] DHBs to test open source alternative to Windows and Office

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Mon Apr 11 10:20:16 NZST 2005


DHBs to test open source alternative to Windows and Office
Boards band together to reduce their software licensing costs

Stephen Bell, Wellington

New Zealand's District Health Boards plan a trial of open source desktop 
software in an effort to reduce the licensing fees they pay to Microsoft 
— more than $20 million over three years, according to one estimate.

Microsoft licences are a major element of DHBs’ software costs, says 
Phil Brimacombe, CIO of Waitemata and Counties Manukau DHBs and 
healthAlliance, the shared services organisation owned by the two boards.

While there are some “power users” likely to need the full capabilities 
of Microsoft Office and related applications, users with less elaborate 
IT demands may be able to use and other open source 
software at much-reduced cost, Brimacombe says.

At a quarterly meeting of DHB CIOs in February, a joint three-part plan 
to reduce software costs was adopted.

First, the DHBs will pilot an open source desktop environment, being put 
together by Steve Rayner, CIO of Wanganui DHB, to assess how many users 
it will serve adequately. Rayner plans to support two categories of 
user: "power users" with Microsoft desktop software, and "regular 
clinical users" with Novell Enterprise Desktop, and 
GroupWise running on Suse Linux.

The pilot will seek to establish how many users there are with basic 
needs and whether it is possible to meet them with an entirely 
non-Microsoft environment, Brimacombe says.

“The majority of users don’t use Access databases, for example; they 
wouldn’t use PowerPoint; they’re not advanced users of Excel and they 
probably only use about 20% of the functions of Word. They may manage 
quite well with OpenOffice.”

There are also open source options for clinical database access clients, 
“but we don’t know how practical those are”, he says.

Brimacombe expects one of the knotty problems will be DHBs’ extensive 
use of Outlook and Exchange. They will have to find some practical email 
alternative, he says.

Another initiative is to approach suppliers of health software to see if 
they are willing to develop open source versions of their applications. 
At least one major provider of clinical systems, Orion, has told the 
board that it is looking seriously at supporting the open source Mozilla 
Firefox browser with its its clinical portal, Concerto, as an 
alternative to Internet Explorer, Brimacombe says. Laboratory software 
developer Sysmex has also indicated a willingness to explore open source 
solutions, he says.

The third part of the DHBs' plan is to push for stronger representation 
on the public sector committee negotiating the details of G2006, the 
next iteration of the New Zealand Government’s bulk licensing agreement 
with Microsoft.

Steve Mayo-Smith, CIO of Auckland DHB, will be the DHB CIO 
representative on the public sector negotiation group. He says DHBs will 
collectively have spent over $20 million on Microsoft licences during 
the three year of the previous agreement, G2003.

“In particular the DHBs with a large user population end up with little 
choice within the G2003 agreement, and feel captured by the structure of 
that agreement into paying the highest charges, often for products that 
are not widely needed,” Mayo-Smith says. “The potential cost 
efficiencies of open source are also attractive to smaller DHBs who do 
not have the resources of the larger DHBs.”

“We’re not expecting any stunning short-term breakthrough,” says 
Brimacombe, but the joint initiative, alongside individual DHB plans in 
the open source direction, could go some way to reducing Microsoft 
expenditure, “which is a big number for the taxpayer”.

The push to reduce licensing costs has been building for many months, 
Brimacombe says; one catalyst came in mid-2004, when Dr Ross Boswell, 
clinical director of information systems for Counties Manukau and an 
open source enthusiast, addressed the quarterly CIO meeting. Discussion 
since then has built up to the point of a formal agreement among the boards.

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