After 14 years forging ahead as an open-source pioneer, the city of Munich will return to Windows.
At first glance, the blow to the wider free-software movement seems a heavy one. Munich was a beacon for the movement, a shining example of how a large organization with thousands of staff could run almost entirely on open-source software.
Yet the news that Munich will migrate more than 20,000 PCs from a Linux-based desktop to Windows 10 from 2020, while a setback for the open-source software movement, isn’t the gut punch it might seem. The world is very different today to when Munich began the move to free software in 2003, and in the intervening years the use of open-source software has exploded.
Today the world’s most popular smartphone OS is Linux-based, as are a large proportion of the world’s servers, and Ubuntu Linux is the most widely-used OS on the world’s biggest public cloud platform AWS. The OS running on a PC has also in some ways never been less important, as sales of mobile computing devices continue to grow while those of PCs slump.
And while open-source software may be a long way from making even the smallest dent in the desktop OS’ market, today there are large organizations deploying free software in far larger numbers than Munich ever did.
“There are many examples, Munich was definitely not the only one,” says Italo Vignoli, one of the founders of The Document Foundation, the organization behind open-source office suite LibreOffice, which is used at Munich alongside LiMux, a custom version of Ubuntu desktop OS.
Most notable is perhaps the French Gendarmerie, the country’s police force, which has switched 70,000 PCs to Gendbuntu, a custom version of the Linux-based OS Ubuntu. In the same country 15 French ministries have made the switch to using LibreOffice, as has the Dutch Ministry of Defence, while the Italian Ministry of Defence will switch more than 100,000 desktops from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice by 2020 and 25,000 PCs at hospitals in Copenhagen will move from Office to LibreOffice.
Matthias Kirschner, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), says this list continues to grow, and that “almost every two weeks you have a new example of free software being used in a public administration”.
What changed at Munich?
Identifying precisely what led to the demise of the LiMux project is difficult. Last year consultants Accenture and arf highlighted various problems with IT at the council, in particular in how long it took to update software, resulting in “obsolete, partially unsafe, usually extremely cumbersome IT, leading to lots of wasted time and productivity”.
However, neither LiMux nor LibreOffice were pinpointed as the source of these problems, with the consultants instead laying the blame on the fragmented nature of how IT is managed at Munich, with responsibility split between more than 20 separate organizations throughout the city. Indeed, the minority of Windows machines used by the council also suffered from software being outdated and buggy, with the blame again placed on inconsistent management procedures across these multiple sub-departments.
The FSFE’s Kirschner said it was unfair for open-source software to be blamed for what were essentially organizational shortcomings at Munich.
“If you have users who are unhappy about a particular bug in LibreOffice, which has been fixed for five years and is available as an update, but some departments are not rolling it out, that’s not the fault of the software,” he said.
The problems caused by the lack of centralized control over IT management will be tackled in tandem with the move to Windows, as part of a restructuring of Munich’s IT department that will take place at the same time.
Whatever the cause of the problems, a staff survey in 2015 found that flaky software caused intermittent, rather than persistent problems for employees, with 85 percent saying software problems interfered with their work at least once per month, and 55 percent blaming hardware problems. An interesting sidenote is that an earlier study found reports of problems were more common under the Windows system that LiMux replaced.
Feedback from individual departments was similarly mixed, with a handful of vocal critics of the use of open-source software, such as the city’s human resources department (POR), saying they had a particularly bad experience using LiMux. The department issued a statement saying that since 2006, when the POR started using LiMux and OpenOffice, later switching to LibreOffice, that “the efficiency and productivity of the POR-supported workplaces has decreased noticeably”—referencing crashes, display and printing errors.
The department also reported difficulties in getting aspects of the proprietary systems still used by the council—the likes of Oracle and SAP—to work with LiMux, citing incompatibilities with the council’s SAP security system, and errors in how PDFs were displayed by the open-source viewing software.
However, the council continued to work to resolve compatibility issues, and earlier this year the city’s IT chief said there was ‘no compelling technical reason to return to Windows’, pointing out the authority had “solved compatibility and interoperability problems” related to running software on LiMux.
A Munich source familiar with IT at the council said the technical problems with LiMux had been massively overstated by critics—saying there were well-established solutions for running incompatible applications.
“From our point of view, this talk is more or less nonsense. We are aware there are special applications made for Windows, but we can integrate them using WINE or the applications should run in a terminal server,” they said.
That said, Munich has always kept a minority of Windows machines to run line-of-business software incompatible with LiMux, and where using virtualization isn’t an option. In 2016 there were about 20,000 Linux-based PCs used by staff alongside about 4,163 Windows-based PCs. The numbers of both Windows and LiMux machines has risen since, with some LiMux critics claiming the proportion of Windows machines is now as high as 40%. Continuing to run two desktop OS systems side-by-side is unsustainable in the long run, the council now claims, despite the Windows and LiMux coexisting for many years at Munich.
However, another Munich city insider, also with knowledge of IT at the council, says the actual figure is far lower, standing at about 20%.
“We always had to run a certain number of Windows machines,” adding that some departments had decided to switch certain machines back to Windows of their own accord because of the limited central control. However, they said there was a hard limit on the number of Windows machines that could be centrally managed because Munich’s software distribution system can’t handle more than about 6,000 Windows machines.
Whatever the true figure, organizational problems within Munich’s IT departments do seem to exacerbated the problem of departments running a broad mix of different versions of LiMux and Windows—dating back to Windows XP and 2000.
“One of the city council members said they had 15 different operating systems and versions in use,” said the FSFE’s Kirschner.
The question as to why Munich is also poised to replace the open-source office suite LibreOffice with Microsoft Office is also difficult to answer, with the facts again muddied by claim and counterclaim.
Critics of LibreOffice claim its use has led to major problems for council staff, who are unable to easily share documents with other organizations that use Microsoft Office.
Politicians from Munich’s CSU party, a long-term opponent of the use of open-source software at the authority, have stated that the city has “huge difficulties” in communicating with others due to the use of LibreOffice.
However, one of the council insiders said any claim of significant problems are exaggerated, particularly since the council moved from OpenOffice to LibreOffice.
“The departments that had to communicate with external parties a lot had access to a terminal server version of Microsoft Office, so those external documents could be edited in Microsoft Office.
“There are some departments that had occasional conflicts with external sources but generally I think we solved all those that were a problem for us, so it wasn’t a huge number.”
The second Munich source estimated no more than 60, of the thousands of computer users at the council, have problems exchanging documents with external organizations—with problems generally limited to those who exchange annotated documents with third parties.
Still, the future use of LibreOffice remains uncertain, with the council voting to trial the use of Microsoft Office 2016 for 6,000 users, with a view to evaluating whether to roll out the Microsoft Office suite across the council—a move estimated to be hugely costly due to the need to convert more than 12,000 LibreOffice templates and macros.
The biggest shift since the LiMux project started in 2003 has been political, with the CSU party, which has long opposed the use of open-source software at the council, now in a ruling coaltion with the SPD. It was this coalition of CSU and SPD politicians that put forward the proposals to switch back to Windows 10 earlier this year.
One of the Munich insiders believes the turning point for the project was the departure in 2014 of mayor Christian Ude, a longstanding advocate for the LiMux project.
“That’s really missing, if you don’t have any political support, then you can’t argue on technical grounds anymore,” they said, with the second source calling the decision to return to Windows “purely political”.
Regardless the rights or wrongs of the decision, LiMux’s days are likely numbered, even if Munich changes it mind yet again in future—with the final release of LiMux due in 2019 and those working on the LiMux project now either leaving the council or preparing to move on in the near-future.
“The damage has already been done, people are leaving now,” said one of the sources.
“Even if the city council were to say it wanted to stay with LiMux for the next few years, the departments are mostly doing what they want, some departments have pledged to continue with LiMux, but others want to switch to Windows immediately, so there’s disorientation everywhere.
“[Also] if you have a Microsoft monoculture, it’s difficult to get away again,” they said, highlighting the numerous Microsoft-specific backend systems, such as Azure Active Directory Server and Identity Manager, which will also be put in place in tandem with the move to Windows 10.
Was Munich’s open-source experiment really a failure?
Despite Munich’s switchback to Windows, should the LiMux project really be seen as a failure?
There have been reports of problems with software since the migration to LiMux, yet a level of disatisfaction with IT is normal, and the extent of Munich’s organizational issues means pinning difficulties on open-source software seems presumptuous, combined with the fact past surveys have found only a minority of staff want to return to Windows and Office.
It may also be too early to judge the success, or otherwise, of the LiMux project, as it’s still unclear to what extent the move to Windows will improve user satisfaction at Munich.
Microsoft, which last year moved its German company headquarters to Munich, has long claimed the council would be able to move to a new version of Windows and Microsoft Office more rapidly than the multi-year LiMux migration, which finished in 2013. But even by the council’s estimates, the move to Windows and concurrent restructuring of the IT departments is likely to have a short-term negative impact on Munich’s employees, and the Munich source is also skeptical that Windows 10 will meet all the authority’s requirements by the time the migration is complete in 2023.
“There will be some software that will be running, but I think they’ll have to cut some requirements.”
The FSFE’s Kirschner agrees the move is unlikely to go smoothly, given the scale of the work Munich was undertaking.
“They should concentrate on correcting the organizational problems, doing that alone is a huge task. Why would they also want to engage in this technical change at the same time?”
Regardless of how the switch to Windows goes, Vignoli points out that some staff at the council have been running a Linux-based desktop, an open-source office suite, and other free software for more than 10 years.
For Vignoli, this decade of sustained use is proof the LiMux project isn’t a failure, and should instead be viewed as confirmation a large organization can be run using open-source software.
“I don’t think that after 12 years you can say it didn’t work for Munich. It worked for 12 years and now, for political reasons, it’s going back to Windows.
“During those years did you hear that Munich is paralysed because the IT system doesn’t work? No.
“For IT, 12 years is a geological era, I don’t think anyone could possibly say it hadn’t worked.”