Jack Kenny talks to Martin Williams of Powys Education Authority about the joys and savings of open source software system, Linux.
Margaret Thatcher was fond of telling people: "There is no alternative." She was wrong, of course. As with life, so with ICT: there is always an alternative. In this case, it's open source software, Linux, and some PC users are already using it as an alternative to Microsoft's Windows.
The distinctive feature of open source software is that the source code, the heart of a program, is available to anybody with programming skills for modification and expansion, and is freely available. Open source software has great appeal for many people. After all, it has the buzzwords: accessibility, freedom and co-operation.
Linux is an open-source operating system, and is becoming an alternative to Windows and DOS on the PC. It has evolved as users bend, wind and weave the code around. Why, ask the friends of Linux, should one corporation have an armlock on PC operating systems?
Developed by 29-year-old Linus Torvalds from Helsinki, Linux is estimated to have about 10 million users around the world. Sustainability worries many who are responsible for ICT and who have seen government funding yo-yo over the years. Martin Williams, co-ordinator of ICT support services with Powys Education Authority, worried that funds might dry up and that he might be committed long term to a managed service bill that he could not continue. So he looked around for other strategies and came up with Linux.
"The operating system is free, so we are not in hock to Microsoft for Windows NT mail accounts," he says. "A massive worldwide community is turning out software. You can post a technical query on the web and in an hour have a dozen replies. All that is for free. Contrast that with the service level agreements you might have with consultants. There is a kind of moral agenda, a commitment to helping each other in a non-commercial environment. There is an ethical strand because the open source community believes in the values that underpin this. It says: there is an alternative; you can go this way; you do not have to go that way."
Williams uses Linux in the background to underpin all the work that he is doing with Powys schools. The schools do not see it; they just see the lower costs and the efficiency. A great attraction to devotees is that the programs are leaner, thinner, and will run on lower spec machines. As the development of some of the programs is a joint effort by people across the Internet, the support is totally free.
"We are saving hundreds of pounds in each school. We can buy a low-spec PC, put all the open source software on and we have a completely functional email system, web host, Novell-emulated server in every primary school for pound;300. We couldn't contemplate that if we were using Windows NT5. We couldn't get near it (a Microsoft-equipped equivalent would have cost him around pound;1,000). I have no interest in the partisan operating systems war. I am partisan about education.
"We are not putting Linux on the classroom desktop computers - it is just on the box that hums in the corner (the server).
"Linux is a low level operating system and installation is not to be undertaken lightly. It would not have been possible to use it in Powys without very extensive technological knowledge on the part of our corporate IT people."
So there is an alternative, and Martin Williams is not alone. Many people are interested in what he has done. Computer manufacturer Dell has recently started to put the Linux operating system on some of its machines in addition to Windows. Many companies also see Linux as a way of competing without having to challenge Microsoft directly.
It is time to watch Linux, and the watchers include other LEA computer people and even government policy-makers. Right now, for us ordinary computer users, Linux is probably best avoided (set-up is not exactly user-friendly), but that is probably temporary advice. It will certainly add interest to the year ahead - for Microsoft in particular.
You can email Martin Williams on email@example.com