Migrating to software libre … not just platform related problems

As some of you know, I’m working on a migration project to software libre of some municipalities close to Málaga. Meanwhile, we have been contracted as part of a group of companies that are migrating the economic department of the Extremadura Regional Goverment. So since March 2008, migration is a familiar word to me. There are some things that are common to many Public Administrations in Spain that has to be taken in consideration at the very beginning so the picture you will have to face can be understood.

Since Microsoft architecture has limitation in controlling the enviromet, and it is so expensive to do so, each technician, each user, has customiced his/her enviroment (department, server, desktop, network…) so much that migrating to any plattform (or even updating) can become a nightmare. The enviroment is heterogeneous.

Regional and local Public Administrations has grown so much in Spain the last 15 years that it has been imposible for most of them to stablish a general and strict politic related with technology and digital services.

Another key factor is that, until citizens has began to demand digital services, technical departments were underdimensioned and overcharged with low level job, due to that lack of that general politic and the way Windows is designed. Old school politics know everything about building houses (the major bussiness in Spain) but nothing about technology. That demand, plus a new generation of politics, are beginning to change this situation.

To migrate, a lot of data that is supposed to be known is not, so you have to collect it.

With this enviroment…linux has risen as an alternative of how things have been done in the past. It brings many advantages to solve some of the problems we have suffered, but not all of them. In fact, the deppest problems are not platform related. Let’s talk about some of those (personal and general ones).

Migrating to linux means an enormous effort for a Public Administration. It has to be well done, by professionals. Big amounts of money and time are needed so usually politics decide to, also, add new services and new procedures. Migrating is not enough. A deep change is needed. So you end up not just migrating to linux, but improving the hold system, adding new services, new apps, new network topology, new methods, etc. The original migration project grows and grows adding pressure and stressing resources. Letting you go is a natural feeling when you believe in software libre and demand a change, but is a wrong way of approaching such a project. Migrating and improving are different concepts. Sometimes you need to take one step to one side (or even back) to be able to take many steps forward in the future.

I’m afraid many of the people I’m involved here in the south of Spain are putting into linux so much illusion that, when reality faces up, they will be a little dissapointed with the result. It is hard to reach 100% of the objetives. Without noticing it, I have ended up telling people to move slow, to be careful with the expectations, to make firm steps instead of running, to improve quality instead of quantity. Working in pioneer projects involve a lot of risk, so you usually need to be intrepid. But when people around has so many expectations, believing so much in what we are doing, in what free software can do for the people, this attitude has to turn into prudence. This is not usually well accepted. People begin to question if you really believe or you have doubts. For them, it is not a question of methodology or resources but a question of faith. So you have to stay strong to stay away of that big wave of illusion and keeping everybody on the ground. It is as risky as it can be an eviroment where no one around believes in software libre. I am used to this second one. I’m a newbie in facing the first one. So I’m learning a lot.

We have developed a new methodology and some simple tools to collect the data we need in order to define with accuracy the migration project. Since Public Administrations have hundreds of computer, not much information from other projects can be used. Scalability is a tough concept. Working in mEDUXa, the linux edu distro from the Canary Islands, have helped me a lot. Still there are many big differences. Schools are not regular Administrations, of course.

We are making a deep inventory of machines and apps installed and interviewing each and every public worker in its own desk, so they show us how they use the computer, share the information and interact with other workers, for example. I’m been doing many of those and it is beeing really interesting. Many conclusions are showing up that weren’t expected. It is taken a lot of effort but it is totally worth it. It has been a money well invested.

After collecting all the the data, a good analysist has to be done (it is being done). Then, the real migration project begins. Technical solutions are well known. Most of them are well tested and have success stories behind them. We are not going to invent anything new in this area, I think by now. The risk is doing the migration smooth and softly, not stopping the services and making everybody feel confortable with the solutions. All this with limited resources and time.

For the Public Administrations involved, the analysis of the migration project will be the first time they think about the technology they use and the procedures the follow in a general approach, without names and surnames of any particular solution (take this as a wish). For many of them it will be the very first time they will be able to take key decisions related with technology. That is why it is important to give them all the information we can. They have to take their own decisions and they are not used to do this in technology. They usually just buy products (so decisions).

This is something some don’t follow. I believe that trying to convince people to use this or that because you say it, because you are the “expert”, is wrong. That’s what have happened before (with propietary software) and the reason why many customers are so suspicious about software libre. In Public Administrations this is the root of many of the reactions against it (in politicians and, specially, in public workers). It is not that they don’t trust the technical solutions we offer, they simply do not trust us. Our messege has a 100% commercial motivation form them.

After 6 monthes working here one clear conclusion has risen. Migrating Public administrations to GNU/Linux is way more difficult and more expensive than many people expected, but is possible. Much more than that…it is needed.

A wish …

After I finish my job here it would be great to travel to other countries to get involved in Migration Projects to keep learning about different enviroment, facing new challenges, working with new and different people. Big deployments and migrations are a very interesting area to get involved. I’ve been working on it since 2005 and I feel I know nothing about it yet. Also, helping to spread GNU/Linux (software libre in general) makes me feel good. I like my job and I know I’m lucky.

4 thoughts on “Migrating to software libre … not just platform related problems

  1. Thanks for your opinions. An update system, through packages, is essential for our purposes, of course. It is something new for people comming from propietary software so they usually don’t think about it when they are planning the migration.Hopefully we will have a Best Practice report by the end of October written in spanish. Hopefully we will be able to translate ita few weeks later so we can disscuss it before our migration.Jos, next Akademy I will be so busy with the organization that I guess I won’t have time to show anything 🙂


  2. It is very nice to read the your experiences in migrating big institutions to Free Software, Agustín. I can believe that it is hard to keep expectations realistic. Migrating user desktops is a lot harder than a server farm. People can have many little programs they have grown accustomed to. Even when these programs are not needed anymore on a new system, people still feel that they are missing something.It is important to have a few key people up in the hierarchy show that they are confident in the migration and to educate people on what the new system will be like. You are right that you should keep improvements and migration separate. If you can eliminate a few inefficiencies it is a nice bonus nevertheless. Try to make the new systems as simple and uniform as possible and allow different institutions to modify local installations via packages. This will give them a clean way of working and will also allow them to share improvements with other institutes easily.Moving people to Free Software systems is also a lot about education. If you have a good written set of best practices you can have people help each other to learn the advantages of the new system. Someone like you who is very familiar with the system should be on the lookout to find problems people have and help point them in the right direction when they have problems. The great thing about Free Software is that you can always understand what the problem is and how to solve it. But make sure to not solve the problems yourself: teach the people how to find the solutions themselves. With Free Software there are no artificial limits to the things you can do.Good luck with all your migrations and I’m looking forward to hearing on the results next Akademy.


  3. I don’t think migration is a good idea.Even superior scientific theories are not immediately accepted by the scientific community. The proponents of inferior theories simply die of old age, eventually.Therefore, I believe that you can eliminate the cost of migration by 1. establishing a FOSS for new departments2. cutting off all funding for old departments


  4. I truly hope you succeed in migrating to FOSS. I know sometimes there may be political as well as technical problems, but it’ll be worth it in the long while.Information wants to be free! I agree with you on not being a shadowy “expert” but giving everyone the information they need to make an educated decision.


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