Alternative Office Suite
by B. Victor Chakravarty, Enterprise Systems Architect
OIT is always exploring ways and means of meeting its customer commitments while reducing its operating costs. Two of the more significant IT operating costs consist of the desktop operating system and the office suite, both currently purchased from Microsoft. In August 2007, the CIO appointed a small committee to explore the feasibility of introducing open-source alternatives in these two areas. The reason the CIO chose these two areas is that any plausible saving has the potential to multiply across the entire fleet of thirteen-thousand desktops deployed through Maine State Government.
The exploratory committee was led by the Enterprise Infrastructure Architect. Its members included the Enterprise Systems Architect, the Enterprise Asset Manager, the Senior Database Analyst (GIS) from OIT-DEP, and a versatile programmer-analyst from OIT-DOT. Though not formally members of this committee, the Director of Client Technologies and the Associate CIO generously donated their times to this effort. The first challenge confronting the committee was to analyze the aborted migration to the Lotus office suite in the mid-Nineties and learn from that experience. The most obvious difference between then and now is, of course, better IT leadership. Maine State IT was decentralized and siloed in the mid-Nineties. All that changed in 2005 with the creation of OIT under the unified leadership of the CIO. Beyond IT leadership, the committee identified two overarching principles to be followed in order to avoid a repetition of the past. One: It will not be an all-or-nothing proposition but rather a matter of customer choice. Customers will be provided a lower-cost option and they will remain in-charge as to whether and when to exercise that option. Two: Complete and seamless interoperability between the choices will be paramount. There will never be such a thing as a document produced by one option not being amenable to be processed by the other option.
The committee decided to concentrate exclusively on the office suite for now because this is where it is the simplest to offer customer choice. The same desktop can be easily loaded with both the Microsoft and the open-source office suites. But rolling out two operating systems on the same desktop is not customer-friendly. The committee also conceded that for many users it may not be feasible to migrate out of Microsoft Office. Reasons include sunk investment in automated workflows (macros), tight relationships with external partners using Microsoft Office, and the sunk investment in Microsoft Software Assurance.
The committee delivered its report in December 2007. The choice, OpenOffice 2.x, may be offered as a universally-deployed alternative to Microsoft Office 2007, only on new OIT desktops/laptops. This product includes a word-processor, a spreadsheet, a small database, and a slide-builder, but not an email client. Irrespective of their choice of the office suite, all customers would still continue to use Microsoft Outlook as their email client. OpenOffice 2.x could be configured to seamlessly read and write Microsoft Office documents, thus ensuring complete interoperability. The projected saving from using OpenOffice 2.x in lieu of Microsoft Office is $5.66 per month, per desktop/laptop.
Stay tuned for further communication as OIT explores the feasibility of a controlled, focused pilot of an alternative office suite. We do not have all the answers yet, but please let us know your questions and concerns. In the future, OIT will continue to explore similar means of economization. Potential areas of investigation include improved enterprise licensing with Microsoft and others, and open-source alternatives for desktop operating system, server databases, server operating systems, etc. It goes without saying that at each such juncture, OIT will continue to uphold its customer commitments without any disruption of service.