UK: Survey of Higher Education and FLOSS

OSS Watch
National Software Survey

Jane Alexen Shuyska
OSS Watch

In terms of procurement policy we see an everincreasing awareness of the possibility of using open source software. There has been another big increase in the number of institutions that include the consideration of open source in their procurement policies, both in Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) (figure 6). This will help creating a more level playing field for suppliers of open source software.
On the other hand, there is still a relatively large number of institutions that indicate they prefer closed source over open source (35% of FE and 15% of HE respondents, figure 5). We suspect this is based on a continued lack of understanding about open source that needs to be addressed.

when asked for the common reasons for rejecting open source software in procurement, most of the top criteria are not related to TCO. Issues that heavily influence TCO, such as migration costs, do not appear in the top 5.

One of the top five reasons provided was ‘interoperability and migration problems’. However, the effort of migration to open source is comparable to, if not less than the effort of migrating to another closed source solution. We therefore suggest that these respondents were likely to reject migrating to a new closed source solution for the same reason. Other reasons given are largely issues of education and supplier availability.

there has been an increase in the number of institutions who deploy open source software on their servers (the increase is significant at a confidence interval of 90%). Thus the total proportion of institutions using open source software to any extent has increased from 54% to 68% in the FE sector and from 77% to 82% in the HE sector. The proportion of institutions reporting to use all or almost all closed source software has correspondingly decreased from 46% to 33% for FE 23% to 16% for HE institutions.

Across both sectors Moodle has gained popularity (from 62% to 83% in FE and from 36% to 59% in HE)

Q25: Ratio of open and closed source software deployed on desktops Compared to the ratios of open and closed source software deployed on servers, discussed in Q11, the proportion of open source software on desktop computers in both FE and HE institutions is lower. The data from this survey is, however, showing a similar trend towards deployment of more open source software across both sectors.

Thus the total proportion of institutions using open source software to any extent has increased from 17% to 50% in the FE sector and from 38% to 59% in the HE sector. The proportion of institutions reporting to use all or almost all closed source software has correspondingly decreased from 83% to 50% for FE 62% to 41% for HE institutions.

Windows XP and Windows 7 are currently the most popular operating systems on desktop computers across the FE and HE sectors. The use of Mac operating systems has increased since 2008 and so has the use of Linux systems. Linux (Red Hat) is now used in 34% of HE institutions (13% in 2008), Linux (Ubuntu) is used in 16% of FE institutions (8% in 2008) and 31% of HE institutions (10% in 2008). Overall HE institutions are more likely to use open source operating systems on their desktop computers than are FE institutions.

The Mozilla Firefox browser is also very popular, especially in HE where it is being used by 85% of institutions. The use of Safari has increased since the 2008 survey in both the FE and the HE sectors (from 30% to 47% in FE and from 37% to 66% in HE institutions). Google Chrome was introduced since the last survey and has been taken up by a sizable proportion of institutions across FE and HE. The use of Matlab in HE has grown (from 17% to 42%). The popularity of OpenOffice has increased to a lesser extent from 30% to 37% in FE and from 23% to 34 % in HE institutions.

A large number of comments concern reasons for choosing closed source over open source solutions. A number of respondents state that closed source solutions suit their institutions because they perform adequately and furthermore carry education discounts, wherefore they are cost-efficient solutions. Conversely one respondent wrote about open source products not functioning adequately:

“Software procurement is (like anything else) subject to tendering processes – the University decides it needs something, asks suppliers for information (including licensing and support costs), invites tenders and chooses the best fitting products. There is no route through which Open Source software which is not provided and supported by a supplier can (nor arguably should) break into this competitive and evaluative process.”

“In FE colleges, IT teams are relatively small and we cannot rely too heavily on their own knowledge to support open source because of the danger of critical staff leaving for higher pay or other reasons. It is better to use proprietary software for which support can be purchased in an emergency.””

So, in spite of all the naysayers here, FLOSS is alive and well on the desktop and making significant gains over the last few years. FLOSS is used on the desktop in more than twice as many institutions since 2008. There are obstacles to adoption but performance is not one of them. When people get around to thinking objectively about FLOSS they will choose it. The largest reason for not choosing FLOSS? “It’s not what users want.” As if IT is a democracy in education or anywhere else. Institutions should choose software that fits the current and future needs of the institution. Budgets and performance should be far more important than what the users want. Users are largely not knowledgeable about choices and only know what they have used previously, not a basis of rational thought.

In the largest migration I attempted, expressions by staff that the GNU/Linux system and applications were not what users wanted were extremely rare. People were glad to have IT all over the place that worked well and they did not give a damn that it was “different”. I suspect this supposed push-back is mostly in the minds of IT staff or their bosses.

The survey shows clearly how far FLOSS has come and how far it has yet to go in adoption on desktop and server but there is no sign that wider adoption will not happen. It’s just a matter of how fast. As we see the rapid adoption of FLOSS on mobile gadgets, I expect that FLOSS will rapidly expand on desktops. The world clearly accepts FLOSS if some institutions do not.

About Robert Pogson

I am a retired teacher in Canada. I taught in the subject areas where I have worked for almost forty years: maths, physics, chemistry and computers. I love hunting, fishing, picking berries and mushrooms, too.
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8 Responses to UK: Survey of Higher Education and FLOSS

  1. The worst purchasing I ever saw at a university: the professional buyer thought he could get something cheaper and what he did delayed our project by weeks and the item had to be returned because it was not compatible. The dangerous purchasing agent is the one who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know… Some purchase order forms have a “do not substitute” check box and some don’t. Purchasing departments like to get several quotes so they can say the lowest one is the cheapest price. In the process it may not matter to Purchasing that what is obtained is what the techie/scientist/professional wants/needs.

    I was at one place where I was called to the phone and some bureaucrat told me they wanted to supply me four more computers. I told him that I had 8 already and the room was full. He asked for an e-mail outlining what I wanted in a PC. I outlined the basic machine that would be suitable and pointed him to a supplier who sold such machines for about $700, complete. He responded that they had to buy locally for about $1000. It was government policy. Unfortunately that was just before I discovered GNU/Linux so the machines came with that other OS and we stuck them in the library. That was 1999 so they may have been Lose ’98. Those were the last PCs I ever requested for a school with that other OS.

  2. Richard Chapman says:

    When it comes time to buy more fruit for the university cafeteria, a requisition of sorts must pass through the accounting office. The university accounting office basically controls all purchases.

    Now, if someone were to suggest the university could get its fruit for free from its own vast orchard located at the agricultural department, that would throw a monkey wrench into the whole procurement process.

    Colleges and universities are well prepared for purchasing what they need. Getting what they need for free bypasses those mechanisms. It only takes one Prima Donna in the procurement chain to bring everything to a screeching halt. I’ve worked in IT, both administrative and academic, at both kinds of institutions and it’s the politically connected Prima Donna that wins the day, not the geek who makes sure everything works and makes the PD look good.

  3. uhhh,
    We showed them 2X increase in speed of thick clients on the same hardware as XP side-by-side. We showed 3X increase in speed using those same clients as thin clients. That was before “7″ but after XP was deprecated. Teachers had seen Vista and were horrified by it.

    Speed/performance is not a matter of cost.

  4. Contrarian says:

    “Nonsense. While cost is a major reason for some migrations, the data show that there are many other reasons.”

    It seems to me that you make this statement and then follow it up with examples of where an open source solution is less expensive than alternatives. I don’t see where you stated any “other reason”.

    You describe a scene where a committee of teaches are interested in open source solutions and where you have strongly influenced their choice. Did the institution follow the committee’s selection with a budgetary decision? If so, then you won your case, but I still contend that the central issues are always cost/price and not open/closed source availability. If the solution is working, then it is acceptable. If not, it is not acceptable regardless of whether there is some belief that the user could fix it themself.

  5. Part of the survey deals with “giving back” in FLOSS. A number of institutions do that. For example, Moodle is widely used in education and institutions do tweak it to add/change some features. Also, it is often useful to examine the source when hunting for bugs. A software that is otherwise suitable for use that has one annoying bug is certainly worth a bit of time to look into. Larger institutions will likely have staff or students who can do this kind of thing. While also being educationally useful, FLOSS is inspiring for students, because they can get to work on something more important than a local assignment.

    Most educational institutions are staffed with folks not interested in details of IT but there are 5-10% of teachers who are interested and they will typically form a committee to draft a plan for IT and refer it to the whole staff from time to time for input/openness. The last committee I was involved with had 4 or 5 members in a staff of 30 teachers. I presented data and gave demonstrations on capabilities of FLOSS in the lab and no one on the committee objected. In fact, one asked, “Why have we not been using this before now?”. Particular details the committee examined were reports on the web of results of migrating to FLOSS, the curriculum, costs, and performance. We showed them 2X increase in speed of thick clients on the same hardware as XP side-by-side. We showed 3X increase in speed using those same clients as thin clients. That was before “7” but after XP was deprecated. Teachers had seen Vista and were horrified by it.

  6. Nonsense. While cost is a major reason for some migrations, the data show that there are many other reasons. Some school divisions migrated because they were expanding the use of IT and they could get double the number of seats for the same CAPEX with GNU/Linux. That happened at Easterville where the school wanted 153 seats and were quoted $1000 per seat for a solution with that other OS and it was $300 per seat with GNU/Linux and thin clients. The savings were put into peripheral devices. Another place tripled the number of seats by going to Solaris thin clients without having to increase staff. The on-going expense and maintenance is important, too, not just one round of upgrades. I know organizations that did migrate because of cost and were overjoyed to find GNU/Linux works better.

  7. Contrarian says:

    On further thought that I have is that all my previous post was in regard to making a decision. I don’t think that most institutions even get as far as making a decision. They have to come to some sort of crossroad where they perhaps cannot easily afford to continue their current solution or else they have pressing needs unmet by their current solution. Only then do they even enter into the decision making process.

    If a school or government agency is not pressed for money to renew their IT, they just continue with what they have, incrementally increasing, say, their installed base of Windows computers or using their Unix or Windows servers for yet another year.

  8. Contrarian says:

    It seems to me that this issue is being framed in the wrong way. My belief is that there is no real public issue of open source versus closed source at at all. There are software products that are open source and there are software products that are closed source. The consumer, even those who are skilled in IT, are not really concerned with who has access to the source.

    Their concern is just a matter of form, fit, and function of a software product to their needs relative to the price tag of the item. Most open source considered by large institutions, whether they are government agencies, schools, or commercial corporations is still the Linux operating system itself and the major projects such as MySQL, Open Office, Firefox, and more recently Chrome.

    When a decision is to be made, some internal champion of one solution or another makes an effort to convince the powers that be to form a consensus as to the correctness of the decision. Usually the person urging the change is unopposed but faces some degree of inertia brought about by having used some alternative solution over time. If an institution has thousands of Windows computers on the desktop, it will be hard to get a fair hearing in regard to changing to Ubuntu.

    There may be active opposition as well. If an institution has been a large and long-term customer of, say, Microsoft Office products and has purchased Exchange server software and client products, there is some distributor or direct Microsoft contact with the purchasing agency for the institution who will feed the opposition with as much information and help as necessary to block any decision to change. The corresponding help and information to foster the change is not as available for the FOSS side with its “community” model and general lack of promotional funds, so the FOSS champion is on his own.

    The core FOSS argument in regard to being able to examine the source and fix problems or add functionality to the FOSS product pretty much falls on deaf ears, I think. The institution is looking for a solution that they can use immediately and only see the cost factors as motivation to change. Telling them that they can some day go into the software business themselves is likely to scare them much more than convince them to buy in.

    FOSS as a concept is not a viable promotional item. FOSS has to be sold program by program to people who see it as a better solution than some other alternative. Firefox has had a lot of success in that regard and Chrome is too.

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