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Inexplicable benefits

by Luis de Sousa Mon Dec 5th, 2011 at 03:49:01 PM EST

On the 23th of November the French government announced a 2 million € procurement programme for technical support on its growing open source software infrastructure, today encompassing dozens of thousands of computers spread by ministries, courts, security forces and other central administration services. Days later at the Portuguese Parliament the communist party (PCP) put up for voting a proposal to prevent the acquisition of any new commercial software license, for which an open source or free distributable alternative exists. According to estimates by the communist parliamentary group, this proposal would translate into savings of some 70 million € in 2012 alone, subtracting to the 100 million € assigned in the state budget for the purpose. The proposal was rejected with the votes against from the government coalition of liberals (PSD) and conservatives (CDS); the socialist party (PS) abstained. The arguments vented by the media for this rejection where three: difficult transition for users and platforms, technical support costs and security. It is worth reflecting somewhat on each of these arguments.

The transition would be difficult if the proposal contemplated the substitution of existing software by alternatives, but such isn't the case, only the acquisition of new licenses is concerned. Defeated the argument, it is important to note that the adoption of software invariably requires some sort of adaptation, be it on interoperability grounds or on user training. Nevertheless this adaptation always exists, regardless of the nature of the software, open source or commercial. Just as buying a washing machine requires its plugging to the plumbing and a read of the instruction booklet before use.

Regarding support costs the situation is similar, the adoption of any computer software should always go through three phases that imply costs, not with technology, but with knowledge. In first place comes the requirements analysis phase, along which the needs of the adopting institution are identified in detail and specific functionalities may be developed. On a second phase comes user training when the software is also evaluated in face of a context close to reality. And lastly comes the famous support phase, during which technicians follow the daily usage of the product, answering needs not anticipated earlier or adapting the product to new requirements. All of it is part of the regular software development process, once again be it open or closed source.

But this costs argument is the first indication that there's something definitely wrong in the way Portuguese parliament members relate to computer technology. Regardless of numbers, there is a fundamental difference between money paid to multinational companies for product licensing, that rapidly flows abroad, and the money spent on local IT companies, which sooner or later returns back to the state budget through taxes and savings products. This is the main motivation that has lead most of the other European states to support open source software, one way or another introducing this technology in their economies. It is hard to believe that the majority of parliament members in Portugal do not understand this difference.

The security argument has made of the Portuguese Parliament a preferential jesting target in the computing world. The emergence of open source software has been in great measure prompted by the increased security it represents, for a simple reason: it is completely transparent to the user the sort of operations the program executes on information. With closed source software how can the user guarantee that his/her data are not seized, altered or otherwise illicitly used? In computing fora it is frequently questioned if a state can possibly guarantee its sovereignty and independence if its security and military forces operate with technologies based on closed software fabricated abroad. On this subject it also worthy to point the success that the open source operating system Linux has had in the domain of network and server security. The equipment you have installed in your home to access the internet has a probability of 90% to be running with Linux; your favourite search engine, your favourite video website or you blog have equal chance of being supported by Linux systems.

Certainly 70 million € wouldn't have a decisive impact on the budget deficit, which goes in the order of thousands of millions of €. But what does a public worker, that lost 25% of her/his salary in just 2 years, feels when millions of € continue to flow every year to large foreign companies? Unfortunately, this sort of inexplicable benefits that both central and local administrations concede to certain companies is not something new for the Portuguese. These are perhaps the visible symptoms of something much more deep, to which is linked a gigantic parallel economy that slowly consumes the state resources and widens inequality. In the financing agreement celebrated between the Portuguese state and the triumvirate IMF-ECB-EC there is no reference to the usage of open source software, nor would it be expectable for such document to go into such details, but neither there is any direct incentive to fight the sort of non-transparent practices here discussed. This is one of the reasons why it will be so difficult for the austerity recipe to work in Portugal.          

I fumed and railed when the Los Angeles Unified School District declared they would standardize on Microsoft software. That meant I had to start using Word instead of Word Perfect, among other changes. I wondered how it was that this came to be.

I was educated on this general subject by a lady who was the Cisco rep. Under the supervision of the District's Specifying Electrical Engineer, who was responsible for preparing specifications for all projects put to public bid, I had prepared specifications for LAN switches using a modestly priced line of switches and was at the office of one of the commissioned engineers for a project meeting regarding one of the bids.

I was introduced to a sales rep for Cisco, call her Cisco Sue, who informed me that the District was standardizing on Cisco. News to me. When I told her that I had prepared specifications according to the directions of the District she responded that she would go and sit on the desk of Dave, the head of the Business Services Division, of which Architecture and Engineering was now a part, until she got what she wanted.

The next development was when LAUSD's Information Technology Division sent a representative over to Architecture and Engineering with a new spec that they had prepared. It called for a higher end switch from Xylan, now Alcatel. After meeting with other district personnel who had hands on experience with the District's Wide Area Network, A & E decided to adopt the ITD spec and I cleaned it up a bit.

A war ensued with LAUSD officials who only knew what Cisco told them against ITD and A&E. Eventually I was directed not to express any opinion as to the proper switch to use and Xylan sued the District to get the right to sell the specified switch on District projects.

Years later I was describing this fiasco and complaining also about Microsoft to a group of architects who shared an office with an engineering client. One of these architects laughed and told me that his housemate had been the Microsoft account executive who had gotten MS established as the sole productivity software used in the District. I have still to find out whose desk he sat on or how much, if any, money changed hands.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Dec 5th, 2011 at 05:18:21 PM EST
In other words, the "inexplicable benefits" may well be in the form of unacknowledged "considerations" to party leaders and key personnel.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Dec 5th, 2011 at 05:33:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Corporations work on similar principles but my experience is that public acquisition is where you find more of an open hostility to expertise.
by rootless2 on Sun Dec 11th, 2011 at 09:33:12 PM EST
[ Parent ]
...I was involved in software and hardware procurement in Portugal (mostly public sector).

It would be easy to say that the system saddled with corruption. I could write countless stories. Interestingly most corruption is not at the higher levels, but at the middle and low levels: the consultant that can only influence but clearly has an hidden agenda. The secretary that is responsible to send out request for budgets for material which sends it in a way that only a certain one can respond, and so forth... Mostly impossible to prove, of course. And even if it was possible to prove, the justice system would takes many years, anyway.

It was impressive how many deals would pan out as the worse possible for the purchasing institution. Indeed, I left IT in Portugal mostly because I could not stand this anymore. Probably the most important (and best) decision in my life (going to science).

That being said there is also this firm belief that free software is no good. And it makes sense: for people that never give anything, for people that have little pride and professionalism in their work it is difficult to envision a world where giving and ethics can work.

Furthermore some people are dumb: they fail to see that business models can be developed around giving away the product and selling services. Indeed they are uber dumb: most closed source companies make much money from the services that they sell later (thus, this is even a model used by closed source - just ask Oracle...).

Yes, there is corruption. But do not forget stupidity.

by cagatacos on Tue Dec 6th, 2011 at 07:46:08 AM EST
Corruption and stupidity go together well. Sprinkle them into an hierarchy of ability and integrity and you can quickly get institutional incompetence -- where an organization composed largely of able and well intended individuals is non-the-less incapable of properly performing its intended function.

In the case of LAUSD careerism was a relatively benign factor that had malignant consequences. In LAUSD someone with a principal's certificate and at least one successful appointment as an assistant principal, provided they avoided scandal and outright criminality - for the most part - was impossible to dismiss. This was a consequence of the existence of the Principals' Union, which existed to prevent arbitrary treatment of its members. This led to the unofficial dogma that a principal's certificate was a qualification for any position in the administrative hierarchy, including Architecture and Engineering.

Combine careerism with personal loyalty - principals and loyal assistant principals often rose together, as loyalty was personal. It was not unusual to see very interesting situations, such as a ham radio enthusiast and former electronics shop teacher first becoming head of the Information Technology Division and then, despite have no construction experience beyond remodeling one of his own bathrooms, being put in charge of the construction of a new high school located over an old oil field just north of downtown LA.

Another example was a lady physical education instructor with a principal's certificate being appointed to be head of Architecture and Engineering. I could see how skills in getting teenage girls to do things they did not want to do could be turned to getting architects and engineers to do things they did not want to do, except that some of those things involved their judgements as licensed professional engineers and architects and often were a very bad idea.  

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Tue Dec 6th, 2011 at 12:02:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm pretty much on the same page. I just emigrated to a different place... I prefer not to use such concluding wording, but essentially that's more or less where I want to get.

I'd just add that "stupidity" - lack of vision, pure ignorance - mostly plagues the top branches of the hierarchy, making it easier (and cheaper) for the multinationals to corrupt middle tier technicians. A famous IT professor openly states to his audiences that institution leaders in Portugal are the least knowledgeable on the matter in Europe. It is very easy to convince someone that the most expensive product is the absolute best, something also common to the third world.

How institutions came to be leaded by such people is another question, and a deep one.


by Luis de Sousa (luis[dot]de[dot]sousa[at]protonmail[dot]ch) on Tue Dec 6th, 2011 at 04:40:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If advancement to a certain level requires an ability to work without being encumbered by an instinct of workmanship, then advancement to that level is strongly biased against those with the capacity to recognize what a high level of workmanship in that field entails.

And one way that advancement to a certain level may require an ability to work without being encumbered by an instinct of workmanship is if one must enthusiastically and loyally carry out the agenda of a higher up who is similarly unencumbered ... so it is to a certain degree a self-perpetuating system.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Dec 7th, 2011 at 11:44:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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