Saturday, September 06, 2008

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.
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