Fabio Manganiello

The German way to free software

German administrations love open-source, but some initiatives could benefit from a more pragmatic approach.

Published by Fabio Manganiello on Apr 08, 2024

Big kudos to the German state of Schleswig-Holstein!

Another German administration is breaking Microsoft's glass cage, and at a first read the scope of this initiative seems more ambitious than many I've witnessed in the past.

Both the ArsTechnica article and the original announcement don't include a few details to make better estimate on the possible success of this initiative though.

The announcement follows previously established plans to migrate the state government off Microsoft Office in favor of open source LibreOffice.

I hope that there's a Web-based offering somewhere on the horizon. Fewer and fewer employees nowadays run Word/Excel directly on their machines. Most of them run Google Docs or use Microsoft's office cloud. Giving them a stand-alone app which limits the possibilities for online collaboration may be met with resistance, especially now that many of them are already getting used to online AI assistants. I read that #NextCloud is involved - I hope there's a plan to run #CollaboraOffice, which is more or less like running the LibreOffice engine as a service, #OnlyOffice or some equivalent alternative.

Due to the high hardware requirements of Windows 11, we would have a problem with older computers. With Linux we don't have that

Very sensitive decision that will probably save taxpayers a lot of money. But it'd also be interested to know which #Linux distro has been selected. Hopefully the administration won't repeat Munich's past mistakes and it won't try to build and maintain their own distro. Better get into talks with a popular distro (probably not Red Hat, but hey isn't SuSE German?) and orchestrate a deal where the State funds its development, and in exchange it gets development support. It's a win-win where a distro not managed by a giant like Red Hat or Canonical can get consistent direct funding from a public administration (that's what many of us have been advocating for years anyway), and the local administration can enjoy the support of a well-documented distro like OpenSuSE, Mint, Pop_OS or Manjaro without having to reinvent the wheel and scramble for their own developers/packagers/maintainers, and minimizing the risk of going from one vendor lock-in (Microsoft) to another (IBM or Canonical).

The government will ditch Microsoft Sharepoint and Exchange/Outlook in favor of open source offerings Nextcloud and Open-Xchange, and Mozilla Thunderbird

Same issue as with LibreOffice: folks today are used to webmail and mobile apps. Thunderbird definitely fills the gap on the stand-alone side, especially now that it's getting more love and support than before. But it still lacks an official mobile app - K-9 is almost there, but not nearly there yet. And it doesn't solve the "I'm used to the GMail/Outlook interface and set all of my filters and do my advanced search from a webview" problem. There's actually a big gap there. What's a decent open webmail UI that can compete with GMail/Outlook nowadays? RoundCube feels ancient and it has barely changed in 15 years. SnappyMail is a bit better, and it's what a use as a selected webmail client too, but it's still lightyears behind GMail/Outlook. NextCloud Mail is slowly getting there, but it only integrates with a NextCloud solution. Let's admit that there's a gap that needs to be filled fast if we don't want employees who have years of email muscle memory trained in specific environments to doom the project.

Schleswig-Holstein is also developing an open source directory service to replace Microsoft's Active Directory and an open source telephony offering.

Please, don't. Just don't. A local administration, no matter how well-intentioned and initially well-funded, just won't have the resources necessary to invent such big wheels. And, even if it somehow manages to bake something together, it'll eventually be a patchy solution that they'll have to maintain themselves for years to come, and that is unlikely to find adoption outside of its initial borders.

Invest into #OpenLDAP to fill the gaps left by ActiveDirectory on the LDAP side instead. That project needs a lot more love. And leverage WebDAV for almost everything else. If you are already planning to use NextCloud, it'll already do a lot of the heavylifting for you on that side, without having to write new software or come up with new protocols.

Same for telephony. Looking into iPXE and other open implementations of the PXE and SIP protocols. Telephony protocols are hard and well-established, reinventing the wheel should be avoided at all costs.

I think there's a lot of potential in initiatives like these, but only a clear definition of their scope and a clear plan of execution with continuous user feedback can help preventing something like the failure of the early Munich experiments.

RE: https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2024/04/german-state-gov-ditching-windows-for-linux-30k-workers-migrating/