Open Source vs Proprietary in UK Central Government Organisations

Published: | by Julian Knight Reading time ~4 min.
📖 Posts | 📎 Enterprise | 🔖 Design, government, integration, open data, open source, Planning, proprietary, software

NB: This article is incomplete - it was converted from a previous blog site. It is included as a draft.

Open source does not necessarily mean that open integration and open data is facilitated

The issue of open source vs proprietary applications for organisations related to the UK government comes up regularly. the UK’s Cabinet Office have issued clear guidance that open source is preferred and should always be considered when procuring new systems.

However, this actually leads to confusion with many people then assuming that choosing proprietary applications will lead to trouble.

The truth is rather more nuanced and it is worth thinking about. For me, the best approach is to deliver open data and open integration rather than focusing on open source per se.

The following notes have been extracted from some internal documentation I did for our organisation. That is why is focuses on Microsoft. I am not advocating a specific vendor nor am I prioritising proprietary over open source. I am simply recommending a balanced and holistic view to get the best possible deal for the public purse.


My view, and the view of quite a number of other people I’ve had the opportunity to talk to across government, is that the focus should be on open integration rather than necessarily open source. Using open source does not necessarily mean that open integration and open data is facilitated. Conversely, some proprietary vendors have made great strides in ensuring that systems can be integrated and data shared.

At present, Microsoft, Google and Amazon all seem to “get” the issues of open integration and open data to one degree or another.

Discussion in the open source debate tends to focus on license costs. OS is license free by definition; however, you will still pay for support. OS software is often also (much) harder to implement and support due to patchy documentation and many individuals contributing different code. Not always true of course but there is certainly a degree of truth in this.

In the case of something like the Microsoft platforms, the implementation and support costs of the core software (such as Office 365) have been driven down massively and the economies of scale we are bringing to bear through greater cross-government collaboration is improving that still further. At the same time, large license scales enable organisations to make use of additional funding that comes out of our EA agreements. This gives us access to additional planning, design and implementation services that all would have to be separately paid for with open source software. These all have a tendency to balance out the books.

User and administrative training is the final element and again, proprietary vendors tend to provide more and better quality training/documentation resources than open source (again, in general). Proprietary software also has a tendency to have better developed user interfaces requiring less training. This further balances the cost equation.

So while I fully support the need to evaluate OS vs proprietary software, we must do so holistically otherwise we will not get the expected benefits and there is plenty of evidence to support this view from the likes of Germany and Brazil both of whom have extensively switched to open source software.

The bottom line is that Microsoft are often currently viewed as the best strategic partner we can have in areas of desktop operating systems, general office applications and general cloud computing facilities. They have already made good progress in opening a lot of previously proprietary code and supporting open interface standards & they currently see the health sector as one of their primary growth areas. We have made good use of this while continuing to keep an eye out for changes in their policies that will happen inevitably. The key things are to ensure that we have strategies for exiting Microsoft platforms should we need to in the future and that we continue to evaluate the value of our investment. We don’t do this blindly though. As a specific example, the use of Microsoft Dynamics Online, their cloud CRM, is relatively expensive. It is a good platform where a full CRM is required but it is expensive when only limited CRM tools are needed and we recommend other tools in those cases.

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