OSS Watch Survey 2010: Executive Summary

by OSS Watch on 5 April 2011


In late 2010 OSS Watch conducted their fourth bi-annual survey of Higher and Further Education IT directors’ attitudes towards, and adoption of, open source software.

Open source in procurement policies

In terms of procurement policy we see an ever-increasing 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). 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). We suspect this is based on a continued lack of understanding about open source that needs to be addressed.

The essential differences between open and closed source are its development and licensing model. There is no reason why an open source solution could not have a very strong backing of a commercial entity and open source suppliers are capable of providing their software with terms very similar to those of suppliers of closed source software. Suppliers such as Red Hat have demonstrated this over many years. It may be true that some suppliers of open source do not match up to the requirements of a procurement exercise in a major institution, but this holds just as true for closed source software suppliers. The suitability of open source solutions and suppliers needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis. Having a policy that prefers one model over another, by default, is not helpful in this respect.

Usage of open source software

With respect to the use of open source software in institutions, there is another reported increase, both on servers and on desktops. This was predicted by responses in the 2008 survey. For FE, the increase is a little less than predicted, whereas for HE, the increase is a little more than predicted.

For the first time we conducted a separate background survey. We asked a broader spectrum of staff at HE and FE institutions about open source software. Respondents were given the option of answering the questions for the whole institution or for their department only.

There were a few differences in the responses between the regular survey and the background survey. For example, when asked about policy relating to open and closed source software, there was a less pronounced preference for closed source software and a more pronounced preference for open source software. This was especially true at the departmental level.

Engagement with open source projects

One of the most striking results of the background survey was the responses to the question of whether they contributed to open source software.

A much higher proportion of the respondents indicated that they contribute to open source software compared to the main survey. This is also especially true on the departmental level. When IT directors are unaware of their staff’s contributions, they have no knowledge of or control over these IP assets generated in their institution. This disconnect needs to be addressed in order to ensure copyright is being correctly managed in these contributions.

While there are more contributions than directors know about, there are fewer policies that encourage and manage these contributions. The survey respondents indicate that engagement with open source is now mentioned in fewer job descriptions of IT staff than was the case in the previous survey in 2008. Most report that this should be done in the employee’s own time, which means it will not be done in most cases; there will just be local modifications.

This indicates a lack of policy towards managing open source engagement. How do we know the staff member is allowed to contribute to an open source project? Who owns the copyright in these cases? Is the staff member liable when there is a dispute? Lack of a managed contribution policy can expose institutions to legal risk.

On the other hand, respondents are expecting more deployments of open source software on their IT infrastructure. This makes it even more urgent that engagement with open source projects is addressed by the IT management. This needs to be done both in the job description of the IT staff as well as in the day-to-day management of their work.

For efficient and effective management of open source IT systems it is important that the staff involved with the running and maintenance of the software can engage with and contribute to the software project easily and that this is in fact encouraged to gain the most benefit out of the project.

Total Cost of Ownership calculations

Respondents indicate that several IT systems are due for replacement in close to 50% of institutions. Given the ongoing increase in institutional interest in and use of open source software alongside the significant open source emphasis of government policy on software procurement in the public sector it is crucial that the question of how to assess open source software in a procurement process is addressed.

The survey examined the criteria that respondents find most important when procuring software. The number one issue is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of solutions.

However, 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.


All in all, this survey supports the idea that open source software is still on the rise in the UK higher and Further education sector. A number of issues need to be addressed, such as providing a means to perform an accurate and consistent Total Cost of Ownership calculation for software, both open and closed source. The survey shows that there is now a real opportunity for open source suppliers to build offerings suitable for the sector. However, it also shows that institutions need to gain an understanding of how to evaluate open source products and suppliers and how to manage their engagement with those suppliers or with the projects themselves.

OSS Watch is continuing its work in these areas. We are developing a Software Sustainability Maturity Model and a process for evaluating the Total Cost of Ownership of procurement solutions. Developments like these will continue to help institutions assessing open source software and create a more level playing field.

The full survey report is available to download in PDF format.