Features: September 28th, 2012

With a large proportion of government ICT spending moving to public cloud services by 2015, open source (OS) software must be implemented in the public sector. OS is a lower cost and more flexible solution compared to proprietary systems but there is still a reluctance to procure OS due to its short track record in this sector.

Digital technology manager of British Council, Peter Edwards discusses the project to overhaul the British Council’s entire web structure, and how the organisation came to the decision to move to OS from a proprietary system.

Mike Carter, co-founder of Ixis, one of the companies selected to carry out work on the British Council project, talks about perceptions of OS and the huge benefits it holds for public sector organisations.

Published in March 2012, the Government ICT strategy said OS solutions should be considered alongside proprietary frameworks during digital procurement. By 2015, the Government hopes to procure 50% of ICT through cloud-based solutions, highlighting the need for organisations to get up to speed with a platform that’s relatively new to the public sector.

The Cabinet Office published an OS procurement toolkit to ensure there is a level playing field for OS and proprietary software and that some of the myths associated with OS are dispelled.

G-Cloud is another key component of the Government’s ICT strategy created to provide a fundamental change in the way the public sector procures and operates ICT. The aim is to drive down computing costs by encouraging more competition among suppliers and the delivery of such services in more cost-efficient ways.

British Council

The value of digital is becoming more apparent in the public sector and, with budgets increasingly tightened, a bigger emphasis is being placed on obtaining growth through this channel.

One such organisation that has embraced OS in the redevelopment of its web infrastructure is the British Council.

The British Council’s ambition is to maintain its global network for the UK, grow its commercial, contract and partnership work to deliver more cultural relations, create more international opportunities and build trust. The trust generated for the UK by the British Council’s activities has a value of £1.2 billion for the UK economy or more than £6 for every £1 invested by UK tax payers.

Peter Edwards, Digital Technology Manager for the British Council said: “We faced a number of challenges with putting the new infrastructure in place which will change the way we work as an organisation. There was definitely an education as we’re used to operating it in a certain way but once the benefits of OS were demonstrated to improve business on a number of levels, everyone immediately got on board.”

Move to OS

Open Source framework Drupal is becoming the CMS of choice for public sector and government websites as proprietary systems are rapidly seen as restrictive and costly when it comes to license fees, updates and development work.

The British Council selected Drupal to run its web project due to the flexible and extensible nature of the platform, meaning it can be developed and enhanced as requirements change and expand.

There is also a strong financial argument for Drupal as it does not attract annual recurring license fees. In addition, there is a vast community of Drupal developers continuously releasing, testing and improving code. The cost savings can be redistributed, adding value in other ways, according to Peter: “Historically, 50% of web spend would go on testing but that proportion of testing is not needed with Drupal, meaning you can spread your budget further and get more for your money.”

There is also a general concern about security when it comes open source with a lot of organisations asking the question of whether its more secure than proprietary systems. In an official statement from the Cabinet Office released in 2011, it addressed that all software has vulnerabilities and strengths and weaknesses in security characteristics, such as provenance, quality, support, and vulnerability management. The statement concluded that neither category is considered more or less secure than the other so therefore OS cannot be excluded for an options analysis for Government ICT.

In addition, Drupal OS software has a community of more than 630,000 users and developers meaning people are constantly working to make sure it’s not only a cutting-edge OS platform but also that any security issues and bugs are fixed.

Peter continued: “There’s increased security layers with OS due to the constant updates and improvements. With proprietary, we wouldn’t necessarily know about a bug or a fix with the system unless the supplier decided to release an update. Conversely, with OS, there are continuous fixing and security updates released on a weekly basis.”

Procuring the Right Supplier

In August 2011, Drupal open source specialist, Ixis was selected as a partner to carry out work on the British Council web project. As part of the project, Ixis manage the hosting and ongoing support contract for the British Council web infrastructure.

There were a number of factors the British Council had to take into account when choosing the right OS product and supplier for its web project. Co-founder of Ixis, Mike Carter comments on what needs to be considered in order to achieve confidence in OS: “Organisations need to make sure suppliers are selected that have a proven track record on similar projects. Look at their website to see if they offer client examples and don’t be afraid to make contact with those clients to see if the supplier comes recommended.

“There are a number of additional things to consider including whether a supplier is offering value for money on the contract i.e. will they provide the necessary support during and after the project. Most web projects require a long term commitment from a supplier making it vital that organisations choose the right one at the start.”


Implementing OS will pay off in the long term for public sector organisations but there are immediate short-term benefits too.

Since the new British Council corporate homepage was launched last month there has not been any downtime recorded, a departure from the old website platform which the organisation claimed they had received failure alerts ‘near daily’.

Peter said: “Not only have we seen 100% uptime from the new platform but it’s four times faster than the previous instance, which is so important for us.”

Mike comments: “The British Council is a great example of a large public sector organisation having a clear understanding of it’s website objectives. With a number of public sector organisations we need to explain what open source is and the benefits it can bring. The British Council web team took time to get to know open source in order to establish the right platform for them.

“OS isn’t just a cheaper software alternative. It’s software that’s been developed to offer the ultimate flexibility to allow organisations to get the most from their site. With procurement aids from the Government, as well as added support from private organisations such as Ixis, it’s now easier than ever to procure OS.”

For further information on Ixis and it’s Simple Guide to Drupal Open Source as well as details on the British Council web project please visit Ixis.

For further reading on open source and the Government visit the Cabinet Office.