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SA Government's OSS plans revealed

By   |  August 23, 2007

Doctor Daniel Mashao, the chief technology officer at Sita (the South African State Information Technology Agency), announced the launch of the government-wide free and open source programme at the GovTech conference on Thursday.

While many welcomed the February announcement of government’s intention to adopt and promote open source software, the subsequent months saw disillusionment within the open source community that very little had actually happened. Mashao addressed these worries, describing what had been happening behind the scenes and showing a systematic timetable of how this process will indeed be implemented.

He outlined the government’s policy, which came into being with government’s February 22 announcement. The five key points are:

  • Choose FOSS
  • Migrate to FOSS
  • Develop in FOSS
  • Use FOSS/open content licensing
  • Promote FOSS in South Africa

"That is a very strong statement," he said, expressing his confidence in the policy. However he also quoted the minister of public services, Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, saying that the implementation would not be a "big bang", but rather a gradual process.

"I feel I am very fortunate, I was not there when people were fighting about it," he said, referring to the long process of decision making over open source’s adoption that began in 2000. "I don’t have to say we must use open source. The government policy now says that we are migrating… I don’t see any reason that we won’t," he added.

Under the policy, when introducing new software, the SA government will implement open source solutions unless a proprietary option is demonstrated to be "significantly superior". In any instances where proprietary software is implemented, reasons must be given to justify its use.

Migration of current systems is also planned. This will be done in a phased approach, beginning with applications such as replacing MS Office with Open Office or KOffice and replacing Internet Explorer with Firefox. This will in time lead up to the operating system, replacing Windows with a Linux distribution. Migration to Apache for the running of government websites has already occurred within a number of departments.

Mashao said that the Sita CEO’s office was already running open source applications. "We at Sita have already tested the main government systems on open source… what it means is that we do not have to go and do any new work," he revealed.

All new software developed for or by the government is to be based on open standards and licensed under an open source licence where possible

He outlined the plans of the FOSS Programme Office (FPO), which is to begin operating in September, and the current status of open source implementation. The FPO will be established on September 3, when Arno Webb, formerly the chief information officer of the department of arts and culture, begins in his position as programme manager.

The role of the FPO will be to coordinate all FOSS work in government, create FOSS skills, ensure that government procurement is FOSS compliant and to partner all migrations of government departments. The first of these departments to migrate will be Sita itself, where the CEO has already been using a number of open source programs.

This year’s target is to migrate two agencies, starting with Sita within the next three months. The other department, although not confirmed, is likely to be that of science and technology, where Mashao said there has already been a pilot migration. For 2008, a further four departments will be migrated, then 15 in 2009 and 50 in 2010.

Talking on the challenges faced, he said that the CSIR had made progressive steps but that it was halted due to problems with the document management system. "If you are secretary in a normal office, migration is very easy, you don’t even see anything, you use open office evolution and firefox," he said, adding that it was backend issues such as the conversion of the document managemet system that presented more of a challenge.

In order to help facilitate these plans, eight tender companies have already been appointed to supply open source solutions. These are Choice Technologies, Impi Linux, GijimaAST, Obsidian, SourceCom, BCX, Novell and IBM.

Sita is currently in the process of training 30 students with computer science diplomas to become LPI certified.As Mashao explained, there is a chicken and egg challenge in that in order for OSS to be adopted, the necessary support skills have to be available, but until there is the demand for skills, they will not be developed. This first wave of students will address this problem.

For next year it is planned to train a further 100 students and 1000 the following year. While training of 10 000 is planned for 2010, Mashao expects that by this point there will be sufficient demand that the private sector will have caught up and these skills will be fairly commonplace.


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