back to article It's official: No 10 mandates 'open systems' options for Sir Humphreys

Government IT projects must consider using open and interoperable software and data systems or face not receiving funding, under new Cabinet Office rules. The Cabinet Office said on Thursday that from now on, civil servants must consider open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats and they should …


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  1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Who's definition of open?

    Microsoft have a really inclusive definition of open that includes all their lock-in software and file formats.

    For that matter, what counts as 'considered'? How about "We considered using open source but were told that is was frightening, uncertain and doubtful".

    1. El Andy

      Re: Who's definition of open?

      The key Microsoft file formats, i.e. the Office document types, are all ISO standards. How much more "open" do you actually want them to be? The key points, that you could move to another application without losing the ability to read existing data and/or the ability to share information remains.

      There really is no actual benefit in the source code to applications being used being "open", regardless of what the FOSS community might want everyone to believe. Indeed if the ODT "file format" is anything to go by, it's a lot less open than Office, given that actually trying to implement it to the spec basically requires you to read the source code of an existing implementation and hope their implementation isn't buggy.

      Open and interchangeable file formats have pretty much been the norm for some time now and No 10 only just getting in on the message is a sad sign of how behind the times our government actually is.

      1. Christian Berger

        Open not only means "published standard"

        It also means that this standard is as simple as possible. And that's where office file formats fail.

        If you have your data in a spreadsheet, it is unnecessarily hard to get it out again in order to do some data processing with it. It's so hard in fact that starting the application and exporting it to CSV is often considered to be the easiest option.

        What we would need is a "grid-based" text editor, which displays structured files as a grid, but then places separators and escape sequences in the file when it is saved. That way we could get people off spreadsheets.

        Similar options could be available for letters. Why have a full blown "word processor / crappy layout"-hybrid when all you need is input fields for the address and the text? That way you could also archive outgoing mail a lot easier.

        Databases already go into that direction. If you make a dump of an SQL-database, you typically can get text, which you can read easily. They actually have an excuse for not storing it in a standard unixoid structured text file as their format is actually commands you can feed into the database server.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Open not only means "published standard"

          "It also means that this standard is as simple as possible."

          I've never seen that in a definition of open standards. Think you're adding stuff simply to vilify office apps there, to be honest. With regard to letters, people would still want layout options. You're just talking about a simpler word processor, not a replacement. Grid-based editor sounds great until you mention escape sequences. Why bother "getting off spreadsheets" when they that already? For free in some cases?

          1. Christian Berger

            Re: Open not only means "published standard"

            Well have you ever seen a typical table in a text file on Unix? There's one escape character, usually the \, and that's only used to escape the field or record separators. So if you choose those wisely, you won't even have to bother with it. In that case you could even use the tab character which is universally understood, but hardly ever used in fields.

          2. PyLETS

            Getting off spreadsheets

            Grid-based editor sounds great until you mention escape sequences. Why bother "getting off spreadsheets" when they that already?

            Because spreadsheets tend to assume a data model based on the concept of the data represented being inherently 2 dimensional and belonging to the individual sitting at the PC on which the spreadsheet program runs, rather than being inherently relational (or some other non 2D model) and belonging to the organisation the individual works for. I've encountered a few use cases where the spreadsheet model is entirely appropriate, but many more where it isn't and creates problems throughout the organisation which owns this data as a consequence.

            I'd suggest doing a bit of analysis on the purpose of the data, where it comes from and where it goes to in the next few spreadsheets you see, and figure out whether using a spreadsheet for this job is recasting the problem as a nail because this hammer is the only tool understood by whoever decided to do things this way when it started being done on a computer.

        2. Lusty

          Re: Open not only means "published standard"

          "What we would need is a "grid-based" text editor,"

          That's fine for "project managers" but what about people who use spread sheet functionality? Their only real option is Excel if they want a full featured spread sheet capable of massive numbers of rows/columns.

      2. NinjasFTW
        Thumb Down

        Re: Who's definition of open?

        "The key Microsoft file formats, i.e. the Office document types, are all ISO standards."

        ahh you would mean the ISO standards that were surrounded in controversy after it emerged that Microsoft rigged/bought off half of the voting members.

        Microsoft file formats may have ISO certification but they are certainly not open

      3. pPPPP

        Re: Who's definition of open?

        @El Andy. It's not just about open file formats. The government, and many organisations for that matter, are riddled with bespoke or customised software which they can't get rid of because it hosts critical applications. When support contracts come up for renewal, vendors know this, and charge astronomical sums for continued maintenance. They also charge similar sums for changes to the code or licensing. Those licences are often tied to a specific operating system or even specific hardware, so there are still many NT4 systems out there running on Pentium 2 hardware, for example.

        Then there are those situations where the original software vendor no longer exists. Try getting support.

        So while the ODT format, to use your example, may be badly implemented in certain software, the choice of software is what's key.

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Who's definition of open?

        The key Microsoft file formats, i.e. the Office document types, are all ISO standards.

        Let's disregard the underhand way that they got ratified as standards, and look at the formats themselves. They are so badly designed and inadequately described in that even MicroSoft don't fully support them. Great.

      5. vagabondo

        Re: Who's definition of open?

        The key Microsoft file formats, i.e. the Office document types, are all ISO standards.

        BUT, Microsoft f don't actually use those ISO standard file formats in their Office software do they?

      6. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Who's definition of open?

        Microsoft XML file formats are not currently the ISO formats. This is why they invented the oxymoron of 'normative variations' to explain the differences in their conformance statements. Presumably missing the 'non-' was a typo...

        Amusement for geeks here :

        That's also without considering application specific extensions and macros. MS might be implementing a strict compliance mode in 2013. Let us see whether that is the default.

        You do not need the source code to implement ODF - it is based on modular use of other well known standards so is significantly easier to implement from the standard - and is a much shorter and simpler standard as a result .

        Of course if you are suggesting that Microsoft included significant amounts of Open Source code in their adoption of the standard - in Word 2007 onwards if i recall correctly and ODF 1.2 is promised* in Office 2013 that may have some interesting implications. In fairness I don't believe they did touch the source code owing to the semantic issues that surfaced in the plugfests.


        Lets hope they correct the file association issues that they inexplicably seem to miss on application install.

    2. chrisf1

      Re: Who's definition of open?

      The UK government's in this case. As published in annex 2 of the Open Standards Principles

      Which is a rather good document. It is also quite clear on the distinction be open standards and open source. Open systems mean something different again ....(gaah flashback..) In this case the definition is for central government, software interoperability and excludes standards with essential royalty bearing patents.

      A quick read suggests anything over £5m has to go through spend approvals, anything below is the responsibility of the accounting office (normally the Perm Sec) who is responsible to Parliament and under threat of having the spend controls threshold reduced . Exceptions are by appeal to the Cabinet Office.

      Nice to see the Reg focusing on the key issues here ....

      a) its a very good and testable definition

      b) Really looks like Cabinet Office have thought through not only the policy but how to implement it .

      All in all that is something really different in an area that's been subject to policy after policy since 2002.

      Well done UK gov! I'm rather pleased about being able to say that!

  2. Amorous Cowherder

    Brilliant, I needed a good laugh!

    Hmmm all the politiicans with mates in IT supply companies? You let us know how that pans out with the old-boy network!

  3. vagabondo

    "must consider using"

    And after due consideration (10 seconds), it was decided that using open standards and open source software would be incompatible with maintaining good ongoing relationships with our existing systems suppliers ...

    1. Dave 8

      Re: "must consider using"

      urm.... after engaging Company X to conduct an exhaustive 18 month consultation and in-depth investigation into our ICT ecosystem, we have concluded that the current system is the most cost efficient implementation.

      In further news, Company X confirms a ten year extension the maintenance and support contract of it's cutting edge Windows 3.1 system in use by central government........

    2. Mike Flex

      Re: "must consider using"

      "And after due consideration (10 seconds), it was decided that using open standards and open source software would be incompatible with maintaining good ongoing relationships with our existing systems suppliers ..."

      Dear Vagabondo,

      After due consideration (10 seconds) it was decided that funding your project would be incompatible with Government policy.

      lots of love,

      HM Treasury

  4. Miek

    Catch 22 ...

    In order to procure technology or software, the Government must put out a tender.

    Those who can tender for the work must be Government approved suppliers.

    Those who are approved are typically Microsoft only houses.

  5. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Advanced Remote Mentoring .....for Alien Landscapes and Cyberspace Places

    So, IT is to be an ARMoured Cloud Operating System for Future Virtual Governance of Assets and Liabilities into the Supply of Profitable and Non-Profitable Services and Products ...... or is it not to be a government tool, but a precious and precociously protected, private sector project with proprietary programming and SMARTR protocols ....... Astute Active Autonomous Algorithms?

    Yes, that would work a right royal treat. Ok, El Reg/Gavin Clarke, so who is it again one pitches the outline program and just necessary need to know information to, for cloud operation funding? Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude or coalition government script writers or the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England or does Charles Windsor want to exercise the Right Royal Prerogative to make the Family profoundly proud and really surprise them with stunning skills they never even dreamt of his possessing, never mind energising for pioneering exploitation and Magical Mystery Turing Adventuring in ...... well, Sublime Enigmatic IntelAIgents Fields are those which Flower and Power Control in Heavenly Realms of Immaculate Reign and Fabulous Fabless Guidance. Certainly as Commander-in Chief of ARMed Forces and Defender of the Faith would it not be unusual to expect it to be so, or would that out the new fangled, quantum entangled, XMilitary Virtual Machine as prime contract supplier/IntelAIgent Service Provider?

    Does Charles read the Register regularly, to ponder on the virtual ease which IT Command and Control can deliver by proxy application with quite surreal execution, right royal duties? Or does the Household and HMGCC ensure that his nibs be so informed?

    And now, in Quantum Field, does one just wait for either action and/or reaction, which might be indicative of HyperRadioProActive IT in parallel systems whose combination would deliver unparalleled exponential lead position in a Novel Genre with Greater Intelligent Game Plays.

    1. Bakunin

      Re: Advanced Remote Mentoring .....for Alien Landscapes and Cyberspace Places

      Has someone been using a random sentence generator again?

      1. Dave 8

        Re: Advanced Remote Mentoring .....for Alien Landscapes and Cyberspace Places

        I have more chance understanding randomly generated sentence than amanfrommars.

        1. Miek

          Re: Advanced Remote Mentoring .....for Alien Landscapes and Cyberspace Places

          "Has someone been using a random sentence generator again?" -- It is not meant to be decipherable by mere Earthlings.

  6. David Pollard

    Edgar Villanueva Nuñez

    Cheers for Edgar Villanueva Nuñez, a.k.a. 'The Lawyer from Lima'. He successfully campaigned to mandate the government's use of open source software and open data in Peru a decade ago.

    His letter to Microsoft in 2002 explaining the rationale is a classic. Mandarins and other doubters would do well to read it.

  7. James 100

    Meanwhile in practice...

    ... a government agency just asked for help implementing a relational database - in Excel, "so they can maintain it themselves". Then they were surprised when emailing the 60Mb Excel file around didn't work...

    If the government had some people with clue, a simple web application with MySQL would do a better job in every way - but they have non-skilled people in the driving seat of projects like this. I did wonder if they'd insist on having the foundations for a new office building dug using screwdrivers rather than shovels, because the office staff aren't familiar with shovels or JCBs...

    1. Evan Essence

      Re: Meanwhile in practice...

      I suppose they imagine they're saving money by outsourcing the clue.

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