Russel Winder's Website

On Hardware and Software Procurement

Yesterday I read the article by Gijs Hillenius gvt-must-stop-breaking-procurement-rules-and-move-to-open-source and it got me thinking about the situation in the UK. Effectively the question is: is it appropriate for desktop and laptop products to be procured as hardware/software combinations or should the hardware and software be procured separately?

In the early days of computers (*) computers came with operating systems provided by the hardware manufacturer. End users purchased a bundle of hardware and software from a single manufacturer, with different manufacturers offering different products in terms of operating system as well as hardware. Procurement consisted of requiring the manufacturers to tender their bundle, and for the purchaser to make a choice of the best bundle for them. Software as well as hardware was a variable in this process.

Then we entered the Unix era, hardware and software, especially operating system, started to have much more separated existences. End users could choose from the old hardware/software bundles available or they could choose to run Unix and buy hardware to run it on. This widened end user choice and so added more parameters to the procurement process. Software and hardware were still factors in procurement. Of course, manufacturers didn't like the commoditization of hardware that the existence of a portable operating system provided and caused Unix to be splintered into many versions and hastened a return to hardware specific operating systems, and a return to the purchase of a hardware and associated software as a bundle. Despite this end users still had software as a factor, software as well as hardware was a factor in procurement.

With the rise of the personal computer a new opportunity for separating hardware and software arose. The operating system in this case was Windows. Windows rose as an operating system that was portable across many personal computers, it commoditized hardware. However, procurement did not gain any new parameters. Quite the opposite. Due to the amazing contracts signed by the Gates' on behalf of Microsoft, all personal computer manufacturers only offered Windows as the operating system. Worse hardware manufacturers seems to have capitulated on the commoditization of hardware rather than fight it as they did with Unix, and just tow the line and supply Windows bundled. Procurement was of a hardware/software bundle but it was always the same software no matter what the hardware. End user choice has been eradicated.

What is arguably wrong here is that after 20 years, procurers are no longer sensitive that software used to be a variable. They have been fooled by the personal computer hardware/software bundling into the mind set that hardware is the only variable, that getting Windows is a fixed thing. There has thus been no challenge to the procurement process being referred to in Hillenius' article.

The real issue for procurers now is longevity of workflows and access to data. Hardware and operating system are essentially irrelevant. It is all about people being able to read and amend documents over periods of years -- where I use document to mean any file of data, not just letters, papers, blurb, etc. One solution is to continue with the model of "Windows as the only platform to consider". Another solution is to ensure documents are stored in a format for which there is an international standard. Standard formats admit multiple suppliers and hence a market. Competition is supposed to be a cornerstone of business in EU and USA (but perhaps not across the whole world). Currently there are multiple different applications for manipulating documents, we do have some competition. However the procurement processes appear not to have accepted that there are multiple suppliers of products for creating and amending documents.

So despite having separated hardware and software by having a portable operating system, procurement people continue to purchase combined hardware with Windows as software bundles. Now that Linux has created a viable alternative to Windows as a portable operating system on workstations, there is choice. However, this choice is not present in most procurements that are undertaken. Why aren't tenderers allowed to offer hardware/Linux as an option compared to hardware/Windows. Corporate culture seems to have bought in totally to Microsoft's desire: Windows is the only operating system.

Hillenius' article is challenging this status quo by asking: is the status quo illegal given the rules of procurement? Portugal and UK are different jusridictions so in principle the answer could be different for the two countries. On the other hand both are members of the EU and so there should be significant commonality. I am not a lawyer so cannot comment on the legal position, but as a voter I think it ought to be illegal for all government procurements to be founded on the assumption that Windows will be the operating system. Tenderers should be allowed to offer any combination that allows the workflows to be fundamentally unchanged and for there to be continuity of access and amendment of documents. Hardware/Linux and hardware/Windows should be seen as competitors and the competition should be part of the procurement.

No matter how much hype and FUD Microsoft and others put out, the total cost of ownership of Linux is significantly lower than that of Windows. Whilst Linux is free of charge, it doesn't mean there is zero cost of ownership. There are issues of deployment, maintenance, etc. all of which involve people, and there lies cost. Windows though requires more maintenance, and has a significant purchase price, so therefore has a higher cost of ownership. Moreover, malware on Windows involves installing defensive software that invariable does not come bundled with the operating system but is separate, thereby increasing the cost of ownership hugely. In these days of financial austerity, wouldn't a FOSS software solution help the country's finances? So even ignoring the legal situation, surely the financial situation means that hardware/Linux should be admitted to the procurement processes where feasible.

(*) _ Of course there were even earlier days when computers didn't have operating systems; operators loaded user programs direct onto the hardware and they ran to completion to be unloaded by operators. What is worse, those computers were significantly less powerful that today's average smartphone. _

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