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Wednesday, 11 March 2009 19:30

Linux s'il vous plaît: French Gendarmerie say oui to Ubuntu

The Gendarmerie Nationale – France’s national police force – has been slowly introducing open source software to its 105,000+ policemen since 2005. In 2008 the decision was made to use only Ubuntu for all new workstations. A year on shows this has been a great success with happy users, a better network and cost savings of over seven million euro per year.

A while ago Microsoft ran an anti-Linux “get the facts” campaign. I critiqued some of their case studies and found them grossly lacking and many didn’t even have anything to do with Linux at all except for passing tangential remarks.

Well, let me tell you a “get the facts” story which is true and is not ambiguous. Get the facts: the French police have been running on Ubuntu for a year and love it. Here’s how it went down.

The Gendarmerie Nationale consists of the regular police forces and also the military police. The central bureaucracy is situated in Paris but has over 100,000 employees across France making it one of Europe’s largest public bodies.

French affair with free and open source software actually began in 2001. A core team of IT experts, headed by Pascal Danek, were appointed to architect an infrastructure platform that catered for such a volume of users and which could be maintained internally or, at the least, without stranglehold by specific vendors.

The group determined the IT system ought to be made modular so that it could be enhanced incrementally, and so new standards could be introduced with a minimum of fuss when they arose.
Early on this team recognised open source software would be a key component because it offers greater transparency and is easier to adapt and change than proprietary software.

In 2005 the first big step occurred and Microsoft Office was substituted for Open Office.

This resulted in an immediate decrease in licensing fees and offered precisely the modularity and transparency that the technical group were seeking. Danek says, “We didn’t want any of our software to force us to employ a special operating system.”

The following year, 2006, saw the next step as one-by-one Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook were replaced by Mozilla’s Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client.

Conventional wisdom dictates that user training should accompany new software deployments. However, the Gendarmerie figured that people knew “how to operate a web browser” and opted not to provide training for any of the new apps.

Happily, they were proven right with the vast range of users effortlessly picking up the new office suite, web browser and mail program.

However, another major event happened in 2006: this was the year Microsoft announced Windows Vista was coming (which was made available in its final form in late 2006 and for retail in early 2007.)

It became evident to the Gendarmerie that not only apps could and should be migrated but the whole operating system too.

The timing was right: by this point the technical team had gained considerable expertise in working with open source software through the previous rollouts, they had deployed Debian Linux onto their servers, and desktop Linux had reached a high note.

Thus, when it came time to choose between Vista and Linux the Gendarmerie were quick to make up their mind. “Keeping the capacity to choose is very important,” said Colonel Nicolas Géraud, deputy director of the IT department.

The Gendarmerie thus began developing a plan to migrate their workstation to Ubuntu Linux. Parent body, the Department of Defense, watched with interest and placed a moratorium on the implementation of Vista within their network.

The Ubuntu plan was revealed to the public in January 2008 causing interest among the Linux community and fear and panic in the Microsoft camp.

Yet, nothing diverted the police from their chosen path and in 2008 5,000 new workstations were deployed. Every single one shipped with a consistent Ubuntu image.

This year the Gendarmerie expect to migrate close to 15,000 workstations in total and again, every new installation will be this same Ubuntu image. Additionally, older computers are being gradually adapted to the new set up but definitely every new computer is deployed with Ubuntu and its associated free software suite. No new Microsoft licenses are being purchased.

Despite the software being no cost, the Gendarmerie weren’t out purely to pinch pennies, believing fully that a support partner was required. French law requires a public tender process but while waiting the police have benefited from free support by none other than Canonical themselves.

Ordinarily, Canonical don’t provide free support (after all, they give the software away; the support is their main revenue model) but made an exception in this case because it was an interesting activity to be involved with.

Danek notes that just as their previous open source rollouts were accepted easily, so too the switch of operating system was met with a minimum of concern or anxiety to end users. Partially, this was because the primary apps they used were there waiting for them in Ubuntu.

Credit has also been given to Ubuntu’s easy-to-use user interface. In fact, Danek’s team believe had they opted to go from Windows XP to Windows Vista the users would have complained and definitely required training or significant assistance.

Indeed, had Vista been selected the Gendarmerie would have definitely run up a sizeable software bill. Moreso, a hardware bill too, to ensure the computers could run the newer Microsoft offering, with some breathing room.

What’s more, the Gendarmerie has noticed improved network performance between local police stations and the central headquarters in Paris.

Canonical are taking the opportunity to gather vast amounts of feedback thanks to such a large installation. This has even lead to patches and modifications in Ubuntu itself, benefiting the rest of the community.

Danek believes all the Gendarmerie’s computers will have been finally migrated to Ubuntu by 2015. Based on his experiences thus far he states this will have a dramatic improvement in the force’s IT platform and at a greatly reduced cost.


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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.



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