back to article Ubuntu 'weaponised' to cure NHS of its addiction to Microsoft Windows

A quiet revolution has been rumbling in Leeds, in the north of England. It may not seem revolutionary: a gathering of software developers is scarcely going to get people taking to the barricades in these uncertain times, but the results of this particular meetup could shape access to NHS PCs in the coming years. The gathering …

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  1. Paul Crawford Silver badge

    Cost is the smaller concern

    “Ultimately, open source allows you to be in control of you own destiny.”

    Is probably the most important aspect. More so with the future of Windows being forced updates and data slurping that we hope is not going to be part of the 'enterprise' version, but we just don't know how that will go.

    1. Mark 110 Silver badge

      Re: Cost is the smaller concern

      I disagree. For the NHS cost is the biggest concern and will become increasingly so.

      The NHS is a great setting for an Linux desktop where 90% of the estate is applied to specific job functions - booking systems, record keeping, etc - just a handful of applications and hopefully a lot of them browser based. Limited set of applications and should be locked down nice and tight.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        "For the NHS cost is the biggest concern and will become increasingly so."

        The two are linked. Having overall control prevents lock-in to expensive proprietary solutions.

        1. frank ly Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          Furthermore, the NHS itself could have its own in-house repository for all the software it needs. This would be copied down, in a controlled manner as appropriate from Debian, Ubuntu etc. That way, if external developers go insane, the NHS could keep going.

          1. macjules Silver badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            Furthermore, the NHS itself could have its own in-house repository for all the software it needs. This would be copied down, in a controlled manner as appropriate from Debian, Ubuntu etc. That way, if external developers go insane, the NHS could keep going.

            1) That would last just as long as the first time the government-appointed contractor (Capita) got their hands on it. Then the repo would disappear into the bowels of the Reading monolith, never to be seen again.

            2) What about the interaction between life support machinery and desktop computers? Has anyone actually considered that this is perhaps the main reason why the NHS is still on older versions of Windows? Is someone going to make every ECG or Kidney Dialysis machine Windows 10-compliant?

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: Cost is the smaller concern

              "That would last just as long as the first time the government-appointed contractor (Capita) got their hands on it. Then the repo would disappear into the bowels of the Reading monolith, never to be seen again."

              You seem to lack familiarity with GPL, BSD and other open source licences.

              1. Adrian Midgley 1

                Re: Cost is the smaller concern

                But may be familiar with Capita...

            2. Wayland Bronze badge

              Re: Cost is the smaller concern

              "2) What about the interaction between life support machinery and desktop computers? Has anyone actually considered that this is perhaps the main reason why the NHS is still on older versions of Windows? Is someone going to make every ECG or Kidney Dialysis machine Windows 10-compliant?"

              This is precisely why those interfaces should be documented. In reality they are going to be pretty basic but would require some dedicated tinkering to determine the protocol and write some new drivers. The NHS really has been in the hands of some unscrupulous computer companies.

              In manufacturing all those protocols are well documents with hundreds of companies able to support them. Even 40 year old CNC gear is supported.

          2. Loud Speaker Bronze badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            if external developers go insane

            if?

            You must have missed systemd - its not a virus - its a psychosis

            1. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Systemd

              There's a lot of hate being tossed at systemd, much of which is not deserved (and a lot which is)

              I recall the change from BSD to SysV startups and the hate which went with that. As with that, it's mostly just "different", but there are some fundamental boneheaded ways of handling things in systemd which need improving.

              The big advantage of systemd is the change from singlethreading all the startups to parallelising things as much as possible - this speeds up desktop boots dramatically (not sure if there's much advantage on a server)

              The single biggest disadvantage is the change from singlethreading all the startups to parallelising things as much as possible - if anything goes wrong it becomes much harder to debug AND the tendency to go into a boot loop instead of just stopping the sequence just makes things that much harder (a truely boneheaded decision if you ask me)

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        "just a handful of applications and hopefully a lot of them browser based"

        And 99% of those will be only work on Internet Explorer....

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "And 99% of those will be only work on Internet Explorer...."

          Which is a major risk as long as that situation continues, because of the proportion which will only run on specific versions of IE.

          It's a situation which needs to change and this is the way to change it.

        2. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "And 99% of those will be only work on Internet Explorer...."

          SystmOne and others tried that shit. Many discrimination complaints were filed (and upheld) forcing them to remain standards compliant and browser agnostic.

          The good thing about contracting to a government entity is that they're beholden to cabinet office rules about accessiblity and as they discovered those rules have teeth.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cost is the smaller concern

      If you deploy a modified distro, you will be just in the hands of the "consultants" which all ask you more and more money to maintain it. And after a while, it will become just another lock-in, because it will become difficult to hire a different company to maintain it. Also, good luck in porting all the changes to a newer version, especially when this kind of small companies lack the proper resources (after all, they've been five years in the making!) and there's not a small risk to be stuck in an older, outdated version.

      Open source won't save the world. For many, it's just a different way to make money, trying to deceive you into believing they're some sort of white knight fighting for Good.

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        "it will become difficult to hire a different company to maintain it."

        Why on earth should that happen? The source is available. The upstream, Debian>Ubuntu is already maintained. If NHSbuntu makes any more widely applicable code contributions - such as smartcard ID - they can also be passed back upstream and integrated with it. So what you'd be looking at would be a collection of userland add-ons which could be maintained separately. You (a) wouldn't need a single company to do that and (b) iit could be competitively tendered. This is a different world to what you're used to in Microsoft.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          Why on earth should that happen? The source is available.

          Yes, but will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to, take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code? If so, will they charge you less than a commercial supplier would for support?

          1. Dr_Barnowl

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            > someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code

            Don't forget that with closed-source software, this is also often exactly what you're getting - only you can't do anything about it, and you might not even be aware of just how hacked and spaghettified it really is.

            > will they charge you less than a commercial supplier would?

            That marvellous thing, the invisible hand of the market, comes into play at this point. A closed-source product creates a monopoly on service for its copyright holder. Open-source software can by maintained by anyone - you are free to select a supplier and discriminate on price, quality, confidence in their ability, etc. Competition can actually apply to this market, where with a closed product your options are limited to a) what the supplier wants to charge b) an expensive change to a competitor's product.

            1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

              Re: Cost is the smaller concern

              @ Dr_Barnowl

              Careful there, you're getting beyond some people's comprehension - markets, competition. Weird stuff.

          2. oldcoder

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            Will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to, take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code? If so, will they charge you less than a commercial supplier would for support?

            YES. Open source code being available that "alternate support" will also be cleaner and cheaper.

            Will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code from a proprietary company?

            NO. The code is not available.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Cost is the smaller concern

              Will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code from a proprietary company?

              NO. The code is not available.

              But it should be in escrow. Due diligence should require it.

              Good luck getting that in your licensing agreement, though.

          3. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            "someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code?"

            Citation needed as to your assumptions.

            However let's look at what might be involved. As research is so difficult I've taken the liberty of cutting and pasting this from their website:

            Our customisations are as follows:

            -NHSbuntu wallpaper!

            -A look and feel similar to a well known desktop…

            - NHSmail2 compatability

            --Email, calendar, address book

            --Messager, with file sharing!

            - N3 VPN compatability

            --RSA token supported

            -Remove games packages (sorry folks, no Minesweaper!)

            -Added Remmina, a Remote Desktop client for VDI (or whatever it’s called these days)

            Yup, maintaining that is going to be far too much of a challenge.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Cost is the smaller concern

              Citation needed as to your assumptions.

              Personal expoerience with open- and closed-source code.

              The difference is:

              Open Source - developers look at it and say "fuck me, I'm not touching that crap"

              Closed Source - developer looks at it and says "fuck me, I'm paid to maintain this crap?"

              Have a look at the work being started by https://www.coreinfrastructure.org/, an advocacy group in the Linux Foundation, that is looking for sponsorship from big industry players to pay developers to work on essential FOSS code, because there aren't enough competent volunteers who want to do it.

              1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

                Re: Cost is the smaller concern

                "Have a look at the work being started by https://www.coreinfrastructure.org/, an advocacy group in the Linux Foundation, that is looking for sponsorship from big industry players to pay developers to work on essential FOSS code, because there aren't enough competent volunteers who want to do it."

                Remember that Linux has from its earliest days attracted contributions from companies who find it to their commercial advantage to do so. From last year's report at: https://www.linux.com/blog/top-10-developers-and-companies-contributing-linux-kernel-2015-2016

                Company Changes Percent of total

                Intel 14,384 12.9%

                Red Hat 8,987 8.0%

                None 8,571 7.7%

                Unknown 7,582 6.8%

                Linaro 4,515 4.0%

                Samsung 4,338 3.9%

                SUSE 3,619 3.2%

                IBM 2,995 2.7%

                Consultants 2,938 2.6%

                Renesas Electronics 2,239 2.0%:

                "None" is the category which covers volunteers. The biggest contributor continues to be Intel. Are you saying their employees aren't competent?

              2. Adrian Midgley 1

                Re: Cost is the smaller concern

                I'm puzzled why you assume that support of closed source code should not be done free by volunteers.

                Or alternatively that you assume that people willing to pay for work on closed source code would not be similarly willing to pay for work on open source code. Hewlett Packard's experience, relayed by their VP for that, was that most FLOSS is written by people who are paid to at least in part write code, and that HP could make a profit out of maintaining/developing FLOSS. Not everywhere, but where they sold that service.

                It is one of those memes that goes around and seems to indicate either thinking failure, or an attempt to mislead.

          4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            "Yes, but will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to, take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code?"

            You seem to be under the impression the NHSbuntu is something knocked up over a weekend by a couple of pizza fuelled nerds in their mothers basement.

          5. hplasm Silver badge
            Gimp

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            "...someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code"

            It works for the mess that is Windows.

            None more hacked, none more undocumented.

          6. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            That's precisely what happens in almost every outsourcing initiative, do you really think all those in house solutions are any better?

            The main difference is the source is already open, as a result the party taking on the stewardship of the codebase has more of head start in untangling the spaghetti.

          7. Wayland Bronze badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            "...will they charge you less than a commercial supplier would for support?"

            I would hope that anyone charging money is commercial and not simply feeding a drug habit. I would expect that the NHS are prepared to pay for the work. As for spaghetti why would someone write untidy code if they knew others would look at it?

            It sounds to me as if you think people never get paid for writing open source software.

          8. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            Yes, but will you be able to find a company capable of, and willing to, take on someone else's hacked and undocumented spaghetti code?

            CSC will, they are known - and universally reviled - as "The IT supplier of last resort". Maybe Indian HCL.

            The Law of The Market Says: When blood is in the water, sharks and seagulls will be around in abundance.

          9. Adrian Midgley 1

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            Your code may be mangled pasta. Not all is.

            A strength of FLOSS is that the mess inside cannot be hidden.

      2. Joe Montana

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        Depends what they modify... Most installs of anything are customised to some degree, and these customisations have to be adapted to future versions.

        If they're making significant changes (e.g. the addition of smartcard support) they could commit these back upstream, so future versions have the support by default.

        Of course for an organisation the size of the NHS, where so many users have very similar needs the cost of customisation could easily be outweighed by the benefits of software more tailored to the needs of the organisation.

        1. Peter2 Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "For the NHS cost is the biggest concern and will become increasingly so."

          When working in NHS county level IM&T the biggest concern was avoiding generating "clinical risk" (ie bodies) as a result of IT failures.

          Just saying.

          Seriously, most IT professionals really don't care which OS systems run on as long as the required software runs on that OS. SystmOne & EMIS are web based now anyway so they should be good enough for a wide swathe of healthcare applications.

      3. Spanners Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        If you deploy a modified distro, you will be just in the hands of the "consultants"

        Only if all "consultants" are in the same cartel. This whole thing is open source and so *you get the source code*. You can take that to someone else. They will probably have a copy already. You can even, perhaps in conjunction with other trusts, set up your own developers.

      4. Lord_Beavis
        Linux

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        "Open source won't save the world. For many, it's just a different way to make money, trying to deceive you into believing they're some sort of white knight fighting for Good."

        Open Source may not save the world. Everyone's got to make money. I'm just glad it's not going to be Micro$oft.

        Long gone are the days when you had a dedicated team in house that kept your systems running. Maybe this is the rebirth of that.

      5. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Linux

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        "If you deploy a modified distro, you will be just in the hands of the "consultants" which all ask you more and more money to maintain it. "

        FUD.

        Ernie Ball already proved the cost savings by using RH Linux, over a decade ago.

        https://www.cnet.com/news/rockin-on-without-microsoft/

        1. Updraft102 Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          Aw crap... you beat me to it. I just mentioned that in a reply to the same message...

      6. Dinsdale247

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        The local school district recently switch over to an all Linux environment. The results have been a disaster. Week long outages of mail systems. Total lock out of the teachers from being able to use the software on multiple occasions. Rooms full of PCs that nobody can fix.

        Open Source software is not free. It costs time and money and requires REAL skill to work with. I hope someone is recording all the hours spent making things work, because the total is going to be staggering.

        1. Hans 1 Silver badge
          Linux

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          The pre-school of my daughter recently had a PC outage, CPU overheated on the library computer, kids could no longer borrow books. I dunno if you know French council policy, but, being ALMOST summer holidays (end of next week), the school was out of luck ... this was two weeks ago ... I had a pi lying around ... bought a 15 euro charger, one of the more reliable ones, came along with those, plugged them in, the library software is web-based, teachers could not believe the little box I was holding was actually a computer ... AND, it was faster than XP with a pentium 4, 1Gb of RAM.

          Everybody happy ... I still have a few pi's, a print server and a media center .... the one I gave them B+, was originally used to play antiquated games, from the days I was much younger ... however, total failure, the kids did not enjoy them as much as I did ... :-(, so a library PC it became.

          When you switch to Linux, it is NOT FREE, NEVER, cheaper than Windows, YES, OF COURSE .... every box you install beats a Windows Server Data Center Edition is EVERY RESPECT. No anti-features (This is not availabl in Home editions, you need Pro/Enterprise for that, or Server, Advanced Server, no, Datacenter edition), features that require additional licenses ... of course, you need to hire some trained staff for the project to work ... more people in the community get jobs ... instead of sponsoring Redmond Cancer ... d'oh!

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            @Hans: Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            I had a pi lying around

            You do realise that you are now that school's unpaid IT administrator, and that everything that goes wrong from now on is your fault? If any harm or problems arise you will be blamed, and you have no insurance? I'm only half joking, there are many more costs involved in "free" systems than are obvious up front.

            1. Alan Brown Silver badge

              Re: @Hans: Cost is the smaller concern

              Last time I put a Linux system in place in a school and made sure that the staff were ok with the way it worked vs the previous software they were using, the next time I heard from them was 5 years later when the hard drive went titsup.

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "The local school district recently switch over to an all Linux environment. The results have been a disaster. Week long outages of mail systems. Total lock out of the teachers from being able to use the software on multiple occasions. Rooms full of PCs that nobody can fix."

          So they installed a new system with little to no support or training? Wow. What if they'd been all Apple and had switched to all Windows with the same lack of prep and training? Or vice versa?

          Any place that can have a week long email outage has incompetent admins who are desperately in need of training.

          1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

            Re: Cost is the smaller concern

            "Any place that can have a week long email outage has incompetent admins who are desperately in need of training."

            Training or replacing?

        3. Uffish

          Re: "the total is going to be staggering"

          @ Dinsdale247

          When it comes to providing a non-working system I assure you that I could do a worse job, even using 100% proprietary software (Windows and Windows based for example). This is because I do not have enough knowledge of what is required to do that particular job correctly nor knowledge of what software can do that particular job correctly.

          I suggest lack of competence is the cause of your school area's problems, not whether the software is open source or not.

        4. Alan Brown Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "The results have been a disaster."

          That's an implementation issue, not a Linux one. My pick is that it was pushed through with insufficient budget to do full testing and relied on a too-small changeover team for support.

        5. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          The results have been a disaster. Week long outages of mail systems.

          The truble with empowering Monkeys is that their shit will still get everywhere, but now with The Force of Empowerment behind the throwing.

          The results were probably already an ongoing disaster well *before* the switch over, then I Bet they expect, with the same people, and of course less money, only to discover the hard way that one cannot just pour some special brand of magick IT-sauce over a dysfunctional situation and expect the result to be better (Except, now they get to blame Linux and The New Consultants for decades of carefully groomed organisational incompetence, so, there is That).

        6. Adrian Midgley 1

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          Really?

          And where is that?

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Cost is the smaller concern

      “Ultimately, open source allows you to be in control of you own destiny.”

      Strictly speaking that's also true of closed source, but it just might be more painful to change one's destiny... The important thing is to use open standards for one's application / system development so that one can very easily change one's destiny regardless of the open or closed nature of the underlying OS. Development of a classical Win32 app is locked in to Windows. Use Qt, any decent Web platform, etc. and then you have true freedom. It's interesting that MS now seem to understand this; official blessing for Mono is at least some evidence of that.

      Open source with no support merely makes one solely responsible for one's destiny. Buying support from Ubuntu or RedHat or someone simply puts one back in the same position as when using closed source (reliance on someone else), but with more options.

      Don't get me wrong; MS are steadily making their platform highly unsuitable for many enterprises where privacy is a key requirement, like the NHS. It's a good thing that people are taking a serious look at an alternative. So long as they dump systemd.

      1. Hans 1 Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: Cost is the smaller concern

        “Ultimately, open source allows you to be in control of you own destiny.”

        Strictly speaking that's also true of closed source, but it just might be more painful to change one's destiny.

        Where do you come from ? Closed source, BY DEFINITION, means the software is OUT OF YOUR CONTROL, AGAIN, BY DEFINITION!!!!! I think that was the stupidest sentence I have had the leisure to read on this site AND I have been here many years. Crikey, where do you come from ?

        The important thing is to use open standards for one's application

        Well, that means you avoid MS, entirely, and most other proprietary vendors I have heard of, if not all.

        official blessing for Mono is at least some evidence of that.

        Mono ? Listen, NOBODY USES THAT ON Linux/macOS ... Mono is cursed, despite MS' blessing. No, I grant you, there are a bunch of .Net fans around here who are sick of WIndows 10, they might ;-).

        Open source with no support merely makes one solely responsible for one's destiny.

        Hm, 100m ? how many support staff can you hire for 100m a year ? Nahhh, let's say, 10m, it has to be 90% cheaper .... Again, this is licensing, not IT staff doing maintenance, who call MS, desperately, to get lousy support, and see no patch but a promise that some Tuesday next month, if they are lucky, they might get a fix ... that is, if the MS support guy understands your problem ... Again, with that money, you can hire one or more kernel hackers + a fully staffed support team!

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          "Crikey, where do you come from ?"

          Don't know what you think, Hans, but I can hazard a guess.

        2. Hans 1 Silver badge
          Windows

          Re: Cost is the smaller concern

          Ok, where I live, the cost of an employee is 2x the net salary of the employee ....this means that with 10m, you can hire ~200 staff, each @25k a year, after taxes! You will need managers, paid more, and a couple of kernel hackers, paid even more, so, lets say you hire 120 ordinary support staff, 6 managers, 4 highly paid kernel hackers and 10 well paid package maintainers ... you can do this easily with 10m, and have some change for bonuses ... multiply by 10 for 100m (status co) and you could easily fund your GNU/Linux distribution, note that in this case, you even get "help for free" (contributers). Worse, you have FULL CONTROL over the software you deploy.

          Sorry, I know this shit!

          For those on Windows, hit the "Windows" key, the one with the four squares, type "c" followed by "a", followed by "l" (lower case L, and you are almost there!!!!!), followed by "c" and divide 10 000 000 by 200.

          How MS get away with this is beyond me ...

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