Birmingham City Council has launched one of the UK's most ambitious open-source trials to date, shifting 1,500 client computers and associated server infrastructure to Linux and other open-source software.

The trial, which will last for a year, is designed to generate objective information on the benefits of open source, according to the Council. It is being funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) via the e-Innovations programme, and is part of a wider project called Open Source Academy.

The Academy, announced last month, is also setting up infrastructure such as a code repository, a database of open-source suppliers and an accreditation programme for open-source skills, in order to make open source an easier option for local authorities. The Academy hopes open source will mean efficiency gains and cost savings, promote inter-operability and open standards, avoid proprietary lock-in, reduce duplication of work amongst local authorities and extend hardware life.

Birmingham will be migrating 1,500 clients in its library service to open source software including the GNU/Linux operating system, and such application software as the OpenOffice office suite and the Firefox browser, although details are yet to be worked out. The PCs involved will include public-access terminals and office desktops in libraries around the city, as well as the library service's server-side infrastructure.

Unlike another well-known open source project under the auspices of the Academy - Bristol City Council's migration of 5,000 desktops to StarOffice running on Windows - the Birmingham project will be open source through and through. "This is really the rubber hitting the road," said Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium, an advocacy group that has an advisory role with several of the Academy's projects. "Birmingham has the biggest metropolitan council in the UK and in Europe, and it is rolling out a complete production business system."

The council is currently putting together a usability study and will begin rolling out the systems later this year. The trial will be followed by an impartial evaluation, taking into account productivity and initial and ongoing costs such as training and hiring IT staff, the Council said.

While a number of local authorities are already using open source - usually on the server side - the benefits have not been made clear enough, according to Taylor. "One of the major deliverables of this is having an unbiased study saying, 'Here's what we've done and here are the good and bad aspects of it,' " he said. "A lot of councils are using it internally, but there are just no objective case studies on production systems in the UK."