The time has come for small and medium businesses to get the recognition they deserve, according to Andrew Savory, newly-appointed Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at open source systems integrator Sirius, with a new generation of smart British technology companies proving that they can deliver services just as well, sometimes cheaper, and sometimes better than their large entrenched counterparts.
Savory, an active member of The Apache Software Foundation, joins Sirius from the LiMo Foundation, a non-profit technology consortium dedicated to creating the first Linux-based mobile operating system for smartphone devices. Coming from an open source, small business background himself, Savory is excited to see a step-change in the way that SMEs are being viewed, thanks to initiatives like the government's G-Cloud.
“There's a lot of buzz at the moment around the G-Cloud and stuff that the new government developers are doing in terms of quick iterations, pushing out services fast, seeing what works, seeing what doesn't. I think that's absolutely the right way to deliver services,” says Savory.
“The old monolithic approach of spending three years specifying something, 10 years delivering something, and then you suddenly realise that actually the need for it disappeared nine years ago is rubbish. So I would like to see a lot more organisations going down that route.”
Savory says the exciting thing about the technology industry at the moment is that organisations are no longer willing to wait for technology to catch up with their needs – they are expecting technological solutions to drive business processes. There is also a lot more political and economical pressure for companies to consider SMEs for delivery of services, he says, as those that take a slow approach to rolling out infrastructure will be overtaken by competitors.
However, it can still be difficult for small businesses to make their voices heard amid all the vendor noise, which is why Savory believes that SMEs can benefit from clubbing together and forming consortiums. This allows them to extend their profile and reach, as well as potentially leveraging cost differences in different countries.
Back in 2000, while running a company called Luminas, Savory set up a business consortium with six other companies across Europe, which later became the model for the Open Source Consortium in the UK, founded by Sirius chief executive Mark Taylor.
“The benefit that we had with the consortium was that we could go to large customers that would previously have said they were not interested and say, we're not just this small IT services company from the UK, we're six companies across Europe, we cover multiple time zones and we can draw in a pool of resources from companies all across Europe,” Savory explains.
He adds that, in comparison with American companies, organisations in the UK tend to be a bit scared of the unknown, averse to risk and unwilling to accept failure. However, he believes that failure is an important part of the business development process.
“The best thing you can do is fail fast,” he says. “I've seen some initiatives that go on for years and years and never get an output and nothing ever works. If it doesn’t work, move on.”
A new approach to education
Savory believes that the key to growth in the British technology sector is better IT education. Rather than teaching children to use specific programs, like Microsoft Word and Excel, they should be taught to use word processors and spreadsheets in a more general sense.
“Ten years down the line, we may not be using MS Office, we might be using Office in the cloud through a web browser, so it might look substantially different,” he says. “We might be using Google Docs, or OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, and at that point we've got a massive training problem on our hands, both for the staff that are trying to use these tools, but also for the IT departments that have got to manage their use.”
Savory says that a lot of countries in Europe have already rolled out Linux desktops and free software in schools, universities and enterprises, and the UK could soon find itself in the position of being grossly uncompetitive, because young people are coming out of school with significantly fewer skills.
He also welcomes the government's plan to overhaul in the way ICT is taught in schools and focus on programming, suggesting that, in combination with initiatives like Raspberry Pi, it could start to change the way that people think about IT.
“I get slightly nervous that we're seeing a massive talent drain of everybody moving into mobile app development. If anybody can write an app and get money for it, what's the incentive to work on some of the other computing problems like writing a word processor or writing open source software?” he says.
“I think it's fantastic that people can write apps for phones and see pretty much instant results and carry their software around with them. That's awesome and I wouldn't want to stop that for the world. I just hope that we can retain some focus on programming for desktop environments.”
Mobile industry needs an open source OS
Savory's background in open source mobile development has instilled him with some pretty strong views about the mobile industry – particularly with regard to Google's mobile operating system Android. According to Savory, while Android may be open source in definition, it is not run in a way that allows companies to develop openly.
“All of the interesting development is going on behind closed doors and we only hear about it when they announce it,” he says. “It's a legitimate way to run a platform but let's not call it a proper open source project.”
Savory asserts that, while the Android platform is an excellent tool for market disruption, it is useless in terms of generating revenue for Google. He explains the reason that companies like Apple and Amazon are so successful is because of the ecosystems they have built around their products. By offering content like movies, books, apps and music, they are able to capture their audience and persuade them to buy more devices.
“It's a virtuous circle,” he says. “The more content they have, the more hardware they sell. The more hardware they sell, the more app developers they get, and so on. That is why Amazon has launched the Kindle Fire. It's a really smart step to get people into buying movies and music more through Amazon.
“They're capturing credit cards and capturing customers and finding ways to sell more to them. I think Amazon and Apple are probably going to be the ones that really succeed in this, because none of the handset manufacturers other than Apple are making any money out of selling these devices. They're all struggling to find the magic recipe.”
He says that Android is really about getting more customers for Google's marketing business, and also helping Google's stated objective of indexing the world's information – which is increasingly found on smartphones. However, while Google is a successful company in many ways, it has so far failed to create the kind of ecosystem that Apple and Amazon thrive on.
“This is why it's crucial that you have an open source mobile platform, because then you don't have to worry about it and invest in it. It's an open project, everyone can develop there,” he says. “What you can then do as a mobile company is innovate in user interface and user experience, and deliver a really slick service. But everybody's struggling to do it.”
Giving end users back control
In his new role at Sirius, Savory will be providing support for customers running open source software systems in industries such as education, manufacturing, aviation and utilities, and helping other companies that aren't using open source to understand the benefits.
“More and more enterprises these days are rolling out open source alternatives to corporate information systems,” he says. “One of the best examples is the move from Oracle to databases like Postgres and MySQL. The traditional view is you buy something like Oracle, you pay a huge amount in licence fees, and you've got support from Oracle if anything goes wrong. In practice, of course, this never works.
“The interesting thing about Sirius is they're the first company in the UK that I'm aware of that are offering 24/7 support for open source software. It might just be your mail server, but it's also really technical stuff like Postgres. It's great that companies now have someone that they can phone up and say we need 24/7 support, and they have someone at the end of the line that can help them out.”
Savory says that, while previously the role of the CTO was to be the gatekeeper of software purchasing and licensing, the real challenge now is understanding where the costs are – that is, the cost of staff time in deploying, managing and supporting the software.
“I actually think the CTO of today has got a really hard job on their hands, because they do need to be able to focus on the business side of things, but they're also looking at various options for deployment, so they need to be conversant in a far wider range of software,” he says.
“Five or 10 years ago you might have had to roll out a Microsoft Windows network and Microsoft Office – two programs, easy. Now you might also have a mail server or a file server that's running open source, so you need to be familiar with a much broader range of platforms and software packages. You could basically spend more than a full-time job just researching all of your options.
“I'd love to say that the move to open source and free software means that we can slash all our IT budgets, but it actually means we've got to reallocate the way we spend it and work a little bit smarter,” he adds.
Despite this, the recession and the subsequent attention to budgets has been a really good thing for open source, according to Savory. People have been forced to think outside the box and question whether they really need to roll out Microsoft Office, or whether an open source cloud solution might do the job just as well.
While open source software is not necessarily free – there are still support costs – it does give organisations back control of their IT systems. For example, they are free to change the software whenever they want, modify it and distribute those changes to anyone else that wants to use it. They are also in charge of deciding when to roll out new software, rather than being locked into a refresh cycle dictated by a vendor that doesn't understand their business needs.
“The traditional proprietary software customer-vendor relationship is a little bit twisted,” says Savory. “In almost every other walk of life, the customer is always right, because they're the ones paying the money. With proprietary software it seems like it's the software companies that are dictating what the customer has to do, which is really weird. I find it baffling that companies will put up with that.”