Schleswig-Holstein’s digital minister Albrecht on the switch to open source

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For several years now, the federal government and some states have been promoting the development of open source software in order to reduce the administration’s reliance on US corporations such as Microsoft. So far, however, only one federal state has decided to completely get rid of proprietary software: “A complete replacement is the long-term goal,” says the coalition agreement signed in 2017 by the black-green-yellow state government of Schleswig-Holstein. This point was enforced by the Greens.

In the meantime, the responsible digital minister Jan Philipp Albrecht (Alliance 90 / The Greens) concretized the plans. By the end of 2026 he wants to replace Microsoft Office with Libre Office and later Windows with Linux – on the computers of all 25,000 civil servants and employees in the state, including teachers. In an interview with c’t, Albrecht explains what he hopes for from the switch, which problems he still has to solve and what his state wants to do differently than the city of Munich, where the similarly ambitious open source project LiMux failed.

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c’t: Mr. Albrecht, you want to convert the administration of your state to open source software, but you are using the proprietary conference program Cisco Webex for this interview. Why?

Jan Philipp Albrecht: I’m in my company car right now, so I dialed in by phone. This function is the only one that is not yet active on our Jitsi conference system. We’re just testing that. In general, however, 90 percent of the video conferences in our state administration run with Jitsi, i.e. with an open source program.

Jan Philipp Albrecht (Greens) has been Minister for Energy Transition, Agriculture, Environment, Nature and Digitization in Schleswig-Holstein since 2018. Previously, as a member of the European Union, he drove the introduction of the GDPR.

(Photo: Thomas Eisenkrätzer)

Schleswig-Holstein is the only federal state that wants to completely replace proprietary programs with open-source programs. What are your reasons?

We have reached our limits with the contracts for proprietary software. Firstly, financially, because license fees have continued to rise over the past few years. Second, with regard to our goals for the digitization of administration. Open source simply offers us more flexibility. At the same time, all the advantages that open source always has apply: sovereignty, data security and data protection.

Can you give a specific example of open source software that makes you more flexible?

During the pandemic, we were able to quickly increase our capacities for video conferences because we had already prepared the Jitsi-based open source system. Many other countries were trapped in proprietary systems that they couldn’t quickly expand. A second example is our school portal: Because we have switched to open source, we can design the interface flexibly and combine services as we want.

Nevertheless, no other state government has yet decided to abandon proprietary software. Why aren’t the others following you?

We have already inspired other countries. For example, there are now open source strategies in Bremen, Hamburg and Saxony-Anhalt. And our public IT service provider Dataport is receiving more and more inquiries from other federal states who want to take over individual applications.

They want to completely replace Microsoft Office with Libre Office by the end of 2026. How far are you on this project?

We have been testing Libre Office in our IT department for two years. And our experience is clear: it works. This also applies when editing Microsoft Word documents with comments, for example. The interface between Libre Office and our software for e-files has also been running stable for six months. We first had to have the manufacturer of the e-file software develop it. Other authorities are currently testing the use of Libre Office, but there are still some hurdles to overcome in the run-up to a large-scale rollout in the state administration. An example of this is the creation of barrier-free documents.

In addition to the e-file, you have many other administrative applications in use, so-called specialized procedures. Will you make all of them compatible with Libre Office in the future? Or will some departments continue to use Microsoft Office?

We want to change everything by the end of 2026. In the end, there may be some areas where the software is so special that we can’t do it. But that will only affect a very small fraction of the jobs.

In addition to the locally installed Libre Office, you also want to introduce a package of browser applications with Dataport’s Phoenix project. This also includes the open source Only Office. Why two office suites?

We are initially relying on Libre Office. In the future, however, 80, 85 percent of the work will take place in the browser.

Does that mean you will be using both applications at the same time? Isn’t that rather complicated? The user interfaces differ, and you always have to think about what to open and where.

In some areas, parallel use will be worthwhile. But I wouldn’t call that complicated. The solutions will be interoperable. For example, you can create a complex presentation with Libre Office and then edit and play it back in the browser.

Your specialist procedures such as the e-file will then also have to interact with the browser office. Isn’t that a huge integration effort?

It is true that these are integration problems that we still have to solve.

In addition to Microsoft Office, you also want to replace Windows and replace it with Linux. You have not yet announced a date for this. Why not?

It’s a question of resources. Libre Office and Project Phoenix are the first important steps. But we already have Linux in the test. And that will also be a big step towards more digital sovereignty for us. In addition: Due to the high hardware requirements of Windows 11, we would have a problem with older computers. We don’t have that with Linux.

Which Linux distribution are you using?

We found in a study that five major distributions are basically suitable for our purposes. In the next step we will tender the implementation and maintenance of a Linux workstation as a service. So it will be a transparent competition.

The city of Munich tried to say goodbye to Windows and MS Office before you, but returned to Microsoft after a few years. What lessons have you learned from this?

The main problem there was that the employees weren’t taken along enough. We do better. We are planning long transition phases with parallel use. And we’re introducing open source step by step where the departments are ready. With this we also create the reason for the further introduction, because people can see that it works.

What about the costs? Will open source be cheaper than proprietary software for taxpayers – or more expensive?

I assume the costs will be roughly equal. But with Open Source we get more flexibility, more sovereignty, more security for the same money. That’s why it’s worth it for us.

Does that still apply if the federal government builds a large Microsoft cloud for authorities? At the moment, the Federal Ministry of Finance is promoting this. If Schleswig-Holstein is the only federal state not to participate, open source could become a comparatively expensive special solution.

I don’t think such a Microsoft cloud would be a cheap thing. In addition, it has not yet been decided that the federal government will actually do that. We from Schleswig-Holstein are not the only ones who have raised concerns. We are working together with the other federal states and the federal government in the IT planning council on a digitally sovereign German administrative cloud. It’s not just about costs, but also about strengthening the European software industry. In the future, we have to put digital sovereignty first. And that’s what I am asking of the next federal government.

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