German state ditches Windows, Microsoft Office for Linux and LibreOffice

'Complete digital sovereignty' ... sounds familiar

Schleswig-Holstein, Germany's most northern state, is starting its switch from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice, and is planning to move from Windows to Linux on the 30,000 PCs it uses for local government functions.

The announcement (in German) was made yesterday by the state's Minister-President Daniel Gunther, who has served in that position since 2017. According to a translated version of the announcement, independence was a key motivation for switching to open source software.

"Independent, sustainable, secure: Schleswig-Holstein will be a digital pioneer region and the first state to introduce a digitally sovereign IT workplace in its state administration," said Gunther. "[T]he government has given the starting signal for the first step towards complete digital sovereignty for the country, with further steps to follow."

A chart in LibreOffice Calc 7.1

Munich mk2? Germany's Schleswig-Holstein plans to switch 25,000 PCs to LibreOffice


Concerns over data security are also front and center in the Minister-President's statement, especially data that may make its way to other countries. Back in 2021, when the transition plans were first being drawn up, the hardware requirements for Windows 11 were also mentioned as a reason to move away from Microsoft.

The transition has been in the works for some time, and it looks to be well ahead of schedule. The then-digital minister for the state, Jan Philipp Albrecht, said in 2021 that Schleswig-Holstein would just be switching to LibreOffice on 25k PCs by the end of 2026. There was no date in place at all for the replacement of Windows 10, and there were multiple Linux distros under consideration.

Switching to an open source office software suite and operating system aren't the only components of Schleswig-Holstein's open source strategy. The switch to LibreOffice and later to Linux, and the effort to operate them in tandem, are just three of six pillars Gunther lays out in his announcement. The state's email servers, directory, and telephony software will also be going open source, making for three additional pillars (or at least that's the plan).

Mike Saunders, who does community outreach at The Document Foundation, told us "the transition to LibreOffice is planned as 'very short term' and will be mandatory. It is one of six 'columns'of a larger and longer-term transition to free and open source software, including Linux, Nextcloud, Thunderbird, open source alternative to Active Directory etc."

Saunders told The Reg there were no specific timelines for the other "columns" yet, but the decision has been made in the state government to go ahead with the transitions.

He told us that LiMux, a Linux desktop distribution launched in Germany in 2004 to help migrate public services from Microsoft's OS, "reached its peak in 2013, before coming to a halt as decisions about its future were made. Linux and LibreOffice have matured significantly since then, with the latter having way more commercial support options, huge Microsoft Office compatibility improvements, and a tabbed user interface to ease transition.

"LiMux faced some technical challenges at first, but by 2017 Karl-Heinz Schneider (the head of IT services) said: 'We are not aware of any large technical problems with LiMux and LibreOffice ... We don't see any urgent technical reasons to return to Windows and Microsoft Office'."

Haven't we heard this before though?

While Schleswig-Holstein has ostensibly made lots of progress and is talking a big game, we've seen a similar scenario play out before in two other German states. The most notable case was Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria, switching back in 2017 to Windows from Linux, which it had introduced in the form of LiMux in 2004.

That transition wasn't expected to be cheap, with initial estimates expecting it to cost €49.3 million ($58.4 million), which today would be about €61.8 million ($67.1 million). But as with pretty much any project, prices rose well beyond predictions just a few months later to about €100 million ($109 million), which is €125 million ($136 million) in today's money.

Following Munich's lead at the time, the state of Lower Saxony also decided to ditch Linux for Windows in 2018, though at least its transition cost was probably significantly cheaper, originally estimated at around €13 million.

That all said, in 2020, a new lot of politicians was elected in Munich and set to rule until 2026. That group indicated it would prefer open source software is used in future. It's not clear to us, though, that the city switched back to Linux in any significant way as a result.

While this might not bode well for Schleswig-Holstein, its strategy seems substantially different. Both Munich and Lower Saxony never fully transitioned to Linux, which created the compatibility issues that encouraged both governments to go back to Windows. For example, Munich used Microsoft Exchange for its email servers, and Lower Saxony said field workers used Windows while only the office PCs were equipped with Linux.

Saunders noted that "the reasons for switching to Linux and LibreOffice are different today. Back when LiMux started, it was mostly seen as a way to save money. Now the focus is far more on data protection, privacy and security. Consider that the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) recently found that the European Commission's use of Microsoft 365 breaches data protection law for EU institutions and bodies."

Since Schleswig-Holstein is proposing a top-to-bottom transition to open source software, it might be able to avoid the pitfalls that doomed open source in other local governments in Germany. Though, even if the state manages to fully rid itself of Microsoft software, there's no guarantee it won't somehow make its way back. ®

Editor's note: This story was updated to add as context the pledge by Munich's incoming leaders in 2020 to favor open source software, following the switch back from Linux to Windows in 2017.

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