EuroOSCOM the first European conference on open source took place in Amsterdam last month. Though it was roughly a third smaller than its North American counterpart, EuroOSCON attracted the cream of open source advocates and practitioners both as speakers and delegates.

 From the list of attendees, it was obvious that open source in Europe is A Really Big Thing(TM) - several hundred delegates from the UK and continental Europe converged on Amsterdam's classiest hotel to receive the wisdom there imparted. Nevertheless, it was still a surprise to see that the Limpopo Provincial Government's department of agriculture had sent a representative to the show.

Kugan Soobramani, senior manager and government IT officer within the department was there largely following orders: when public service and administration minister Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi announced government's OSS strategy in 2003, she encouraged government IT officers to seek out best practice techniques and to learn from those who had already travelled the OSS path in delivering public services.

Soobramani arrived at EuroOSCON fresh from the success of Limpopo's Digital Doorway Project, which uses minimally invasive education for large-scale computer literacy. The initiative, which is spearheaded by the department of science and technology and the CSIR's Meraka Institute, takes computing to the community through robust freestanding computer terminals running OSS-powered client and server PCs.

In each standalone terminal, the server runs FreeBSD while the client runs Debian Linux with the KDE windows manager. All user software is free or open source, and KDE language modules have been added for isiZulu, isiXhosa, tshiVenda, Setswana, and Afrikaans.

In August this year, the Digital Doorways received a software and hardware upgrade. In addition to the rest of the content, users now have access to 16 GB of Open Source Encyclopedia data from Wikipedia and more than 10 000 free books from Project Gutenberg.

Limpopo has four Digital Doorways dotted around the province. The first was installed in the Mapela Community Centre in September 2004. Three more terminals were installed as sites near Polokwane, Tzaneen and Burgersfort in December 2004.

Soobramani comments: "People's perception of Linux and open source is that everything is command-based, text-based. Our pilot projects are meant to address that perception. Our core function as the department of agriculture is to deliver agricultural services to the community. So we use these Digital Doorways in the rural areas to assist farmers. If they want share prices, market information, agricultural information, they can use the kiosks to find it. And it's working."

The shift to OSS is not just limited to service delivery to citizens, however. Internally, the department of agriculture is looking to migrate its IT infrastructure to one based on open standards.

The department has trialled StarOffice and to find an alternative to proprietary solutions, for which it currently pays around R26m in annual licencing costs - and that's just for client access to servers. The figure for additional software licences runs even higher.

There are some compatibility issues, says Soobramani, but a solution will be sought after. In his mind at least, it's not a matter of if, but when, the department will include more open source than proprietary solutions.

Soobramani says his team has put the seal to its master systems plan to develop the department's internal IT infrastructure. One of the first projects will be to develop a portal based largely on open standards, though the backend will still run SQL Server.

"Our long term strategy is to use open source platforms on the backend servers, but that will take some time. We presently have 900 users on the network, out of a total staff complement of 5 500. Not all of the offices are connected because of the telecoms issues facing the area. But within the next 12 months, we hope to have all offices connected, and then will have 5,500 users on the network," he says.

One of the concerns that will shape the migration is the need for developers skilled in languages underpinning open source projects. Though newer frameworks like Ruby on Rails are all the rage in Europe and the US, the reality, says Soobramani, is that the African market has its own characteristics - and for now, this means that his department will develop its open source-powered projects using Java and the J2EE framework.

"When they talk about open source, everybody says, it's free, it's free, it's free, but it's not free to develop applications - that's where the costs come in."

So far, it appears the government-mandated policy on OSS has prompted a slow but steady shift in perception within its various departments. Nevertheless, Soobramani believes that there would be more proactive buy-in if the OSS industry took the initiative to market it more aggressively to government.