Microsoft and the Royal Institution Of Chartered Surveyors deal

by Jono Bacon

Just over a week ago I was running a LAMP training course when I had a phone call from an organisation called Edelman. Quite some time ago, Microsoft decided to run a series of seminars across the UK that were advertised under the Get The Facts tour. Largely satired across Open Source websites as the Get The FUD tour, I was interested in going along to have a chat with someone reasonably senior at Microsoft about their so called facts and how the Open Source community could possibly think that Microsoft may not be telling the gods honest truth. I contacted Microsoft and was put through to their PR firm; Edelman.

When I went along to the Get The Facts tour, I was introduced to a chap named Nick McGrath. As the loftily titled Head of Platform Strategy, Nick has been with Microsoft for around thirteen years, and his job title gives him the responsibility of explaining Microsoft's position in the industry, with particular relevance to Open Source. When I met Nick for the first time at the Get The Facts tour, I was writing an article about Microsoft for Linux Format, and was intrigued to see how he reacted to my carefully crafted range of probing queries. I met him in Manchester over lunch, threw the questions at him and he responded both knowledgeably and gracefully. He is someone who not only shows knowledge of the subject, but expresses his opinion with respect and a love for the debate. I have since seen Nick at another conference and I always enjoy catching up with him; we get on well as people on opposite sides of the fence with a shared view of some aspects of the industry but not others.

The phone call I received from Edelman invited me down to their offices in Piccadilly Circus, London to discuss a deal that Microsoft has struck with a then-unspecified organisation who have moved from Linux to a Microsoft based solution. Although Edelman could not share who this organisation was, they could tell me that they had 110,000 members. I booked the meeting and proceeded to try and decide who this entity could be. As a member-based organisation, they could reasonably span across a variety of industries. With my experience, reasoning and consideration on form, I came up with the conclusion that it must be The AA or Readers Digest. OK...OK, I was a little thin on ideas...

So, I headed down to London and wandered past the glowing lights of Piccadilly Circus to meet at Edelman's offices nearby. As far as PR firms go, they were quite something. A very American styled building filled with trendy meeting rooms and plasma TVs. I signed in with security, wandered up the stairs and was walked into a meeting room in which Nick McGrath was waiting.

The solution

The mystery organisation in question was The Royal Institution Of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). As someone who has recently been entered into the extortionate world of debt that is buying a house, I am all too familiar with who these guys are. This organisation provides a professional institution for the global standards in land, property, construction and environmental issues, and their experience and intellect ensure that my new house has a roof that won't leak and a plot that will not collapse into a mine. Although the RICS may not have direct contact with house buyers, there is an important and relative connection, in the same way that CORGI has a relative importance to people who poke at your gas pipes.

The RICS used to use a Linux system for their web resources (I could not get details of exactly what software they used), and this system was inherited by the IT department. As a decaying solution, they found the Linux system difficult to maintain and achieve their business goals, and have since purchased six components from Microsoft:

  • 2x front facing load based systems

  • 2x SQL Server installations

  • 2x Active Directory servers

This solution all fundamentally hinges around a tool called BizTalk; a piece of software that most people probably don't really care about, but a tool Microsoft is marketing as a solution for integrating systems. BizTalk basically gives you the ability to design software to integrate different parts of your network together and then BizTalk will generate the code to run your design as a real piece of software. This BizTalk system sits in middle of a number of components to tie together the RICS web site, membership and complaints systems. As their solution matures, they hope to add the finance and library services to the melting pot; all controlled by BizTalk.

The benefits that are cited in the grinning press release include a single view of the 110,000 members, personalised access to the the information members need, reduced costs by managing the site internally (something the press release cites as "impossible with the Linux site") and a few other benefits. Richard Carlson, Head of Business Systems at RICS says in the press release that "Windows gives us everything Linux could not offer: advanced content management and an integrated e-commerce infrastructure that can be managed in-house. Using Microsoft as our web platform has enabled a new revenue stream that we couldn't have created with our Linux system. We expect to see lower costs from the integration common skill sets that Windows gives us". Cor, doesn't that sound good. Well, lets take a look at this in more detail.


The first interesting point to note is that this Linux system was essentially inherited by the department. From my understanding in the meeting, the Linux solution was a complex system that was set up and was difficult to maintain as the original staff who maintained it were no longer there. They had a complex system that they wanted to maintain, and they could not do so. A cynic may concur that the obvious solution is to employ someone who does have the requisite Linux knowledge to come in and fix the system, or at least understand the problem. This is the reason why when my car breaks down (as it frequently does), I take it to the mechanic and don't just go out and buy another car or some other method of getting from A to B.

I asked if the reason for the switch to a Microsoft solution was because Linux was not up to the task or whether it was that they simply did not understand the system. I was told that it was not that Linux was incapable for the solution, but they were having difficulty getting the staff to manage it. This does not exactly fit in with the "Windows gives us everything Linux could not offer" citation in the press release quote. It is evident that Linux can indeed offer a compelling solution, but the skills were not there in the eyes of the RICS to support it. This is a perfectly valid point to make. You can have the most wonderful solution in the world, but if you don't have someone to spit-shine the gears, you may as well just resort to paper and pencils.

As I sat in the meeting, it was clear that the RICS wanted an off the shelf product. From what I could gather, they were not interested in a custom, bespoke tool created for them, but were instead interested in a generic tool-set that they could use to manage their IT in-house and not rely on consultants or developers; a tool-set that readily available staff could use. This does not surprise me either. If someone came into an organisation that I ran and created some kind of custom system that you needed black magic to understand, I would feel indebted to keep them on board or my IT goes down the pan until someone can understand it. This has always been one of the traditional methods of keeping your job, particularly in the UNIX world. Simply weave an intricate web of bash shell scripts, garnish them with a range of specially compiled and utterly archaic system tools and finish with an impressive lack of documentation on how the whole thing works. If you got the recipe just right, developed an anti-social personality and kept yourself to yourself, you just may never get bothered by management again...

Microsoft know that this can be a problem, particularly in ancient UNIX contracts. They know full well that although UNIX and Linux based system offer a level of custom-ability and flexibility that their competing products cannot offer, the sheer dominance of their brand has also capitalised on an industry of predictable problems and predictable solutions. And this is the kind of client that Microsoft will be chuffed to bits with; a client with a well known name that had a solution held together by the chewing gum of a departed team.

Defining the press advantage

The fact that you are even reading this article is testament to the fact that Microsoft could understand the possible legs this case study may have in the press. Although not quite as riveting as the NHS deal, the use of a Microsoft solution in the RICS demonstrate that their technology is useful by an organisation that not only has a degree of brand recognition in enterprise markets (markets driven by house buyers and lawyers), but it is also an esteemed Royal organisation.

Another perceived win for Microsoft here is that aside from a prestigious organisation using their products, it is an example of someone moving from Linux to Microsoft. This is critically important for Microsoft. There are few examples of large organisations moving from Linux products to Microsoft solutions, but there are a huge amount of press reported organisations moving from Microsoft products to Linux solutions. The reason for this is simple; Microsoft have already defined a market through their dominance, and the new Linux contender has helped to redefine the rules of the market and provide a solution for many of the ills that people see in Microsoft products. In addition to this, Linux has been largely propagated by organisations who have been able to mobilise to the Open Source advantage. As much as Microsoft have been able to respond to customer needs in their solutions providers, the actual beast that is Microsoft have been rather slow in responding to the bigger picture. The culture of the Internet, security, PR via blogging, web standards and cross platform development tools have all taken time to happen at Microsoft. This delay has largely been due to the fact that Microsoft are a huge organisation with a large hierarchy of power. IBM and Novell have also faced such challenges, and although they have taken a long time too, I don't think they have been quite as lethargic as Microsoft.

Corporate pong

One question I asked in the meeting was "what are the RICS seeking to get out of this press attention that Microsoft were developing with this case study?". Although I asked how much their solution cost, both the RICS and Microsoft were remaining tight-lipped. I dug a little deeper and I was told that the RICS were not necessarily looking for the cheapest solution, but the right solution; an admirable viewpoint when choosing their IT. Whether Microsoft have possibly offered them mates-rates in exchange for the good press is difficult to predict (this was of course denied by both parties), but irrespective of how the press agreement was forged, it was clear that cost was secondary to being the right solution.

It is always interesting to observe potential solutions at this level. When you get to the large enterprise scale, cost is often not a factor. Years ago, Linux used to be predominantly marketed on cost factors, but with the large take up of Linux and Open Source in the enterprise, the cost issue has not been relied on quite as much. One thing I have frequently iterated in my articles and blog postings is that you simply cannot flog someone a a product or concept based upon what it can give an enterprise; you can only sell it on the premise of the problems it can take away from the enterprise. This is equally applicable on both sides of the fence; Microsoft no doubt sold the RICS the concept of a Microsoft solution on how it could solve real-world problems and not how it could implement high flying features. With this in mind, the enterprise space is actually a fairly good area in which to compare different products, even if it does just mean taking a normal piece of software and using a huge rubber stamp to graffiti 'Enterprise' all over the product title and literature. As you may guess from my tone, I am a little cynical about this 'enterprise culture'.

With this case study, Microsoft are fundamentally entering another round of Corporate Pong. Although the RICS are unlikely to resonate interest in the consumer press machine, in enterprise computing circles, Microsoft have got an asset to plunge on with the numbers and status game. This is the nature of the market and although it is utterly irrelevant to the circumstances of most businesses, it seeks to raise the profile of Microsoft and demote the profile of their Open Source rival. Ultimately, the logic of the game needs much more than each side throwing case studies at each other.

What do you think? Do you care about this deal?


2005-03-22 00:28:08
First to Microsoft for closing the deal.
Second to RICS for getting a system well tailored to their needs.
And third to you for writing a pretty unbiassed article despite you being (as you yourself admit) in the opposing camp to Microsoft.

A refreshing change from the constant religious anti-Microsoft arguments from the Linux zealots!

2005-03-23 12:39:41
And congratulations to Microsoft for spinning this from a "we don't have the expertise to run this system" to a "Windows gives us everything Linux could not offer" PR pitch.

Microsoft does have a valid point and advantage in how its products are packaged, installed, and configured AND they should know that their average user expects this kind of "experience" from ALL software they use. I've run into quite a number of MS Windows users who are bringing open source projects into their systems and some things that take them 1-2 days to figure out( if they do ) only take me about 1 hour to figure out.

I believe this has to do with the point/click mentality of how MS Windows software is handled these days. I suspect few MS Windows users really get to know what the software is capable of, beyond the toplevel GUI controls exposed to them. While someone who will spend a little time understanding the layout and features( not code but the more complete capabilities ) of software before installing and running it( many times required for OSS ) will have little problem figuring out how to bring new OSS up and running.

The way Microsoft spins facts into fiction will always rub the "other side" the wrong way and it's funny to see that even though Microsoft had a valid point to promote, instead they spun it into something it was not. It says something about the "personality" Microsoft has IMO.

Very very nice assessment by Mr Bacon. Something sorely missing from the "standard" press.