Going British for business

Fleur Doidge explores the options for satisfying a customer who expresses a preference for British IT

By Fleur Doidge

More from this author

18 Feb 2013


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British bulldogs with laptop

Back in 2007, one slightly desperate-sounding IT professional contacted Tom’s Hardware when his boss ordered him to source a US-made computer containing no parts made in China, asking the online forum if this could actually be done. The consensus was that it might be possible – as long as by ‘China’ he didn’t mean ‘Taiwan’ as well.

At grass-roots level, many feel it may be better in the long run to buy local. An August poll by HBI Research found that 68 per cent of consumer respondents in the UK prefer to buy British-made products if they can. Their choice might be for a range of reasons -- not all of which bear rigorous scrutiny.

Buying British - because you can?
Reasons for wanting to buy locally made product vary, but these are some of the most common:
*Support local jobs and source local support and solutions

Further reading

*Known quality standards and cultural similarities

*Hedge against currency fluctuations abroad

Tom’s Hardware readers in 2007 estimated a non-Chinese PC might cost $10,000 (£6,365). And even if a label says “made in the UK”, parts of it could hail from anywhere.

A homegrown IT industry once led the world in everything from components upwards, but times have changed.

However, according to Mark Taylor, chief executive of Surrey open-source specialist Sirius Corporation, building a system or network that relies on technology that, in one sense or another, hails from the UK remains possible – although he agrees that sometimes there will be additional cost.

“It depends on how you define ‘British’ – things come from all over the place, so it is difficult to ascertain nationality,” Taylor says. “But there are companies in open source, for example, which have contributions from all over, but are strongly identified with Britain.”

Where to begin?

Perhaps the UK’s biggest hardware success story in recent years is the £25 Raspberry Pi ARM device for GNU Linux (pictured, below left) built in Wales and distributed exclusively by Premier Farnell – a simplified 'computer' with inbuilt appeal to cash-strapped sectors such as education, and across the developing world.

The credit card-sized device still needs a keyboard, screen, SD card and cabling to work, but for some applications it can be just the ticket.

However, for general business use, we would probably begin by sourcing hardware from one of the various surviving UK system builders such as Chillblast, MESH, Viglen, PC Specialist or Compusense. Yes, most rely on standard components from the Orient (those that don’t tend to produce expensive, specialised parts perhaps not best suited to general business applications), but they are still UK-based businesses.

Some of these companies specialise, like many good British firms have done, in high-end kit, but among the nuclear-powered extreme gaming machines and multimedia powerhouses you will find competitively priced PCs suitable for businesses, such as MESH’s Matrix A4, from £299, or PC Specialist’s Genesis IV laptop, from £390.

Raspberry Pi Model A unitWhen it comes to mainstream applications, there are more options but few proprietary names beyond notable exceptions such as Sophos’ security portfolio, and Ability Office, an alternative to Microsoft Office offered by a Horley ISV since 1985. Both brands are focused on Windows users.

Sirius’s Taylor agrees, however, that the most likely candidate for as British a machine as possible may be an open-source or open source-derived Linux distro.

“You can run a business on open source where that has been driven through a UK company,” he says, pointing out that his company has built systems for business customers entirely from open source, and continues to do so.

“We have done this multiple times since the early 2000s,” says Taylor. “I would probably start with an OS such as Debian, which is freeware and has a very strong UK component, or Ubuntu, a UK company.”

For file and print, providers might opt for something such as Jeremy Allison’s Samba, he says, which does Active Directory-like authentication. Email systems could rely on enterprise package Cyrus – developed at Carnegie Mellon by a team including British talent – and Exim, created at Cambridge.

“That is the basics of a system, and then there are things such as processing mail and doing anti-spam, AV, anti-phishing, which could be under MailScanner, from the University of Southampton. There is also ClamAV and SpamAssassin, and for a beautiful Ajax web interface like Outlook Web Access, an open source offering such as Roundcube provides an active email client, with the folders and so on,” Taylor says.

Caching more Squid

Then you may get into more specialised functions, such as Al Fresco for document management, ERP5 for ERP, and SugarCRM for CRM. For web services, the obvious answer is Apache – not from the UK but, once again, it incorporates considerable creative input from British professionals – true also for Drupal and Joomla, the leading apps for content management, running websites and e-commerce. Squid is an open-source caching proxy.

“For VPN, we would recommend StrongSwan – a wonderful option,” says Taylor. “And for databases there is PostgreSQL, which is better than MySQL.”

The days are gone, notes Taylor, when using open source meant a lack of support and a need for advanced technical skills in-house, plus a locally based firm is much more likely to be able to provide human support on the ground to a reseller or a customer. Companies that require high availability, such as BT and many UK utilities, these days have standardised on open source.

There are many UK-developed and owned cloud or SaaS offerings too for a range of applications.

The DistroWatch website allows users to look for Linux developers and applications – CRN’s search revealed 16 different UK OSes, mostly Debian or Ubuntu varieties with an OpenSolaris, Fedora or rPath derivation thrown in for good measure. That list includes security-focused Smoothwall.

Tom Newton, product manager at the Leeds-based commercial Smoothwall business, says few devices today have no open source software – including Android phones, and “swathes” of the Mac OS.

“Open source interactions for us have been almost universally positive. Bugs are fixed rapidly, and we have been able to contribute to components by providing code, and paying contributors to improve their own code,” he says. “The ‘open source is not secure’ mindset is outdated, and this position was spread by vendors of commodity software.”

Security guru Bruce Schneier, Newton notes, says public security is always more secure than proprietary security whether you are talking about cryptographic algorithms, security protocols or source code.

Ian Parrett, communications director at Smoothwall, says its differentiator is content control through dynamic web filtering.

“With more specialised systems, having a ‘local’ supplier makes more sense. Not only is it likely that the supplier will provide services that reflect local customers, language and legislation, but also that service will be delivered in local business hours and without language issues,” he says.

A digital Union JackSmoothwall’s UK support is both pre and post sales, it has solutions designers in Leeds who work with customers, and it can offer 24/7 service. Its channel programme until now has largely been focused on public sector growth but the vendor is keen to tackle broader horizons, Parrett says.

Options for building a “British” system clearly exist. Meanwhile, across the pond, the European Union has been exploring the potential for boosting homegrown IT. Real benefits may accrue, one would think, as costs continue to rise in China.

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