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Germany: dPhoenix on the road to failure?

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A Free Software office and collaboration suite for the public sector is one of the projects with which the German government aims to fulfil the goals of the coalition agreement. But a closer look at the project raises questions: Where is the source code? Who is responsible? What happens to the public money involved? We asked the relevant ministry.

Back in 2020, the north German IT service provider Dataport started the first pilots of its dPhoenixSuite as an alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary office and collaboration suite. The dPhoenixSuite integrates Free Software components such as Nextcloud, Matrix, Jitsi, Collabora, and UCS. The suite is already being offered on a small scale as a cloud service to German adminstrations, taking a stand where the German IT Planning Council is calling for a sovereign working environment for administrations, with Free Software solutions as a priority. But Dataport seems to fall short of this expectation.

The current issue 07/23 of Linux Magazin comes with a detailed and critical analysis by Markus Feilner, which covers both the history and the problems of Dataport’s “Projekt Phoenix” and its relation to the “Sovereign Workplace” (“Souveräner Arbeitsplatz”), a long promised reference implementation under the responsibility of the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI), coordinated by the recently founded Centre for Digital Sovereignty of Public Administration (ZenDiS). Some of the major problems Feilner reveals are the missing dPhoenixSuite source code, a lack of understanding of Free Software and of collaboration within the Free Software community, a tendency to open-wash by claiming to be “based on open source”, unclear responsibilities, and an opaque relationship to the BMI’s “Sovereign Workplace” project.

We have been promoting the concept of “Public Money? Public Code!” since 2017, and we welcome and encourage every step towards Free Software in public administrations. However, the recent news developments around Dataport and the Sovereign Workplace are reason to be wary, especially of any attempts to open-wash.

Therefore, we have today sent a list of questions to the BMI, expecting that the answers will make the situation around the dPhoenixSuite and the Sovereign Workplace transparent.

Questions for the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community (BMI):

  1. Dataport advertises its dPhoenixSuite as an “open source solution”. So far, however, only the source code of the underlying Free Software (also known as Open Source) components is available under Free Software licences. The code of the complete, integrated suite cannot be obtained from Dataport upon request.

    1. When will the full source code of the Sovereign Workplace be published on OpenCoDE?
    2. Will the code be published under a Free Software license, and if yes, under which one?
    3. Is the Sovereign Workplace based on the same code stack as the dPhoenixSuite?
    4. What part of the Sovereign Workplace code comes from dPhoenixSuite? In which parts do they differ and why?
    5. Will it be possible for everyone to compile the Sovereign Workplace from the source code and run it on one’s own infrastructure as soon as it is published on OpenCoDE? Will an elaborate documentation to the code be available?
    6. Are there plans do further develop the Sovereign Workplace in collaboration with the community of the underlying Free Software projects after the code has been published?
    7. Will further development using OpenCoDE take place openly according to the tried and tested principles of “coding in the open” and “release early, release often”, establishing and involving a community?
  2. According to public news and information from Dataport, the dPhoenixSuite is based on the Sovereign Workplace, which is to be published on OpenCoDE before the end of 2023. According to the BMI, the Sovereign Workplace is based on dPhoenixSuite.

    1. Which of the two statements is correct? How did the two different statements come about?
    2. Which contracts with reference to the Sovereign Workplace exist between the BMI or ZenDiS on the one hand and Dataport on the other?
    3. Is the Sovereign Workplace rather a fork of dPhoenixSuite or a reference implementation? Once the source code has been published on OpenCoDE, will the Sovereign Workplace be further developed independently of dPhoenixSuite or will it remain coupled to dPhoenixSuite?
    4. Can you provide us with an organisation chart of the Sovereign Workplace project with all the authorities, offices, public bodies, and responsible persons involved? If this is not possible: Which authorities, offices, public bodies, and responsible persons are involved in the Sovereign Workplace project (in each case with details of their role and responsibility within the project)?
    5. Who is responsible for the Sovereign Workplace project in the BMI?
    6. What competences does the CIO have in coordinating the project and in coordinating with Dataport?
    7. Where and by whom is the cooperation between Dataport and BMI/ZenDiS on the Sovereign Workplace and the Phoenix project controlled and coordinated?
    8. Where and under whose leadership are the components of the Sovereign Workplace that are not adopted from the Free Software community (for example gluecode and integration scripts) developed?
    9. How many people develop code for the Sovereign Workplace at the BMI or ZenDiS? Is this code also made available to Dataport for the dPhoenixSuite?
    10. Are there any requirements from BMI/ZenDiS to Dataport for the development of the dPhoenixSuite? If yes: Are these fulfilled?
    11. Has the BMI exerted any influence on Dataport to publish the complete dPhoenixSuite as Free Software?
  3. Funding

    1. What public funding has been spent on the Sovereign Workplace so far?
    2. What funding is available for the project for the current year?
    3. What annual funding is needed until 2025 to further develop the Sovereign Workplace?
    4. Did Dataport receive any funding from the BMI/ZenDiS for the development of dPhoenixSuite or contributions to the Sovereign Workplace?

We expect that the BMI’s response will give the public a better understanding of what is going on around the Sovereign Workplace and the dPhoenixSuite. We will stay tuned to this issue and report back as soon as we receive a response.

Free Software and “Public Money? Public Code!”

Free Software gives everyone the right to use, study, share and improve applications for any purpose. These freedoms ensure that similar applications do not have to be programmed from scratch every time and, thanks to transparent processes, others do not have to reinvent the wheel. In large projects, expertise and costs can be shared and applications paid for by the general public are available to all. This promotes innovation and saves taxpayers money in the medium to long term. Dependencies on vendors are minimised and security issues can be fixed more easily. The Free Software Foundation Europe, together with over 200 organisations and administrations, is therefore calling for “Public Money? Public Code!” - If it is public money, it should be public code as well. More information on the initiative on the “Public Money? Public Code!” website.