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UK Agency Report Greenlights Linux

A day after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent out a missive pushing Redmond's message that "free software isn't free," the UK's Office of Government Commerce (OGC) said open source software is a viable desktop alternative for most government users.

The report, released Thursday, is based on the results of several open source software pilots launched in both central government departments and the wider public sector in October 2003.

The pilots illustrated that interoperability is no longer a major issue and that use of open source software (OSS) could prolong hardware life. But the most important -- and controversial -- finding was the cost issue.

"Open source software can generate significant savings, particularly in conjunction with server consolidation and by delaying hardware replacement," the report said. Without recommending a switch to OSS, the report said that the decision between proprietary and OSS should take into account the total cost of ownership.

Regarding security, the report pointed out that OSS is the subject of fewer attacks than proprietary software.

"Patches or updates to OSS following discovery of faults, such as security vulnerabilities, tend to be produced very rapidly, often within hours or days of announcement of the discovery of a problem. Users of closed source proprietary software are dependent upon the software vendor to release an upgraded binary version. This process can take considerably longer, leaving the user vulnerable to known threats."

"These pilots have provided us with valuable evidence on open source software," OGC Chief Executive John Oughton said in a statement. "They show it could support government bodies by offering efficient and cost-effective IT solutions."

He said that the report would be used by public-sector entities to make informed judgments about whether to use Microsoft or OSS.

That total cost of ownership issue is something that Microsoft has been hitting hard through its "Get the Facts on Windows and Linux" campaign. On Wednesday, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer sent an e-mail to customers and partners reiterating the results of both Microsoft-sponsored and independent analyses showcased on a special Web site.

In a nutshell, Ballmer wrote, "... It's pretty clear that the facts show that Windows provides a lower total cost of ownership than Linux; the number of security vulnerabilities is lower on Windows, and Windows responsiveness on security is better than Linux; and Microsoft provides uncapped IP indemnification of their products, while no such comprehensive offering is available for Linux or open source."

But the campaign has come under fire because Microsoft paid for some of the studies.

In August, the Advertising Standards Authority, a United Kingdom agency charged with monitoring fairness and accuracy in ads, ordered Microsoft to pull an ad touting a server test conducted by META Group. The ASA found that claims that Linux is more than 10 times more expensive than Windows Server 2003 weren't supported by the tests.

A highly touted win by Microsoft with the U.K. Borough of Newham was criticized by Eddie Bleasdale, president of Netproject, an IT consultancy. Beasdale charged that a 12-week TCO assessment by consulting firm CapGemini showed Windows was a better platform only because Microsoft slashed prices.

These TCO studies are taken with a grain of salt by customers, said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff -- no matter who pays for them. Results, he said, are highly dependent on the specific assumptions and details of the specific situation being studied.

"Sometimes, the case is so absolutely compelling that results are hard to dismiss," Haff said. "In the case of Linux versus Windows, no matter what Microsoft might say on one side, and what open source advocates say on the other, there are a lot of factors that can drive the decision one way or the other."

The OCG pilots, the result of a July 2002 directive by the U.K. Cabinet Office, were carried out in partnership with Microsoft rivals IBM and Sun Microsystems . They included a document management system for the Central Scottish Police, a Samba File and Print server used by the Powys County Council, and a test of Linux/StarOffice for desktop computers in the Office of Water Services.

Martin Goodman, director of IBM's U.K. Public Sector Business, said in a statement, "This report emphasizes many of the benefits that open source software offers governmental organizations: total cost of ownership savings, improved interoperability and reduced dependency on proprietary offerings."

Said a Microsoft spokesperson, "We understand that it is the role of government to promote a level playing field and to foster increased competition in any market. However, having read the report in detail, the findings do not align fully with feedback we regularly receive from our customers in the market place who have evaluated Microsoft software against open source software."

While Microsoft is under some pressure from Linux in government agencies around the globe, TCO is only part of the story, Haff said.

"It's not surprising that Linux has had some of its strongest success outside the U.S.," he said. "It's politically preferable to be using open source than to be beholden to an American company -- and one that has, after all, been found guilty of all kinds of unsavory business practices."