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Linux contract treads on Microsoft turf

A deal with IBM and SuSE makes it easier for German government offices to begin using Linux, a move that may signal a break from the country's heavy reliance on Microsoft.

The German government has signed a deal with IBM and Linux company SuSE that makes it easier for government offices to use the open-source operating system, a move that addresses concerns about relying too heavily on Microsoft products.

The government isn't mandating the use of Linux, but the deal makes it possible for hundreds of federal, regional and local governments to purchase IBM computers running SuSE's version of Linux at a discount price, said German foreign ministry spokesman Dirk Inger. The purchasing framework covers both desktop computers, where Microsoft has its stronghold, and more powerful networked server systems where Linux is a stronger competitor.

The deal provides an open-source counterweight to an earlier discount arrangement with Microsoft.

"Before today, we only had a framework treaty with Microsoft," Inger said. "The public sector only could buy Microsoft products without any problem."

Governments have been embracing open-source software as a way to cut costs and sometimes also to break free of a U.S.-dominated software market. Open-source software such as Linux may be freely modified and redistributed without the legal and financial constraints of proprietary software from Microsoft, Oracle and others.

But the German deal added another reason to the list: security. Germany wanted to avoid "monocultures" of computing equipment, that is, reliance on a single type of equipment that can be crippled by a single security weakness. Using a variety of systems generally means some systems will survive hacker attacks.

"With the contract with IBM we meet three key targets," Otto Schily, Minister of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany, said in a statement. "We raise the level of IT security by avoiding monocultures; we lower the dependency on single software vendors; and we reach costs savings in software and operation costs."

Through the dominance of Windows and Office, though, Microsoft has a major hold on the computing world, which won't be easy to break. Microsoft rival Sun Microsystems, for example, has had mixed success thus far with its competing StarOffice collection of commonly used business applications.

Microsoft stands by its methods, saying it has a strong relationship with the German government and that its products are worth paying for. "At the end of the day, we believe Microsoft offers the best overall option of value, integration, interoperability and support, without complexity or added dependency on services," the company said in a statement.

Sun has spread its competing StarOffice package--an open-source project at heart--to Taiwanese and Chinese governments. But Gartner analysts still believe Sun will be lucky to achieve a mere 10 percent of the market.

In servers, though, Microsoft is much more vulnerable. Servers are the more powerful networked computers that handle tasks such as e-mail or accounts receivable. Linux and its close relative Unix are popular in the server environment, and under its deal with the German government, IBM will supply its servers with SuSE Linux pre-installed.

Though there aren't yet any purchasing commitments, IBM expects them to come now that the purchasing framework is in place, said Michael Nelson, director of Internet technology and strategy for Big Blue.

"It's a first step by the German government to put Linux in information technology systems at the national, state and local level," Nelson said. "There will be follow-on contracts. That's where the real money will be."

IBM also has won smaller deals that have helped spread Linux among government customers: The Chinese post office has Linux running in 1,200 branch offices; the U.S. Agriculture Department is running Linux Internet servers on its mainframe systems; and the Education Department of Australia's Northern Territory will install 200 IBM servers and 4,000 IBM desktop machines. Government customers using Linux for supercomputing applications include the U.S. Energy Department's National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center and the U.S. Air Force.