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Linux services growing on the double

As open-source software catches on in Europe, so does the need for support--and companies are willing to pay.

Business services supporting Linux and open-source applications have attained mainstream status in Western Europe, according to a new report from IDC.

The report released Thursday said that businesses and government departments in the region will spend $98 million on services to support their Linux systems in 2004. By 2008, this figure is expected to increase to $228 million.

Dominique Raviart, senior research analyst in IDC's European services group, said that although Linux and open-source software account for just 1 percent of total spending on IT services, this sector is moving into the mainstream.

"There are several factors driving this market growth, not least the fact that many companies and the public sector are choosing Linux and free software as a cost-cutting measure. It is losing its niche status and emerging as a mainstream market," she said.

The popularity of Linux in servers has steadily increased over the past few years, and the open-source operating system has even started making a small dent in Microsoft's dominance in the desktop.

Linux's momentum has been helped by a number of high-profile customer wins, such as the city of Munich, which last month confirmed that it would be switching 14,000 computers from Microsoft's Windows to the rival open-source platform.

Lionel Lamy, program manager of European infrastructure management services at IDC, said that government contract wins have brought more visibility to Linux-based projects and that the trend is expected to continue.

"At this stage, several public-sector units are at the consulting phase. In the next two years, a number of them will begin migration projects," said Lamy, who worked with Raviart on the report.

James Governor, principal analyst at Redmonk, said it is easy to imagine the services market for Linux growing into something very substantial because people want the same support for Linux that they have for other systems.

"This is a big issue in open source because there is no substitute to calling someone and saying 'I have a support contract and I want someone in the building within two hours,'" Governor said.

Because of the nature of Linux and open source, Governor said, many companies do not have to rely on external support. But as the operating system extends its reach, he expects that more companies will require the "safety blanket" provided by IT service organizations.

"Support for open source is a big issue because people want a foot to stand on and a throat to choke when things go wrong," Governor said.

Munir Kotadia of ZDNet UK reported from London.