Linux wins another European government contract

The French Ministry of Equipment is to migrate 1,500 aging Windows NT servers to a specially developed version of MandrakeSoft SA’s Mandrake Linux Corporate Server, amid growing evidence that large European organizations are treating open-source software as a serious alternative to proprietary offerings.

MandrakeSoft said on Friday that two Linux distributions based on Corporate Server, developed to suit the ministry’s requirements, had been selected for the migration. The ministry is also buying services such as technical monitoring, training and technical support from MandrakeSoft.

The ministry’s IT systems include 60,000 workstations and 2,000 Windows NT servers nearing the end of their useful lives, spread across 160 remote locations, including 102 local French administrations, according to MandrakeSoft. The organization employs about 100,000 agents throughout France.

The ministry, like other public sector bodies, said it is migrating to an open-source platform partly to avoid being locked into the technology of a particular vendor, as well as to reduce IT costs. Linux, like other open-source software, uses a licence that prevents a single company from controlling the technology; customers can theoretically migrate from one distribution to another with a minimum of hassle.

By contrast, the European Commission recently ruled that Microsoft Corp. had abused its monopoly on desktop software to lock customers into its own server software. Linux is already widely used in servers but has only recently begun to clinch big workstation contracts — notably in the German city of Munich.

“This project is our first achievement among several similar new (projects), and is a sign of MandrakeSoft’s dynamic growth,” said MandrakeSoft chief executive Francois Bancilhon. The company recently exited bankruptcy protection.

Large organizations, particularly in the public sector, are increasingly building open-source software into their IT buying cycles, according to a study last week from research firm IDC. The study found that organizations are using more external open-source services, particularly consulting and server migration, from the likes of Siemens Business services, Capgemini, IGS and HP Services, rather than relying on the decisions of internal IT staff.

“In short, transitioning of external [open source] services from a niche status to mainstream means that acceptance of free software and open source is growing,” analyst Dominique Raviart told Techworld. “In other words, free software is becoming an alternative route to lowering operational IT costs.”

Other promising signs for Linux include agreements by Allied Irish Banks PLC and the government of New South Wales, Australia to switch thousands of Windows desktops to Sun Microsystems Inc.’s Linux-based Java Desktop System (JDS), the decision of Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, to consolidate older Windows and Unix servers on Novell Inc.’s Suse Linux Enterprise Server 8, and the Munich deal, Raviart said.

In France, government ministers have said the government is serious about adopting Linux. Civil service minister Renaud Dutreil told Reuters France last month he wants to use open-source when upgrading at least some of the government’s nearly one million computers. “The competition is open,” he said, estimating the government’s software bill could be cut at least in half. Microsoft “must return to being one supplier to the state among others,” he said.

Earlier this month Microsoft reportedly offered price cuts of 60 percent for Paris City Hall, which is studying the possibility of switching 15,000 workstations to Linux.

Some organizations are likely to be merely using the threat of Linux installations to pressure Microsoft’s prices down, analyst Raviart said. “That may be the case with Paris City Hall,” he said. However, he said the other commitments being made signal that open source is for real.

Earlier this month three French government-funded research organizations unveiled a new, GPL-compatible open-source licence called CeCILL, designed to make the software more compatible with French law and spread its adoption.

The U.K. seems to have largely stayed quiet on the open-source front, Raviart said: public and private sector organizations here are more likely to publicly announce IT deals, so their silence on open source is particularly noticeable. Partly, this is probably due to a “more liberal” attitude toward Microsoft on the part of the U.K.’s public sector, Raviart speculated. By contrast, “a number of German or French public units may see a lower dependence on Microsoft products as a positive sign,” he said.

He said U.K. firms are also using other means to cut costs, including outsourcing, offshoring and application management, meaning they don’t place as much emphasis on open source’s cost-cutting benefits. In countries such as Germany and France outsourcing offshoring is more controversial and firms are more reluctant to associate themselves with it, Raviart said.

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