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Linux Grows on Government Systems

Users say the open source operating system is cheaper and offers more security.

NEW YORK (AP) -- Linux, the open-source operating system with an outsider mystique, is now proliferating on powerful government computer systems in the United States and abroad with technology giants increasingly providing support.

At a Tokyo trade show on Friday, IBM Corp. was announcing the sale of more than 75 Linux-based computer systems to U.S. agencies including the Air Force, the Defense, Agriculture and Energy departments and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Overseas, Linux systems help keep order in Germany's parliament as well as China's post office, France's culture, defense and education ministries and other federal agencies in Europe and Asia.

"It's an interesting trend and we're seeing a lot of organizations who are very interested in open source software in general and Linux in particular," said Dan Kusnetzky of the technology research firm IDC.

Linux Does Lots of Jobs
Unlike most commercial software, the underlying code in open source software is free and benefits from continual scrutiny and improvements made by a community of programmers.

Proponents say that makes Linux more stable and secure than, say, Microsoft products -- a claim Microsoft and others dispute.

Hewlett-Packard recently sold its second Linux system to the U.S. Department of Energy -- a $24.5 million computer fingered as the world's most powerful Linux configuration. The Energy Department will use the machine for biological and environmental research.

Red Hat Inc., which sells a popular version of Linux software and tools, says the European Commission is running its software, along with federal ministries in France and Germany.

Now that adoption of Linux is being pushed by the likes of IBM and HP, the once-renegade operating system has gained a gleam of respectability, said James Lewis, a technology analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who helped formulate Clinton administration encryption policy.

Until recently, Linux filtered into U.S. government computers through system administrators who simply installed it because it is cheap. But increasingly, experts say, agencies are willing to pay for high-performance hardware tailored to Linux.

Linux has made little headway in the desktop operating system market dominated by Microsoft because of incompatibilities with popular Microsoft applications that people use every day.

U.S. Federal Government Using Linux
However, Linux is now the world's No. 2 server operating system, with about 27 percent of the market, behind Microsoft's various Windows systems, which run more than 40 percent of servers and most desktop computers, according to the technology research firm IDC.

It is most appropriate for certain math-intensive supercomputing applications as well as Internet servers and closed networks that tie together many branch locations such as those of a bank, Kusnetzky said.

The software appears to be winning friends among military and intelligence agencies.

A study completed for the Pentagon by the Mitre Corp. last week identified 249 U.S. government uses of open-source computer systems and tools, with Linux running on several Air Force computers, along with systems run by the Marine Corps, the Naval Research Laboratory and others.

The report recommended further use of open-source computing systems, on the grounds that they were less vulnerable to attacks and far cheaper.

Microsoft has lobbied the Pentagon against certain versions of open source software, claiming that government research into open source software is subsidizing its competitors.

At the U.S. Air Force SEEK EAGLE office at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida -- the office charged with certifying that bombs and missiles can be safely carried and released by U.S. aircraft -- researchers are using a high-performance IBM Linux system to model weapons' trajectories.

The Air Force unit bought a 64-processor IBM Linux computing cluster, along with three years of tech support, for $130,000 -- far less than the $750,000 Silicon Graphics system it replaced, said Steven Standley, an aerospace engineer working on the project.

IBM said military and intelligence agencies in the United States, Canada, Germany, France, England, Spain, China and Singapore have purchased its Linux systems.

The U.S. National Security Agency offers its own Security-Enhanced Linux software for free download from its Web site.

With so many software developers tinkering with Linux's open code, new versions of the software show continual improvements, said Steve Solazzo, IBM's general manager for Linux.

"Linux is maturing very quickly, adding feature and function incredibly fast," Solazzo said.

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