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Opening the door to open source

By Nick Easen for CNN

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(CNN) -- When it is time to upgrade technology operations, most corporations turn to Microsoft, but this behavior is changing.

Although Microsoft still rules the office desktop and racks up healthy sales for server operating systems, open source software is winning fans over.

The most popular alternative to Microsoft's flagship Windows computer operating system is Linux. Unlike Windows it is free to download, install, copy, and redistribute.

The European Union, British and Israeli governments are showing a preference for Linux. Brazil's top technology officer has even said he wants the operating system across the entire public sector.

Many large high-profile companies are also experimenting with it. Morgan Stanley and Unilever are already in the process of migrating servers and databases onto Linux.

With IBM now offering corporations Linux-based support, there are some in the industry who feel the flexibility of open source software is the way forward.

"We might well be reaching a tipping point at which it becomes acceptable to start to use Linux," independent technology analyst Azeem Azhar told CNN.

The concept of an open source operating system, where the collective creativity of software designers around the world pulls together, has also become a seductive scenario for some.

"It is not good that you are dependent on only one enterprise," says Ernst Wolowicz from the Munich City Council.

"Microsoft has a very strong position in the market and if you are dependent on them, you cannot decide when to update, Microsoft decides this instead."

The council runs Munich's public transport, including schools and hospitals. In total 14,000 computers all ran on Windows NT, which Microsoft is phasing out.

An upgrade to Windows XP would have potentially cost the council $37 million. But Munich went with Linux instead with a price tag of $40 million.

Although Linux is free for businesses looking to install it, the software is only a small part of the equation.

Configuring it, installing the system, training people to use it and provide support, absorbs the majority of the technology budget.

Since open source software has not been around for business use as long as Microsoft Windows, there is also the question of whether a change will be worth it in the long run.

"It takes eight, ten or 12 years sometimes before people can really prove there has been a positive cash improvement as a result of going with Linux," explains Azhar.

"In this industry it is not worth doing something that will take this long."

Yet Microsoft still points out the benefits of being a one-stop shop and believes it has the competitive advantage.

"That kernel operating system ... is not the key area, it is the software you have to buy on top of that to deal with management, security and directories and things like that," says Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft.

However, a new era maybe about to begin.

Linux disciples and fans of Microsoft have stopped arguing over which operating system is better and have now started talking about how the two can coexist.

-- CNN's Andrew Carey contributed to this report.

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