NHS - 5,000 chances for truth in the OS Wars

The Health Service's 5,000-seat Java Desktop deal is just the start of a real-life test. Much is at stake

The National Health Service's National Programme for IT has decided to deploy 5,000 seats of Sun Microsystems' Java Desktop System (JDS). In any other organisation, this would be a massive win and a victory beyond question but since the NHS has recently agreed to renew its deal with Microsoft for 1.2 million Windows desktops, some would say that it's nothing significant.

We don't know how much Microsoft is charging for its deal, which awaits Treasury approval. It wouldn't be the first time that a governmental organisation has used an alternative to Windows as a bargaining chip -- the London Borough of Newham made noises about deploying Linux, only to turn round and choose Windows after all. But there's more to the NHS deal than just staring down Bill.

Unlike Newham, the JDS deal is real, and the licences have been bought. The statement by the NPfIT says that JDS will be used for tactical deployments, which is vague enough to mean anything. Whatever the details, have no doubt that the real costs are being closely scrutinised. The NPfIT has the National Audit Office breathing down its neck over the £6bn being spent on NHS contracts, and finding any way of saving money would be attractive right now.

Once those 5,000 seats are in, the NHS will learn how JDS really performs. It won't need any Microsoft-funded reports to know which way is cheaper and what works better. Assuming that there are real TCO savings with JDS, in a couple of years' time the NHS will have an even bigger stick with which to beat Microsoft.

Yet a bold approach deserves to deliver greater rewards than merely a handsome discount. With open-source development progressing at light speed and Windows stuck in a swamp of compatibility and security quicksand, JDS has a good chance of looking an even better bet in the future than it does now. Sun's 5,000-seat win could be the Trojan Horse that the open-source community needs - and we all know how vulnerable Windows is to those.

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