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GCHQ spooks top UK Linux installations

The largest installation of Linux desktops in any British Government site is at GCHQ, the high-tech spy-station in Cheltenham, according to industry sources.

Whispers in the courtly corridors around Westminster, the seat of British government, have it that British intelligence uses Linux because it is secure, good at number crunching, and doesn't cost much to deploy.

It is hard otherwise to find any British site where Linux has been rolled out in numbers greater than hundreds of desktops, say the whisperers.

This is a touchy subject, as it is, of course, Top Secret. IT contractors at GCHQ, the listening-post for the UK's MI6 intelligence service, have to sign the Official Secrets Act. They can be sent to prison for so much as saying whether Q likes milk in his tea.

But the GCHQ revelation gives insight into the way Linux has tiptoed onto Britain's computing scene. It has only really caught on in those seedy domains where the techies are the users. So Linux is the preferred back-end platform in the City of London's financial district, a redoubt once held by Unix, the Linux forebear elbowed out for its licence costs.

Hush hush
Another relatively big British Linux site is the Met Office, which monitors the weather. Number crunchers prefer Linux, say open source advocates, and that is why the UK's private sector has been slow to catch onto it: the bleeding-edge Web 2.0 businesses that install enough Linux machines to actually support a supply-side industry simply don't exist in the UK.

Take Ubuntu, the blend of Linux touted by Canonical, that rare of rare beasts: a company that not only makes money out of Linux but is based in the UK. The largest known private sector installation of Ubuntu, across a respectable 21,000 machines, is in California. The site is Google, though that's hush-hush as well.

Things are, however, about to change. And for three reasons. The Liberal Democrats, traditionally the political party for people who wear socks and sandals – the natural Linux party – have taken power as one half of the British coalition Government. The other reason is that there is emerging across the board a generation of politicians who simply “get it”, as they say in the open source trade.

The rules of cricket
The third is that no-one has enough money to buy Microsoft any more, bar the middle classes. Linux will emerge soon from the secret shadows into the full glare of public life, as long as one last condition can be satisfied. And that is that someone levels the playing field. Because for all the will in the world, the UK's public sector has found that it cannot break free of Microsoft's grip on the desktop, protected as it is by the use of a proprietary file format that that makes all competition futile.

The Socialist government of Andalusia levelled the playing field by ordering that all 675,000 pupils and teachers in its state education system must use Linux. If no-one is able to use Microsoft software, no-one can form the protectionist club of Microsoft users that can prevent anyone else from using Linux. Andalusia is rolling Ubuntu out on all 220,000 desktops in the state education system.

Britain's Conservative and Liberal Democrat Alliance has proposed to level the playing field by ordering everyone in the public sector to use open standards. If no-one's allowed to use Microsoft formats, and are forced to play fair, it doesn't matter what software they use. monitors all leading technology stories and rounds them up to help you save time hunting them down.