Linux has found another powerful champion in the form of Allied Irish Banks (AIB) which has just signed a deal with Sun to switch all its branches' desktops from Windows to the Linux-based Java Desktop System (JDS). Sun also announced that the government of New South Wales, Australia, will shift 1,500 users from Windows to its software.

The bank deal will be JDS' largest financial services deployment since the software was introduced in December, according to Sun vice president of desktop solutions Curtis Sasaki.

JDS is based on the open-source Linux operating system but future versions will also run with Sun's own Solaris OS and on thin clients. "This deal signifies that the momentum of Java Desktop is moving it into the mainstream market as an alternative to Microsoft on the desktop, which until this point hasn't really been around," said Arlene Adams, Sun's director of software for the UK.

Sun's Irish partner, Horizon Open Systems, will bring the systems online during 2005 as part of AIB's New Branch Banking Platform. The bank is shifting branch staff across the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK to the new desktops; the software will be staff members' interface with all of the branch's applications, Sun said. "This is not just the back-office operations, it's the customer-facing part of the organisation in a type of business that's paranoid about security and service levels," said Adams. Sun will provide AIB with direct support and training during the move.

Maurice Crowley, general manager for new banking platforms at AIB explained the move was part of an entire branch technology platform replacement that it undertakes every eight to ten years. This means it is upgrading from Windows 3.1 (remember that?) and "will swap out a lot of the PCs as well".

Branch but not root reform

Only the branches are moving to the Java Desktop System, however, with the central office continuing to use Microsoft Windows NT. All 400 AIB branches - covering about 7,500 employees - will be moved to the new system. "We will migrate the lot" in a process that will "take the guts of next year".

Sun claimed growing demand for JDS in the financial, education and government markets. Industry analysts also argue that Linux, with fewer available applications than Windows, is best suited to organisations, such as banks and call centres, which only need a limited range of software.

"The idea is that we wanted to move from a thick client to a thin, or as we are saying, a relatively thin, client," Crowley explained. "We wanted something that is browser based, with teller functionality that works on the local client and with a office suite on the client."

AIB spent the better part of a year "bench testing a variety of options, including Microsoft" before picking JDS "because it was open source, had greater flexibility and a lower total cost of ownership [over a seven to eight-year time frame]."

Asked if the move would mean recoding its applications to work with Linux, Crowley told us. "Yes, but it really isn't a big deal in an overall project of this size. And the Web services-based architecture helps. There is also a services layer between the thin client and the end user that picks and mixes business applications and reduces the amount of conversion work."

JDS' main advantages are freedom from Windows' security concerns and an adherence to open standards, which gives IT managers more flexibility in what they choose to deploy across back-end systems, Sun said. "In previous years, ironically, you had a desktop that cost a couple of hundred dollars per seat dictating the IT strategy of a large bank or telco," Adams said. "Proprietary software on the desktop limited what you could buy in the data centre." Standards adherence also allows organisations to roll out new applications across websites, branches and other customer access points more quickly, claimed Sun.

AIB will be using JDS Release 2, introduced last month to compete directly with Windows and Office. It includes simpler desktop management tools, is based on Novell's Suse Linux and includes Sun's StarOffice with the Mozilla Web browser. It is not making public the financial details of the project.

Not road traffic accident

Also on Tuesday, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales announced it would move 1,500 users from Windows to JDS. The RTA will shift 120 offices from Microsoft Exchange to Java System Messaging running on Java Desktop; later the offices will also switch to StarOffice. The RTA said it expects to reduce its desktop and server costs by 20 percent.

Earlier this month Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, announced it will consolidate older Windows and Unix servers on Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server 8. That deal came shortly after the German city of Munich finished a year-long decision-making process that will see 14,000 desktops switched from Windows to Linux, a move that some have called the "poster child" for desktop Linux.

Sun has scored other big deals with JDS. In December, the UK government signed a five-year agreement with Sun to potentially offer JDS and Java Enterprise System (JES) software to public sector agencies as part of an overall open source push. And last November, Sun announced the China Standard Software Company will install JDS on hundreds of millions of computers in the People's Republic of China, starting with some 500,000 to one million desktops this year, as part of a Chinese government programme.

IDC predicts that Linux will be the fastest growing operating environment over the next five years, while Windows has hit a plateau with some 98 percent of the desktop operating system market. Backed with support from major vendors and popularity on college campuses, Linux will thrive, IDC said in a research report late last year.

However, the analyst firm also noted that Microsoft will not sit passively. Instead, it "can be expected to compete vigorously, even using its huge installed base as a competitive tool to deflect Linux's ability to penetrate the industry."

Laura Rohde, IDG News Service, contributed to this report.