Europe's Web hosting boom has given Linux distributions from Suse, MandrakeSoft, Gentoo and Debian a boost, giving the market leader Red Hat a run for its money, according to new statistics from Netcraft.

While Red Hat's software is continuing to grab more websites, its market share of Linux servers eroded slightly over the past six months, from 50.8 percent to 49.8 percent, according to Netcraft. By only analysing servers connected to the Web (so back-end systems or the majority of Web servers that don't identify themselves are not included), the figures aren't perfect, but they are considered a good indicator of server trends.

The latest survey, published on Monday, indicates that competition is alive and well in the Linux world, partly because of regional preferences and partly due to a controversial new licensing regime at Red Hat, Netcraft said.

The fastest-growing distribution between January and July was Gentoo, also one of the smallest in terms of market share: from 0.7 percent of the market to 1.0 percent, with nearly 30,000 sites - a growth rate of 49.5 percent. Mandrake Linux, popular in France, grew 15.3 percent to 1.3 percent of the market with just over 37,000 sites. Germany's Suse Linux - now owned by Novell - grew 15.6 percent to 11.8 percent of the market and more than 347,000 sites. Debian grew 14.5 percent to 15.9 percent of the market and more than 468,000 sites - previously Debian had been the fastest-growing distribution.

While Red Hat has traditionally dominated in the US, growth in Europe is changing the picture, Netcraft said. "The gains by Debian, Suse and Gentoo have been helped by the continued growth of the hosting market in Europe, where these distributions have their largest users," stated Netcraft's Rich Miller. Debian has two major hosting providers in France, Suse's four biggest hosting customers are in Germany, and a third of Gentoo's sites are housed at Denmark's Forskningsnetten and Germany's Dotcom-server, Netcraft said.

Cobalt is also seeing significant growth, at 13.3 percent, taking 20.3 percent of the market - despite the fact that Sun discontinued its last Cobalt product in November. In December, Sun released the ROM source code for the RaQ 550 under an open-source licence, a year after opening the Cobalt Qube source. These moves allow users to customise their Cobalt boxes without the need for external technical support or licensing, a low-cost arrangement that has appealed to many customers, according to Miller.

A controversial new licensing regime at Red Hat, which requires a $349 annual subscription for each server, has led many customers to eye up competitors, Miller said. Many shared hosting companies, where tens or hundreds of thousands of sites are collectively administered as part of a single system, have found it cheaper to use internal IT staff rather than subscribe to external support, according to Netcraft. "Hosting companies, which represent some of the larger Linux installations, began reassessing the economics of Red Hat last summer," stated Miller.

Also popular with shared hosting companies is FreeBSD, a flavour of Unix distributed under an open-source licence, Netcraft said. The platform isn't included with the Linux numbers, but has been popular with hosting companies since the dawn of the Web, and is continuing to grow. More than two million active sites use FreeBSD - about one million more than Red Hat, according to Netcraft.