Businesses and governments in Western Europe are buying more services around open-source software, and spending will more than double in the next four years as open source becomes mainstream, according to a new study from IDC.

In the past, open-source (or "free") software was brought in by organisations' internal IT staff on an ad-hoc basis, but the software is now becoming part of the main IT planning cycles, according to IDC analyst Dominique Raviart. As a result, organisations are buying more open-source services from large systems integrators and free software specialists. This year, public and private sector organisations are on track to spend $98 million on services around open-source software including Linux, which will rise to $228 million by 2008, IDC said.

"The services market around Linux and free software accounts for less than one percent of the total Western European IT services market, but it is losing its niche status and emerging as a mainstream market," said Raviart.

Open-source software is seen as one of the few viable competitors to powerful proprietary software vendors such as Microsoft, partly due to a development model that keeps costs low, and a licensing regime that prevents a single company from controlling a project such as the Linux operating system or the Apache Web server. Large organisations, particularly in the public sector, are now beginning to take open source seriously as a way of cutting costs and combating proprietary control, according to IDC.

The UK's public sector is not being particularly aggressive in advocating such systems, compared with leaders Germany and France, Riviart said. IDC expects an additional boost for open source in the coming months as public sector projects complete the consulting phase and migrations commence. "Governments, whether local or central, are bringing a lot of visibility to Linux projects," stated Lionel Lamy, IDC programme manager for European Infrastructure Management Services.

Raviart said that while the open source services market remains small, it is one of the few growth drivers in system integration at the moment.