The UK government has signed a five-year agreement with Sun Microsystems to potentially offer the company's new Java Desktop System (JDS) and Java Enterprise System (JES) software to public sector agencies as part of an overall open source push.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) purchasing authority said Monday that it will soon begin trials of the software to evaluate costs and usability in the hopes of saving money on hardware and software upgrades. No definitive agreement has yet been made to purchase and deploy the software, however, as the OGC said that it is evaluating all of its options before making a final decision.

The government has already been performing similar trials with IBM's open source server software, according to OGC spokesman Martin Day, and is particularly interested in an open source alternative for the desktop.

"Sun came forward and said that it has a desktop product we could use and suddenly we realised we could have end-to-end open source systems," Day said.

Sun is offering the agency its Linux-based Java Desktop System bundled with its Java Enterprise System at a reduced price as the company works to shore up widespread support for its new open source offerings.

Although the OGC has already been testing IBM's server software, Day said that the agency has not made a commitment to any particular vendor and will run trials on all systems before it decides which products, if any, to roll out to the government's 500,000 civil servants and public sector employees.

"We have an open door and we're happy to run trials with a number of vendors to make sure our research is in place," Day said. "What we don't want to do is take only one open source provider because then all we're doing is swapping the name Microsoft for IBM."

The OGC is just one of a growing number of government agencies looking to curb costs through the adoption of open source software.

Sun recently announced a deal with the Chinese-government backed China Standard Software Co., for example, to offer potentially millions of computers in China running software based on Java Desktop System (JDS).

Sun Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy trumpeted the China deal at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas last month and again last week at the SunNetwork conference in Berlin. McNealy apparently hopped a flight to the U.K. after the Berlin show to sign a deal with the OGC Friday.

Richard Barrington, head of government affairs and public policy for Sun in the U.K., predicted Monday that there would soon be more government deals to come, as well as agreements with "major PC distributors" as soon as the first quarter of next year to ship JDS pre-installed.

"It's going to happen very quickly because the challenge for hardware vendors is that their margins have been cut and they need to offer something new," Barrington said.

In the meantime, the Santa Clara, California company is busy wooing public sector agencies like the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS), which has just signed up to run trials on its software, according to Barrington.

Although Barrington declined to say how much Sun would charge for JDS and JES under the U.K. government deal, he did say that it was less than the combined US$150 per user, per year that the company would normally charge for the software.

The offer will allow the government to save money on licensing costs and "break their three-year PC replacement cycle," Barrington said, adding that Microsoft Windows upgrades often require the purchase of new computers with added processing power.

But while the deal potentially offers significant reductions in hardware and software costs, Martin said that the government is still weighing all its options. He predicted that the OGC would be conducting trials for another six months before any final decisions were made.

As for Microsoft, just because the U.K. government is considering open source doesn't mean the software giant is out of the game, according to Martin.

"Our door is open and we are waiting for the phone to ring," he said.