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

Today's announcement could leave Microsoft, which is still in talks with the government over the cost of software licensing agreements, a little concerned.

The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) purchasing authority said today that it would soon begin trials of the software to evaluate costs and usability in the hope of saving money on hardware and software upgrades. No definitive agreement has yet been made to purchase and deploy the software because the OGC 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 and is particularly interested in an open source alternative for the desktop, according to OGC spokesman Martin Day.

"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," said Day.

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.

"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.

Richard Granger, director general of IT for the NHS — who has publicly criticised Microsoft for refusing to offer discounts on huge licensing agreements — is in full support of the trials.

"If this solution were to prove effective we could save the NHS and the taxpayer millions while at the same time using rich and innovative software technologies," he said.

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

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

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