Linux software has been approved for use on the most sensitive computers in corporations and the federal government, including those inside banks and the Pentagon, an important step for software widely considered the top rival to Microsoft Corp.
The Common Criteria organization, an international technology standards body, certified Linux for the first time on "mission critical" computers, including those in America's top-secret spy agencies and those used to deliver ammunition, food and fuel to soldiers. The certification is akin to the technology industry's seal of approval.
Supporters said it could increasingly help persuade skeptical governments and corporations to consider Linux, created and developed collectively by an international community of programmers, as an alternative to Microsoft's flagship Windows software.
Linux was certified as providing only "low to moderate" security, compared with the same group's certification as "moderate to high" last year of the security of Microsoft's Windows 2000 software. Supporters said Linux software, whose popular mascot is a penguin, was under testing for better-security ratings.
The approval, being announced Tuesday, involves only one version of Linux, from SuSE Linux AG, a vendor based in Nuremberg, Germany, when the software is installed on a particular line of IBM's server computers. IBM, which paid roughly $500,000 for the testing, and SuSE (pronounced "SOOS-ah") were announcing the certification jointly.
"It gives us a much more solid footing," said Nicholas Donofrio, a senior vice president at IBM. "It opens up new horizons and new venues that we'd been precluded from. Everyone has had this view of Linux as interesting but done by hackers on a part-time basis, a bathtub of code."
A senior security executive for Microsoft, Steve Lipner, said the announcement was "a good first step for them in terms of pursuing common criteria certification and building that sort of credibility for their products." Microsoft has lobbied broadly for improved security across all software systems to improve public confidence.
The quality of Linux software has improved dramatically over recent years, when it was generally deemed powerful but overly complex for most computer users.
Some experts predicted that, while the new Linux certification could improve sales to government research labs and corporate behind-the-scene computers, the software probably won't displace Windows computers on the desks of government bureaucrats.
"Standard office computing is dominated by Microsoft. Somehow I suspect this won't change," said Przemek Klosowski, a scientist at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology and organizer of the Linux users group in Washington. "Common Criteria is irrelevant in the area of office environments; it's more appropriate in the areas of DOD contracts and so on."