Score one for Goliath.

An independent survey of 555 businesses found that

Microsoft's

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much maligned Windows operating system provides service and reliability that is at least as good as -- and often better than -- that of upstart rival Linux, and is nearly as secure.

Although Linux fans are sure to deride the study as Microsoft propaganda, it was conducted by Yankee Group, a respected Boston-based IT research and consulting company, which paid for it internally, with no outside funding.

The Linux community has gloried in its underdog position, and takes pride in what it believes is the operating system's technological superiority. But only 12% of the surveyed businesses, which ranged from small to very large, said Linux was superior to Windows Server 2003, Microsoft's network operating system.

Whether this is an indication that Microsoft's next versions of the operating system, due in 2006, will be more successful than some thought, is unclear. But it certainly gives Microsoft sales people more ammunition, and the good coverage the survey is getting in the trade press is a welcome change for the company.

The survey made it clear that while Linux is a serious contender in enterprise deployments, it has not yet proved to be a serious contender on the corporate desktop.

Although Linux itself is free, most businesses that install it pay for service and support, leading to a long-running argument about which operating system is cheaper to own over the life of a system, a metric called total cost of ownership, or TCO. "There is no universal clear-cut TCO basis to compel the corporate masses to do a wholesale switch from Windows to Linux as there is for a migration from Unix to Linux," the survey found.

Unix, the direct ancestor of Linux, has been losing ground to its offspring for some time, as has

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Solaris. But now, other research organizations claim that Linux is taking share from Windows.

In a survey by Forrester Research late last year, 52% of the businesses surveyed said they are replacing Windows servers with Linux. On the desktop side, market researcher IDC sees Linux's share more than doubling, from 3% today to 6% in 2007.

Perhaps most surprising in the Yankee Group study was the finding that businesses thought Windows was nearly as secure as Linux, despite constant reports of holes and successful hacker intrusions. The average security rating for Linux servers was 8.3 compared with 7.6 (on a scale of 1 to 10) for Windows servers. In a similar survey last year, Windows scored just 3 or 4.

Laura DiDio, the Yankee Group senior analyst who headed the study, attributed the switch to two major trends: Microsoft, faced with serious competition for the first time, has indeed taken steps to harden the operating system and to make it easier to manage security patches and other procedures. And because Linux use is now so widespread, it has become a target of hackers who wouldn't have bothered when it was a niche product, she said.

DiDio said that while Linux use is growing, it tends to be used along with Windows, not instead of it. "You just don't see that many companies ripping out Windows and replacing it with Linux. It makes much more sense to add it and run both in parallel."