Windows and Linux TCO: Make Your Own Comparison

There’s such a blizzard of variables that accurately calculating the costs may come down to your individual situation.
Posted September 18, 2007

Serdar Yegulalp

Serdar Yegulalp

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When it comes to choosing between Windows and Linux for an enterprise, there are seemingly endless studies one can turn to about the total cost of ownership for either operating system. Yet one thing needs to be remembered, no matter which way you’re migrating: the human cost.

Windows and Linux both require training and experience to use well—and this goes doubly so if you’re migrating from one OS to the other and need to jettison existing work habits and acquire new ones. The TCO studies that I’ve seen typically mention these things as part of the system support and administration costs, such as admin salaries, and so are not always obvious. To that end, I took the time to think about what these costs really mean, and how they often manifest in the real world.

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The first “people cost,” and the most obvious, is having people on staff who can properly administer whatever platform you’re choosing. The exact cost for this sort of thing varies wildly between the different TCO reports I’ve studied, partly because everyone has a different way of quantifying that cost.

Some will claim that Linux requires less people cost because once it’s set up it tends to remain running without a great deal of nudging on the part of the admin, and therefore requires less on-call time and other administrative overhead. Some would put the cost at about even, if only because the ease of deployment for Windows tends to be balanced out by the ease of maintenance for Linux as cited above.

Finally, some cite Linux as being slightly more expensive in this regard, not just for the cost of the in-house expertise needed to run it but for the possible cost of external support and consultancy—needed either to get things running or keep things running, depending on the scenario.

With both Windows and Linux administration, though, what matters is having people who can respond creatively and intelligently to problems—who, if they’re uncertain about something, will take the time to educate themselves about it and come up with long-term solutions. Such people are never cheap and shouldn’t be treated cheaply, because they can stay with you for the long haul.

Another factor is the cost of retraining existing users to work on the new OS, which is often not so much overlooked as misinterpreted. One area I see this extending most into is what applications are being used. If you’re moving from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice and most of your workers are not doing anything particularly adventurous with the program, the total amount of retraining needed probably won’t be too big. Retraining users for workaday processes usually doesn’t cost very much. Outside of that, though, if there are specific, technical things that you’re training users for—i.e., writing macros or performing other work with the program beyond simple daily use—then you’ll need to factor in the cost of training and research for those things.

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