Key to any operating system buying decision is its lifespan for support and maintenance updates. As it turns out, most of the major operating system vendors offer support lengths that, on the surface, don't differ radically from each other -- though there are exceptions to the rule that IT managers need to keep in mind if they're going to get the most support for their dollar.
An investigation conducted by InternetNews.com has determined that many Unix, Windows and Linux operating system vendors now have an average of 10 years of support length, though that hasn't always been the case for at least one major player.
Earlier this month, for instance, Linux vendor Red Hat announced a new Extended Lifecycle Support (ELS) offering. With ELS, Red Hat (NYSE: RHT) is extending its seven years of support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) for an additional three years, to a maximum of 10 years of total support.
In Red Hat's case, the ELS offering comes as RHEL 3 approaches its end-of-life later this year -- a potentially critical event for enterprises still relying on the OS, which debuted in October 2003.
"While the vast majority of Red Hat Enterprise Linux customers today are on Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5, the now almost seven year-old Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 is still being used primarily in mission-critical applications that are naturally change-averse," Daniel Riek, director of product management at Red Hat, told InternetNews.com.
For Red Hat users, the issue of migrating from RHEL 3 to a newer version of RHEL isn't necessarily about cost.
"Every Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscription grants access to all versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux currently supported within their regular seven-year life cycle," Riek said. "Also, Red Hat Enterprise Linux Server subscriptions include integrated virtualization capabilities. So a Red Hat Enterprise Linux subscriber who adds ELS is automatically entitled to run the Red Hat Enterprise Linux 3 instance on virtualized top of, for example, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5.5 (or, soon, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6) on any hardware supported by the newer version."
Red Hat's rival enterprise Linux vendor Novell also offers a 10-year lifecycle for its SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES).
"Customers receive general support for seven years following the product's initial general availability, and continue to get access to self-support resources for another three years," Kerry Kim, senior product marketing manager for SUSE Linux Enterprise at Novell (NASDAQ: NOVL), told InternetNews.com. "There are a few customers, however, that wish to continue to receive general support beyond seven years. For them, we offer extended support services similar to those offered by Red Hat, through extended support contracts."
In comparison to both Red Hat and Novell's enteprise users, Ubuntu Linux users do not have 10 years of support. Canonical spokesperson Steve George told InternetNews.com that Ubuntu Long-Term Support (LTS) releases receive five years for Ubuntu's server version and three years for its desktop edition.
Meanwhile, vendors selling Linux's older sibling, Unix, can boast of lengthy support spans of their own. Ian Jarman, a manager in IBM's Power Systems Software unit, told InternetNews.com that IBM's (NYSE: IBM) AIX has a 10-year lifespan.
Hewlett-Packard's HP-UX also has a minimum of 10 years of supported life, though that can be extended based on customer demand.
"For example, the currently planned support lifecycle for HP-UX 11i v1 is 13 years, based on customer demand," Katie Curtin-Mestre, director of software planning and marketing for business-critical systems at HP (NYSE: HPQ) told InternetNews.com. "Thus, the support lifecycle for HP-UX is at least three years longer than Red Hats regular support lifecycle for RHEL, and the support lifecycle for HP-UX is at least equivalent to and maybe longer than Red Hats regular-plus-extended support lifecycle for RHEL."
Oracle did not respond to requests for comment by press time about support for either its Solaris Unix or Oracle Enterprise Linux.
When it comes to Windows, 10 years is also the magic number.
"Microsoft offers a minimum of 10 years of support (five years' Mainstream Support and five years' Extended Support) at the supported service pack level for Business and Developer products," a Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) spokesperson told InternetNews.com. "Custom Support is available for select products for those customers who need additional support beyond the standard 10-year support timeline.
While plenty of vendors talk up support options for 10 years and beyond, Ubuntu Linux vendor Canonical said that supporting the operating for a decade isn't the use case for the customers it's targeting.
Canonical spokesperson Neil Levine told InternetNews.com that Ubuntu has an LTS release roughly every two years.
"Many of our users just upgrade from one LTS to another," Levine said. "The type of users we have, who are doing rapid innovation and Web 2.0-type development, recognize the value in having access to the latest technologies, which emerge within the two-year cycle."
Levine added that, "for the more traditional SAP/CA/Oracle-type workloads, Ubuntu doesn't really talk to this market (yet!) so I am not sure we have sufficient data to comment. But no one has ever raised issues with the current five years we offer."
Novell's Kim, meanwhile, is seeing a four- to five-year refresh cycle for x86 hardware, which affects the optimal support length needs of enterprises.
"Certain industry verticals like financial services appear to refresh more frequently to take advantage of the performance gains associated with newer hardware," Kim said. "We believe that 10 years is more than enough for the majority of enterprises."