Even with Linux, There is No Free Lunch

It's just like that old expression says: 'There is no such thing as a free lunch' Or in this case, there is no such think as a free Linux. Free Linux comes with hidden costs. Well implemented, it may well be a bargain. Poorly implemented it can cost more than proprietary alternatives.
Posted August 8, 2003

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

There is something very enticing about the word ''free''. It has a nice ring to it.

But all types of free are not the same.

That free dessert comes after the $50 dinner. The free silk tie only comes when you buy three suits. And don't forget the free oil changes -- which would cost $19.95 at JiffyLube -- when you purchase a $70,000 Mercedes.

The same applies to IT.

AOL made a name for itself by giving away 1,000 free hours. They knew it would be too much trouble for most users, at the end of the free trial, to uninstall the AOL software, install something new and then inform everyone of their new email address. The same goes with free inkjet printers coming with a new PC. Free seems less of a bargain when you have to shell out $30 to $50 each month for cartridges.

In sports, they refer to it as ''backloading'' the contract. For instance, a player's first year's salary is low, with most of the money coming at the end of the contract. In business, they call it TCO -- Total Cost of Ownership. Who cares about that ''low down payment'' designed to induce a sale. What really matters is what you will be spending money over the entire life span of the product and the cost for any ''free'' item is actually just buried inside that overall price.

It's just like that old expression says: ''There is no such thing as a free lunch'' Or in this case, there is no such think as a free Linux.

So, while we are on that subject, what is the real cost of Linux and how does it compare to using Windows?

The Big Picture

To begin with, there is no doubt that the Linux operating system itself is cheaper than any other operating system. Anyone can download the source code for nothing from numerous mirror sites around the world. But these free versions are not necessarily the ones you want to use in the enterprise.

''Operations like Red Hat and SuSE are coming out with more sophisticated versions that ship with superior support capabilities and additional tools and utilities for management,'' says Andy Butler, vice president and research area lead for server technologies at Gartner, Inc. an industry analyst firm based in Stamford, Conn. ''These are the ones that Oracle and SAP will write to.''

So, if you want a supported version of the software, you can buy RedHat Linux 9 or SuSE Linux Personal 8.2 for $39.95. That's much cheaper than the $199.95 you pay for Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP Home Edition. Professional desktop editions and server editions of Linux run higher, but are still far cheaper than comparable Windows versions.

''When doing an apples-to-apples comparison, the licensing cost of the operating system itself should always favor Linux,'' says Butler.

But OS licensing costs are a relatively small portion of calculating the TCO of any system.

Dan Kusnetzky, vice president for server software at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, an industry analyst firm, lays out the overall IT cost of ownership is fairly easy to break down. Administration, development and support accounts for 50 percent to 70 percent. Server hardware stacks up to 12 percent to 15 percent. Client hardware rings in for 10 percent to 12 percent. Software adds up to 8 percent to 10 percent. Communications accounts for 5 percent to 7 percent, and then other expenses sneak in for the last 3 percent to 5 percent.

Since software, including the operating system, only accounts for around 10 percent of the total cost, reducing the direct operating system costs will only have a marginal affect on the overall IT budget.

''Windows administrators tend to be less efficient than the average UNIX/Linux operator who typically has more in-depth knowledge. This affects the costs,'' says Marcel den Hartog, chief executive for EMEA in Computer Associates, Inc.s Linux group. ''You can also, on average, run 20 percent more workload on a Linux server with the same specs as a Windows server.''

Den Hartog, of course, could be accused of being biased in favor of the Linux community. So what does the Windows side have to say on the topic? Two years ago, Microsoft paid IDC to do a survey of IT executives and managers at 104 North American companies, 40 percent of whom were using Linux for at least some tasks. IDC then calculated the five-year costs of using Windows 2000 and Linux for five common jobs: network infrastructure, file serving, print serving, web serving and security applications.

The study showed that Linux had significantly lower hardware, software and downtime costs than Windows. But Windows had much lower staffing and IT staff training expenses, and consequently had an 11 percent to 22 percent lower TCO than Linux in each of the areas studied except for web serving.

''We believe that these higher costs are, in part, related to the relative immaturity of the management tools available today for Linux systems and are possibly also due to less complete penetration of these tools into organizations deploying Linux servers today,'' reports IDC analysts.

But IDC researchers also recognized that the situation is not permanent. Over time, the gap in support costs between Linux and Windows was expected to shrink. As Linux matures and more packaged software becomes available in the Linux server market, IT professionals will become more skilled in the efficient installation, deployment, and maintenance of Linux server environments.

Since that report was commissioned, much of those changes have already been achieved.

Linux appears to have gained a firm enterprise footing by attracting the support of the major management software vendors, such as IBM Computer Associates, BMC Software, Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. All now offer wide support for the Linux operating system. Red Hat and SuSE also have added extensive management features to their offerings.

In addition, IT staff have gained two more years experience with the operating system.

So, at this point in time, which operating system is the most cost-effective?

While each company will need to run its own TCO figures, the main factor to consider is your own company's culture and skill set, not the cost of the operating system licenses. Whichever way you go, the personnel costs will still be, by far, the largest expense. So, if you are currently a Windows shop, you are likely looking at an extensive and expensive training and migration period.

If, on the other hand, you are already possess abundant Linux or UNIX skills, you can easily take advantage of the rapidly growing array of tools to cut Linux management costs.

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