Conventional wisdom in the computing world suggests that Linux must be less expensive than Windows because it is available, at least in most cases, for free. Meanwhile, prevailing opinion also suggests that Linux is more secure than Microsoft’s server software — largely because Microsoft has been in the news so much with announcements about exploitable vulnerabilities.
But analysts and developers say that those opinions are largely unfounded, and that total cost of ownership (TCO) must be considered before a reasoned decision can be made about whether to adopt one or the other of these competing technologies.
While many in the industry have focused on the technology alone — including security and reliability issues — TCO includes much more than software. Support costs, integration issues, application compatibility and staffing are all issues to consider when choosing to deploy Linux or Windows.[*correction]
Beyond the Hype
Most corporate users, according to research consultancy Meta Group, have not undertaken major enterprise-wide Linux rollouts except for installing Linux server farms or Linux-based general infrastructure servers. Linux software has not really penetrated the application server world and is mostly, at least according to Meta Group, an IT ideal promoted by some in the “technical crowd.”
The truth, it seems, is a little more complex than those who make emotional appeals against Redmond would have us believe, and the Linux-vs.-Microsoft battle isn’t quite a Rumble in the Jungle — at least not yet.
“This competition is more an emotionally driven reaction against Microsoft than a factual case for Linux,” wrote Kevin McIsaac of Meta Group. “The Linux OS license is free, but that does not ensure that total cost of ownership will be reduced.”
What is known, right now, is that each OS has distinct advantages, and that each poses a competitive challenge to the other for dominance of the corporate enterprise computing space.
Lowering the TCO
Research firm IDC recently surveyed 104 companies in North America in an array of industries — and determined that Microsoft Windows 2000 offers a lower TCO than a Linux-based server in four out of five common workload scenarios.
The report demonstrated that Windows offered cost advantages of up to 22 percent over a five-year period in areas like network infrastructure, print-serving, file-serving and even security workloads.
Surprisingly, the report pointed out that the primary savings came from lower IT staffing costs associated with running a Windows environment. “IT personnel are generally the largest portion of IT costs,” said Peter Houston, the IDC analyst who wrote the report.
The license fee is only 2 percent of the total cost of ownership of an operating system. Linux requires “more staffing resources and effort to match the reliability, availability and scalability” of high-end Windows 2000 servers, said McIsaac.
To adopt Linux in the enterprise environment, IT staffers must be able to integrate e-mail systems, office suite software and database software with Linux systems, a process that can lead to costly conflicts — as in the case of any IT environment that runs multiple operating systems.
Many analysts also point out that it is difficult for employers even to find IT staff trained to work with Linux. “One challenge right now is finding staff with the required skills quickly enough to keep up with booming demand for Linux,” Alison Merifield, spokesperson for The Training Camp, an IT skills certification provider, told LinuxInsider.
But the IDC survey showed that Linux provided users with a 6 percent cost reduction for Web serving workload, when compared with Windows 2000, over a hypothetical five-year period.
This conclusion seems to be the software’s single uncontested competitive advantage over Windows, an advantage that is causing Microsoft to scramble madly to reduce the resource requirements associated with using Windows servers.
Some enthusiasts are attempting to expand Linux’s strength in Web serving to other areas, such as file and print serving. But some analysts have reservations.
“Instead of using Linux to replace Windows file and print servers, IT organizations should consider either consolidating the number of servers or using a network-attached storage server for file sharing,” said McIsaac.
“We have yet to see significant projects that replace Windows with Linux for file and print,” he said. “A switch to Linux for file and print might lower purchase costs, but it would seriously affect the ease with which users can access services as well as increase management complexity, thereby driving up the total cost of ownership.”
However, this situation could change in the future. Giants like Sun Microsystems and IBM are throwing their full weight behind Linux, which could help move the software into the enterprise.
*Editor’s Correction Note: In the third paragraph of the original version of this article, we published the following quote from a party affiliated with Microsoft: “Addressing misperception around cost and security in particular … is a topic that Microsoft has been trying to quantify for customers.” We have removed the attribution by request.