Does Free Linux Have Hidden Costs?
Organizations running Windows 2000 spend less in the long run for some tasks, such as print and file serving, than organizations running Linux, according to a new survey from research company IDC.
IDC's findings, published Monday in a study commissioned by Microsoft, suggest that the Windows 2000 Server operating system has a lower total cost of ownership than Linux, mainly due to savings associated with staffing. The findings contradict some claims that Linux is cheaper than Windows over time.
"Linux requires more care and feeding, basically. That's what the results are really telling us," said Al Gillen, research director for IDC's System Software group. "The amount of manpower required to run a particular [Linux] environment is going to be higher."
The study dissected five specific workloads considered common to corporate IT departments. Study data was based on interviews with IT managers at 104 medium-size and large organizations in North America.
The researchers found Windows 2000 systems more economical over a five-year span than Linux in four of the five IT scenarios: network infrastructure, print serving, file serving, and security applications.
Companies could spend 11 percent to 22 percent less with Windows 2000 in those scenarios, according to IDC. Microsoft's server operating system was found to require less spending on employees, IT training, and outsourced IT support. The survey suggests that it takes more time to configure, program, and support Linux systems than Windows systems. The main reason: Developers have access to mature, easy-to-use management tools for Windows, according to IDC.
Staffing, ongoing labor, and support accounted for about 62 percent of the total cost of an IT system over a five-year span, IDC said.
The study's findings run counter to the claims of many open-source proponents that Linux is cheaper in the long run. Linux supporters say that it costs less to acquire and upgrade Linux hardware and software, as well as to pay for security and maintenance.
IDC notes that Linux can be acquired free or for a lower cost than Windows. It can also come with support and maintenance services from commercial Linux vendors such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux. The survey said, however, that software and hardware acquisition costs account for only about 10 percent of the total cost of ownership.
On the other hand, the acquisition costs for hardware and software that IDC cites are suspect, according to Stacey Quandt, an analyst with Giga Information Group. She said Windows systems would seem to account for more than 10 percent of the total cost due to ongoing licensing fees. Giga doesn't offer a comparable estimate, she said.
Some recent research also conflicts with claims that Linux has a better security record than Windows. Aberdeen Group reported in November that the open-source operating system collectively had incurred more high-risk security advisories than Windows since the beginning of 2002, citing research from the Computer Emergency Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University, which tracks such data.
One developer who has worked with open-source and Windows software said that IDC's research reflects some industry trends but shouldn't be used as a barometer for planning IT budgets.
"Based on my experience, Linux could be more expensive if you don't have employees that are properly trained. I also know that it's a lot easier for someone to start administering Windows than Linux just because of the GUI [graphical user interface] tools," said David Wheeler, who runs Kineticode, a content management and open-source development consulting firm in San Francisco.
He added that cost doesn't have to be a deciding factor when comparing operating systems: "You have to use the best tool for the job."
IDC found Linux more economical than Windows in the area of Web serving. That is probably due to the popular Apache Web server, which is often acquired for free, Wheeler said. IDC has published research in the past showing that some companies that replace Unix systems with Linux can save twice as much as those that move from Unix to Windows.
Giga's Quandt noted that a "strong affinity between Linux and Unix skill sets" allows companies that make a Unix-to-Linux migration to spend less on staffing than they would in migrating to Windows. "To me, [cost of ownership] can vary based on implementation," she said.
Despite the survey results, IDC stressed that cost should not be the only consideration when evaluating an operating system.
"You have to remember that you've got some companies in the industry that use a particular operating system because of reasons other than [cost]," Gillen said. "Just by looking at this survey you cannot conclude that...your IT department would be better off running operating system A over operating system B."