Linux pressures Windows but experts disagree on cost benefits

The cost of deploying and running Linux vs. Windows has been a hot topic lately, fueled by a number of high-profile Linux adoptions and evaluations by government entities in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and Microsoft's own licensing woes.

The cost of deploying and running Linux vs. Windows has been a hot topic lately, fueled by a number of high-profile Linux adoptions and evaluations by government entities in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and Microsoft's own licensing woes.

Microsoft has further fanned the fires by sponsoring a number of total-cost-of-ownership surveys that gave favorable marks to Windows.

In addition to the cost issues, the 2.6.5 Linux kernel, released a few weeks ago, features improved performance and processor support that boosts Linux's standing among network executives.

Beyond the hype, network executives must assess the costs and impact of any Linux deployment just like with any addition of new software.

That fact will make it a tough fight to replace entrenched middleware and operating systems from Microsoft. The software company is working on integrating its enterprise server lineup and desktop operating system while developing a holistic management platform to hold it all together.

The next stage in the evolution of Linux is more enterprise strategic deployments, according to George Weiss, lead analyst for Gartner's Unix, Linux and open source trends.

"Identity management, directory services, server virtualization, server maintenance, patch management are all part of an entire ecosystem that has to be [deployed] for Linux and has to be added to the enterprise environment," Weiss says.

Those considerations force IT executives to consider the expense of adopting Linux beyond its established place in single-purpose deployments such as Web, DNS and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol servers.

"The question becomes, how do I manage this, how do I secure it using the common set of policies I already have," says Fred Wettling, infrastructure architect for Bechtel, a global engineering, construction and project management firm. The firm uses a standard security and management infrastructure to which any new software must adhere. "Some level of conformity can drive down costs."

He says adding a new level of complexity by introducing nonconforming software has to be taken into account when evaluating product choices. "We may save on the software but the cost of the transition is something we have to take a look at," he says.

Even more basic considerations can hit home.

"I now have to clear any decisions through our infrastructure group because of [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] regulations. I have to detail who is responsible for patching and other functions," says Jeff Allred, manager of network services for the Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, N.C.

Allred says patch problems marred an experiment with Red Hat Linux at Duke. In addition, he says another consideration is the cost of obtaining Linux expertise and staff training.

"You have to use the 10-times rule," says Gary Hein, an analyst with Burton Group, who will present an online seminar on Burton's Web site this week on Linux's benefits and challenges. "To make a change it has to be 10 times faster, cheaper or better." He says that was true for Linux and Web servers, but is not currently the case on the desktop or for network services.

Even Linux proponents say expertise with the operating system and deploying it for valid reasons can make all the difference.

"If you don't have the expertise with Linux, I can see your concerns," says Steve Henry, president of Executive Business Systems, an outsourcing firm in Naperville, Ill. Henry has written script and utilities to manage Linux servers that run anti-spam and anti-virus services. "With these specialized servers I just set them up and they run. The ongoing cost of Linux, therefore, is lower than with Windows machines."

As far as infrastructure and application limitations, vendors are starting to fill the gaps.

Red Hat, which Gartner says holds nearly 80% of the U.S. Linux market, is developing its Open Source Architecture, a blueprint for open source middleware, applications and management tools designed to push Linux into network infrastructure.

Novell detailed its Linux strategy last month. It plans to improve its Linux-capable Open Enterprise Server with proven directory and management tools. IBM is pushing Linux-based middleware, and Sun offers its directory on Linux. Oracle, PeopleSoft and SAP are among the major vendors using their applications to sweeten the pot.

It all adds up to pressure on Microsoft. The company's Windows Server System is an attempt to create an integrated middleware platform complemented by the desktop operating system. It also is trying to trump open source with its Shared Source Program for sharing source code but under strict controls, and with the release last week of its first open source software, a Windows installer tool set, under the Common Public License.

"We think people are looking at TCO in a more balanced way now," says Martin Taylor, general manager of platform strategy at Microsoft and leader of the company's "Get the Facts" campaign on Unix and Linux. "For the most part, customers would concede the TCO discussion to Linux."

Users and analyst agree there are merits to the hype.

A recent independent study by The Yankee Group and Sunbelt Software (which is a Microsoft partner) shows Linux won't necessarily provide cost savings and indeed could cost more depending on the details of the rollout.

"When it comes to Linux, you don't get what you don't pay for," says Laura DiDio of The Yankee Group, author of the forthcoming Web-based survey of 1,000 IT administrators and corporate executives. Among other conclusions the survey reached was that a majority of corporations with 5,000-plus end users say Linux requires from 25% to 40% more full-time support specialists than Windows or Unix, and that skilled Linux administrators in large urban areas command a 20% to 30% greater premium than their Windows and Unix counterparts.

But DiDio says the big issue for businesses revolves around Linux vendors' restricted indemnity clause for products, which protect against damage, outages and legal disputes such as The SCO Group's claim against IBM.

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