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Linux pressures Windows but experts disagree on cost benefits

By , Network World
April 12, 2004 12:06 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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