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The Long Run: Does Windows or Linux Cost More?

As corporate belt-tightening continues, many IT managers are taking second and third looks at open-source code, which offers low-cost or no-cost licensing terms. Linux is now being taken very seriously as a server operating system, even at large Windows shops. A survey of almost 800 IT sites conducted by ENT earlier this year finds that two out of five enterprise Windows shops also run Linux in some capacity. The Linux sites in the survey have an average of 625 servers in their organizations, and close to half have IT budgets exceeding a million dollars a year.

While no one argues with the fact that the initial price of Linux is far lower than Windows server software, the picture gets murkier when looking at long-term costs over a three to five-year period. Analysts’ total cost of ownership estimates vary widely for the two platforms. A study conducted by IDC and funded by Microsoft, for example, finds that across most server deployments over a five-year period, Linux runs up to 20 percent higher than Windows 2000 Server. A similar study released by Robert Frances Group (RFG) found dramatically different results, with Windows server costs more than double those of Linux over a three-year period.

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Overall, upfront acquisition costs are only a small piece of the costs of an enterprise server system, according to IDC. IDC estimates that software acquisition costs only represent about 10 percent of the total cost of a system. The greatest cost is staffing, which IDC estimates at 62 percent of total system cost. Downtime represents another 23 percent of the total cost picture. Accounting for all variables over a five-year period, Windows is cheaper for functions such as networking, file/print and security, but Linux is cheaper for Web serving. At the high end, IDC estimates that running a file server will cost a typical Windows user $99,048 over a five-year period, versus $114,381 for Linux user.

The IDC report hints that while Windows costs will remain competitive over the long term, there is a possibility that the market could shift. Right now, the leading variable – staffing – breaks in Microsoft’s favor, IDC says. Linux costs about 20 percent more than Windows because of available skills staffing costs, IDC calculates. That’s because there is a plentiful talent pool of trained MCSEs and MCPs companies can draw from. Linux skills – which are just as demanding as Unix – are harder to find at the present time.

If a critical mass of skills and services develops around enterprise-level Linux, the cost balance could tip toward the open-source operating system, IDC relates. However, based on current market rates, Windows holds sway. “Will there be a lot more expertise in Linux and will Linux professionals become less expensive overall? We don’t make that assumption,” says Al Gillen, analyst with IDC and co-author of the study. “We don’t really have a way of putting a number on it.”

As the Linux market matures, Gillen observes, “Windows is changing and growing, too. The systems management tools for Windows improve, and that’s going to have a positive impact of lowering the administrative costs as well.”

Some IT managers who support Linux can feel the pinch in Linux talent availability. “There's far fewer Linux administrators, and they’re paid more,” observes says Tom Van Spronsen, president of Latest Wave, a Midwest-based ISP. “Linux requires a greater understanding of computers. Linux is more command-line based. If you forget a semicolon or get your syntax wrong, it won't work.” Van Spronsen points out that Linux requires a “huge learning curve at the beginning. But once you get over that hump, it's actually easier to administer than Windows.”

The ease of administration varies by the size and complexity of the system involved. “You can argue that there is more configuration and integration necessary for a complex Linux environment, compared to a typical Windows environment,” says Gillen. “If you start talking about a relatively simple environment, such as print, file, or Web-serving, there’s a lot less integration and complexity that’s involved.”

RFG’s take, however, is that Linux is already easier to administer, and therefore takes less of an administrator's time. “Salaries and support costs were lower on Linux because users saw better servers and admin numbers, and did not purchase commercial support options to the extent that they did so on other platforms,” says Chad Robinson, analyst with RFG and author of its TCO report. He also notes that Linux administrators do not have to “spend nearly as much time thrashing around with security patch management -- a problem that continues to plague Microsoft customers.” Robinson observes that security patch deployment and maintenance “is becoming a significant chunk of the support cost pie. Patches are free, but the technician time to identify, test, deploy, and support them is not.” Such support costs are unlikely to change over the next few years, he says. In terms of long-term growth, we are seeing a relatively minimal change in support costs.

Microsoft points to the IDC study results as proof that Windows offers a better value over the long term. The IDC findings “help to counter the perception that Linux is less costly overall than Windows because it usually offers lower acquisition costs,” says Victoria Grady, lead product manager for the Windows Server Strategy Group at Microsoft. She adds that Windows offers customers “a superior business advantage through products and technologies that are engineered to be secure, familiar and easy to use, and that interoperate in a mixed IT environment – all at a lower overall cost than Linux.”

Industry experts point out that along with skills availability, there is a range of variables that need to be considered in determining long-term costs. “Availability of skills is important, but only part of the picture,” says Christopher Burry, technology infrastructure practice director and fellow at Avanade. “Organizations need to understand the complete lifecycle cost of a platform,” says Burry. “This not only includes the cost of the hardware and software, but also the cost of the software it supports as well as the cost of operating and maintaining the entire system for its predicted, useful life.”

Burry advises IT managers to look at the cost of both internal and external services, the current skills of staffing, and the availability of solutions and assets from partners. “Again, you must look at the total cost of delivering a solution,” he says. “For instance, what is the cost of providing directory services? Messaging? Transaction services? Clustering? How much does the database cost? How much does support cost? How much will you spend developing and supporting applications? Organizations need to look at the complete lifecycle cost of a solution – not the cost of one particular component.”

Microsoft Windows may also be more expensive as a result of the costs incurred from system downtime. IDC found that downtime costs can run anywhere between 25 percent to 36 percent of a five-year TCO. Despite the vast improvements of Windows 2000 over Windows NT, the downtime associated with Linux servers is still considerably less, according to IDC. The open-source operating system often has “less than half the downtime that users experience with Windows 2000.” IDC attributes much of the downtime discrepancy to the trend of Linux systems' carrying smaller numbers of workloads.

Some IT site managers say downtime really drives up costs. At Latest Wave, Windows 2000 servers need to be rebooted “any where from once a month to once every six months,” says Van Spronsen. “Our Linux servers will run three years without rebooting, unless we change an IP. That’s really the advantage in the cost savings from our standpoint, because we don’t get bombarded with technical support issues.”

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Add to this downtime the large number of Windows patches on the market – numbering in the double digits – which still require a reboot to install, comments RFG’s Robinson. “Given the length of time a system takes to do this, and the high rate of vulnerability discovery in Windows, a strong case can be made that downtime and support costs are higher with Windows than other platforms on this basis alone.”

The RFG study noted that there are a number of soft costs associated with each platform. The most daunting hidden cost may stem from the need to audit Microsoft software products for compliance. “Windows owners are responsible for ensuring that they comply with Microsoft's licensing policies by maintaining inventories of software products installed,” according to RFG. “Microsoft has threatened audits and lawsuits where it believes companies have violated those policies. Partially out of a fear of such legal action and the penalties that they may carry, many companies have implemented costly software inventory products to perform these audits internally. These products may range from $5 to $50 per seat, depending on their functionality. Because Linux and Solaris are not licensed in this fashion, companies that use these products do not need to fear such penalties.”

Hardware, of course, plays a huge role in cost of ownership, and this is where the playing field appears to be level. RFG estimates that the cost of hardware for both Windows server software and Linux averages about $39,000 over a three-year period. By comparison, a commercial Unix server box will cost almost $400,000. Analysts agree that both Windows and Linux are eating into the commercial Unix marketplace – it’s a question of which platform eventually takes the biggest bite. “We’re seeing an accelerated pace of customers migrating away from expensive RISC-based systems to take advantage of x86 hardware economics,” says Microsoft’s Grady. Microsoft’s goal is to position Windows server as “the ideal x86 landing platform,” she adds.

“Microsoft is looking at Linux a little differently than it did in the past,” says IDC’s Gillen. “Microsoft recognizes that Linux is a real threat, but it’s no longer approaching it as a destroyer of intellectual property – those terms are not used anymore. Microsoft is more actively promoting the value of the integrated software it stack it provides, compared to the stack you can get on Linux.”

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