The TCO question: Can Linux beat Microsoft? Part 1

Many businesses are embracing Linux because of its reported stability and security, its growing viability and its freedom from licensing fees. But others caution that "open-source" doesn't necessarily mean "free," especially when it comes to paying the staff required to implement and administrate Linux the right way. In a Microsoft-sponsored report, Windows 2000 versus Linux in Enterprise Computing, Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., found that for four out of five corporate IT environments -- network infrastructure, print serving, file serving, and security applications -- the total cost of ownership (TCO) over a five-year period was 11% to 22% lower with Windows 2000 than with Linux.

SearchEnterpriseLinux.com interviewed a small group of Linux professionals about some of the critical differences between Linux/open-source and proprietary platforms and software. In their workplaces, these veteran IT pros -- Dirk Coetzee of Didata of South Africa, Rodd Clarkson of Redfish, Bluefish Creative of Australia, and Mike O'Donnell of AMD -- use a combination of operating systems and applications, including Linux and other open-source applications, HP-UX, Solaris and various Microsoft products. None of their companies were planning to migrate to new platforms or applications this year.

This is the first installment of a two-part Q&A. Here, they discuss the overall costs of using open-source software.

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Do most businesses and their IT shops really track TCO? Or do they focus mostly on return on investment and the up-front cost of hardware and software? Do you find that it is too time consuming to do a thorough TCO analysis? Here, they track what the hardware and software licenses cost. Very little is done beyond that. There is a great difference in the human support efforts required to keep a Unix or Linux environment going versus...

a Windows environment. Do most businesses and their IT shops really track TCO? Or do they focus mostly on return on investment and the up-front cost of hardware and software? Do you find that it is too time consuming to do a thorough TCO analysis? TCO analysis is not tracked or focused on -- and [it is] time consuming. Do most businesses and their IT shops really track TCO? Or do they focus mostly on return on investment and the up-front cost of hardware and software? Do you find that it is too time consuming to do a thorough TCO analysis? Good question. I know where I work we don't have the resources to do any formal TCO studies, and I don't know of many businesses that would. Even given they've got the time and resources, I wonder how many businesses would have a good enough mix to actually compare.

For us, Linux is a no-brainer as a first choice. The cost and the fact that it works well on older hardware mean that we can trial ideas without a huge outlay in money. This is great, especially when the ideas don't pan out, as we're not left with costly licenses and no chance of returning them.

Circumstantially (and this is where I think there's a definite trend), businesses that have used Windows (including ours) seem to find that Linux, once running, involves far less work to maintain. You'd never get away with calling these stories a TCO study, but the simple fact remains that these places (places like Boscov's, Amazon and Suisse Credit First Boston) are happier using Linux than what they used to use, and they know they are getting value for money.

Where I work, we used to spend a lot of time just keeping the servers running (either Windows NT or MacOS). Since switching to Linux, they just run. I only have to make changes to configuration files, instead of having to nurse the server along. Windows NT is fairly old these days and Windows may have improved, but Linux is still doing what we want from it, and we're thrilled with the value for money we're getting. As Linux and OSS solutions continue to grow and improve, won't many of the issues such as management and support costs diminish and give it a TCO advantage? Or will there never be a TCO winner, since TCO is highly subjective and dependent upon the unique requirements of each IT environment?
The change of skills is the most subjective thing in TCO. Also, nothing comes close to challenging the Active Directory (deployment of applications, desktop policies, service packs, etc.). As Linux and OSS solutions continue to grow and improve, won't many of the issues such as management and support costs diminish and give it a TCO advantage? Or will there never be a TCO winner, since TCO is highly subjective and dependent upon the unique requirements of each IT environment?
TCO can be manipulated like any statistic. But I see Windows administrators spending a lot of time just keeping things going, constantly configuring, etc. Linux, once understood and in place, lends itself to easier management. As Linux and OSS solutions continue to grow and improve, won't many of the issues such as management and support costs diminish and give it a TCO advantage? Or will there never be a TCO winner, since TCO is highly subjective and dependent upon the unique requirements of each IT environment?
TCO is fairly subjective, but I think you'll start to see some pretty clear evidence that Microsoft's TCO studies have had to be heavily manipulated to get the sort of figures they want. For example, their recent TCO study that shows Windows to be better than Linux had some pretty obvious stretching. The study was based on five years, when the industry standard seems to be three for these things. More interestingly, Microsoft's new license seems to be all about upgrading often, and if you add an upgrade to this five-year study, I think you'll see a dramatically different set of figures. Companies are looking for IT solutions they can depend on and grow with -- and from which they can realize overall business benefit. How do open-source software and proprietary solutions stack up?
Today's situation with Mandrake illustrates [what is] probably everyone's biggest concern. If it can be funded to stay in business, then Linux has a good chance. Companies are looking for IT solutions they can depend on and grow with -- and from which they can realize overall business benefit. How do open-source software and proprietary solutions stack up?
Proprietary solutions have this awful habit of locking the customer to the product. This means that customers eventually find themselves having to do business a certain way [that] meet the needs of their software. Changing business practices a little to better suit the tools you use is okay, but when you find your business decisions are based on what software you use instead of what's right for the business, chances are you need to rethink your software. Open-source, however, is driven by people [who are] scratching itches. This is great for businesses that want to retain control, because open-source allows the business to run the way they want to.

Click here for part two of this interview Companies are looking for IT solutions they can depend on and grow with -- and from which they can realize overall business benefit. How do open-source software and proprietary solutions stack up?
Environments built from the ground up, relying on 'standard software' (such as Microsoft Windows 2000 server), are generally easier to manage, from a new IT infrastructure's point of view -- i.e., on-site personnel being removed from a company's IT department and the internal IT engineers taking over, in contrast to a Unix-type environment where handovers can take weeks -- just to understand the systems. For this reason alone, lots of companies would rather get solutions to work 'out of the box.'

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