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Face-off: Microsoft vs. Linux

The Linux-Windows debate may never be settled, but each camp's vigorous arguments are an endless source of entertainment. In this face-off challenge, Site Editor Jan Stafford leads the charge for Linux, while a counter-argument by TechTarget Editor in Chief Paul Gillin comes to Redmond's defense. After reading both cases, be sure to use our

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Windows' broken records

By Jan Stafford, Site Editor

In debating the virtues of enterprise Linux versus Windows, let's put the market studies where they belong. OK, maybe not there; but put them aside.

Microsoft proponents usually make their cases against enterprise Linux by parroting market research. That's like playing with a stacked deck. Finding market research firms not beholden to Microsoft's big purse is like drawing an ace to complete your royal flush. It's possible, but the odds are against you. For example, recent Microsoft-funded reports by International Data Corp. and Forrester Research's Giga unit found, separately, that Linux costs more in development and total cost of ownership (TCO) than Windows.

For proof that enterprise Linux outdoes Windows in the ways that matter, the only reliable source is the corporate IT pro who has used both platforms.

Let's start with a game. Fill in the OS in this IT pro's statement: "We have ____ systems that have been running for years without a boot."

Was Stevan Townsend, DBA for $1 billion retailer Tractor Supply Co. (TSC) of Nashville, Tenn., talking about Windows? Get real. No one's ever said that about Windows.

Windows breaks frequently. Linux doesn't. That's the main reason corporations are switching from Windows to Linux. TSC switched to Linux because Windows crashed constantly. "Once Linux was up, we didn't have to do anything with it," Townsend said. "It's very stable."

Users haven't coined a phrase about Linux crashes, but everyone knows about BSOD, Windows' "blue screen of death." BSOD caused many sleepless nights for Australian Fisheries systems admin Sean Lincolne. He'd find a Windows server dead upon his arrival to work more mornings than not. So he'd "have to reset it and then perform a database recovery," he said. Nowadays, he sleeps well because his agency's Linux-based servers are never DOA.

BSOD is just one of many hassles Windows administrators face and resignedly consider to be business as usual, Lincolne said. Indeed, in one SearchEnterpriseLinux.com field report after another, IT pros have expressed frustration with Windows' constant crashes, license management difficulties, lack of good failover options, hard-to-apply patches and service packs, DLL version conflicts, remote management problems, lack of scalability and flexibility and bugs, bugs and more bugs. Oh, and don't forget license costs.

U.K.-based trampoline vendor Super Tramp has saved 20,000 British pounds (about $35,000) and experienced no downtime in the 18 months since the company migrated from Windows to Linux, said Rick Timmis, IT director at Jardine Prentis UK Ltd., Super Tramp's parent company. His decision to migrate to Linux was cinched when Microsoft introduced its Volume Licensing Program; under the program, the company would have had to pay 20,000 pounds "to remain static" with an unstable system.

Microsoftists like to harp on Linux's alleged lack of scalability. But IT pros tell us that Windows can't play the scaling game. Running a data warehouse on Wintel required constant purchases of new servers by TSC. "Every 18 months, we outgrew and had to throw out our servers," Townsend said. Besides being costly from purchasing and maintenance standpoints, this created a system that was "a bear to manage." TSC dumped these problems by moving to Linux 2.4, and he says it scales great. With Linux 2.6, Linux will scale even better.

Managing and supporting Windows is also a "bear" -- as Townsend said -- because "it contains more bells than Santa's sleigh," said IT manager Joe Sechman. His staff just doesn't have the time to learn about Windows 2000 Server's abundant features.

Thanks to those bells and whistles, Windows is not only prone to breaking, it's easier to break into, according to a recent report by the Computer & Communications Industry Association. The report said that Microsoft has broken the basic rule of computer security by adding too many features and not giving users a way to easily remove them. IT systems cannot be secure, the report said, if Microsoft is allowed to maintain a stranglehold on the OS market.

Although no existing OS is bulletproof, Linux is a lean OS, and its open source foundation enables users to remove features and tweak the kernel relatively easily.

Yes, I used market research in my argument against Windows. It was a trick to bring us back to my original point about the unreliability of said reports. Dan Geer, a co-author of this Microsoft-bashing CCIA report, was CTO of security consultancy AtStake Inc., until he was fired shortly after the report's release. Need I mention that AtStake consults for Microsoft?

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Sticking with MS safer than leaning to Linux

By Paul Gillin, TechTarget Editor in Chief

Jan, if your case for Linux sounds like all the others, you'll cite the same old arguments. Linux is free. Community support works. Linux is reliable and it's secure.

All true statements, to a point. And far be it from me to fault Linux for bringing choice to the market. But Linux's success is coming at the expense of Unix, not Windows. Linux is going to kill commercial Unix. For one thing, its commands and features are familiar to Unix users, but Linux costs far, far less. As Linux grows in functionality -- and it is achieving major gains with every new release -- it will methodically pick off Unix's selling points. International Data Corp. recently reported that Windows actually grew its share in the server market, from 50.5% in 2001 to 55.1% in 2002. Meanwhile, the Unix market has shrunk by 40% during the last two years, according to IDC. Who is Linux hurting most?

Equally important is the fact that Linux has the enthusiastic support of nearly every major vendor in the computer industry -- except Sun. IBM, HP and Dell don't make enough money on Unix to stand behind it. They'd much rather sell Linux, move more hardware and let Sun go down with the Unix ship. Which it is doing.

But Linux is not a threat to Windows or even much of an alternative. Let's look at the argument about cost. Linux will always be free because of the way it's licensed, but the real cost of fully supported enterprise Linux is climbing. Red Hat just raised prices to $179 a year to support a workstation Linux license, all the way up to $18,000 a year for a mainframe installation. That's beginning to look a little like Windows pricing, isn't it? HP officials were recently quoted supporting the Red Hat price increase. Don't you think they, IBM and all the other hardware companies are just waiting for customers to buy in to Linux so they can raise prices on support?

And don't forget SCO. The software bad boy is trying to bill every Linux user for intellectual property it claims was stolen and inserted into the operating system. Users may be outraged, but notice that most vendors have been pretty quiet. In fact, they kind of like the idea of charging users for software. Vendors would be more than happy to bundle the SCO tax into the price of Linux.

And, of course, we know that the real cost of computing is not the acquisition price but the lifetime cost of ownership. On this front, again, Windows presents a pretty compelling argument. Windows resellers and support services are easy to find and cost-competitive with their Linux counterparts. A wider variety of software is available for Windows than for Linux, meaning that IT managers have to spend less time looking for solutions and customizing the ones that they find. Microsoft's certification program ensures that graduates have at least a basic level of competency. This peace of mind is important.

How about community support? It's a great concept if you've got the time to paw through newsgroups while your server is down. But CIOs -- and their bosses -- don't think that way. They want the convenience of "one throat to choke." That's why so many will gladly pay the support fee from a trusted supplier. No matter how good community support may be, it will never fly with IT execs who want the convenience of one-call response and vendor accountability. Enterprise IT managers will continue to contract for support, and Linux and Windows cost about the same in that respect.

On reliability, there's no question that Linux has got a leg up on Windows, and that's why it's such an effective option for embedded systems. But Windows has become pretty reliable, too. Windows 2000 Server was far more reliable than its predecessors, and users and lab tests agree that Windows Server 2003 raised the bar again. It may not be "five 9s" reliability yet, but how many applications demand that level of uptime? In the core Linux market of file serving, mail serving and Web serving, Windows is now a pretty reliable option. And for systems administrators who don't have a computer science degree, it's relatively simple to use.

I realize it's impolitic to argue for big, bad Microsoft against feisty upstart Linux. But the fact is that Microsoft has done a pretty good job over the last 10 years of building products and supporting services for enterprise IT managers. A risk-averse organization is going to be willing to spend a few extra dollars to buy peace of mind. And Windows will continue to be the safe choice for a long time to come.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Article: Linux vs. Windows TCO: Complex issues, no easy answers

Learning Guide: Linux basics for Windows pros

Commentary: Is Linux suitable for business desktops?

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