Linux Business Case: TCO

By Allen Bernard

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Yes, Linux is free. There are no licenses to buy. That's a fact. But to run it in the enterprise, Linux still requires ongoing support and maintenance that, in some instances, can cause the cost of Linux to rise to the cost of deploying any other operating system (OS).

"There are multiple components to cost and sometimes the emphasis on the license cost of the OS becomes just part of the discussion," said Yogesh Gupta, CTO of Computer Associates (CA).

The first step in deciding if Linux is the right OS is to look at where it will be used and what applications it will be running. If you want to deploy some new Web servers running open-source Apache, then it is almost a no-brainer to go with Linux since upward of 80% of the Internet already runs very well on this proven combination.

And you can run Linux on off-the-shelf hardware that costs a fraction of proprietary boxes. This is where a majority of companies realize the most savings from Linux and one of its most attractive features.

Installation Complexity

If, however, you want to port your SAP ERP install over to Linux, then you may have to do some homework: Is there talent in-house to make this happen? Will I have to hire an outside systems integrator? What will that cost? What about support and maintenance costs? Are cost savings of a free OS is worth the extra effort this may take? etc., etc.

"My take is that when people initially think about Linux, one of the things that is very attractive is its 'free'," said Al Gillen, research director, system software at IDC. "It's almost a bait and switch if you will ... it becomes fairly evident without too much work if you start to consider putting Linux in any kind of 'mission-critical' role, you realize you need to have some form of support for that product."

This means you will probably be buying support and upgrades from a commercial Linux vendor like RedHat or Novell, and that means, of course, that while the OS is technically free, maintenance and support are not.

But, in many cases, it will still cost less to do the same job with Linux than a competing OS, said Ed Weinberg, a systems integrator with Q5 Comm who has been working with Linux since 1996 and spends most of his days doing Linux integrations in Windows' shops.

Available Talent

Then there is the question of talent. Do you have the right mix of people to run a large-scale Linux roll-out? Linux talent is not hard to find but, since most IT shops usually add an OS to the line-up instead of replacing one, said Gupta, is it worth the added expense this will bring to the budget? Or, can you use your UNIX guys to run the Linux set-up since UNIX admin and developers are generally very comfortable using Linux?

On the plus side, if you do need to hire additional staff, said Weinberg, you will not need as many since fewer Linux admins can run more Linux boxes than a Windows admin can run Windows boxes. And, if there is a problem with the OS, there is plenty of available information in chat rooms and other online resources to help solve the problem.

"It really is a little different when you're doing support with Linux (than Windows)," he said. "First of all there is more documentation, not less. And, if things really get hairy, you can go back and look the source (code) itself."

This is obviously not an option with most Microsoft licenses, so you are dependent on Redmond if things really go bad with Windows. And that support costs money.

Patching and Security

On the maintenance side, Linux clearly has Windows beat. Patching and security issues do not plague Linux and, if security issues are uncovered, Linux has a large, diverse user community that issues patches much faster than Windows, said Weinberg.

On the down side, compared to more commercialized operating systems, Linux lacks built-in administrative functionality. This means you will have to find the tools you need to manage the environment. But, according to CA's Gupta, this is an area third-party software vendors like CA have been paying a lot of attention to and there is a growing number of middleware products available today to help run any Linux install.

"People say (Microsoft and UNIX) have more robust tools, but I think the third-party community has actually leveled that playing field," said Gupta.

Costs, of course, have to be compared on a case-by-case basis but this will add to the TCO of Linux and may negate any savings from not having to purchase the license.

"When you look at cost-of-ownership you have to consider what it costs to acquire software, acquire hardware, but then you have to consider what it costs to acquire the additional software components beyond the operating system to configure the system," said IDC's Gillen.

For CA's Gupta, calculating the TCO of Linux versus other operating systems is very hard to do unless you hold up specific cases and go down the laundry list of requirements side by side. And even this exercise may be more academic than reality.

When thinking about deploying Linux, what you really need to focus on is available resources rather than any one set of costs versus another. "In my mind the TCO argument is, 'It depends'," said Gupta.