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Linux Makes Sense For Personal Or Business Use

Published: Tuesday, January 03 2012
Written by Dave Margulius for InfoWorld

When Linux Makes Sense

Linux Makes Sense

No matter which model you use, the financial benefit of switching to Linux from Unix or Windows is driven by four main cost categories: acquisition, migration, management and support. Here are highlights of key issues in each of these areas than will determine when Linux makes sense.

Hardware and software costs

The benefit of replacing expensive RISC processor-based Unix hardware with commodity Intel boxes is one of the biggest factors driving Linux adoption. In cases like these, Linux makes sense!

It's an easy calculation. "Moving Unix workloads to Linux is a no-brainer because of the Intel economics," says Ted Schadler, principal analyst at Forrester Research. "If you look at the all-in cost of deploying Unix on RISC versus that same workload on an HP or Dell box, it's between a 5K (dollars) and 25K price improvement."

On the software side, it is not straight-forward whether Linux makes sense. The cost differential is less clear. Studies by IDC, Meta Group, and Robert Frances Group find that Linux license costs are lower than those of Windows. But  some analysts argue that this is not a fair comparison. "When you're building apps," notes Forrester's Schadler, "it's not a Windows versus Linux decision. It's a Java-on-Linux versus Windows decision. Microsoft bundles a lot of stuff into Windows, into SQL Server, into the .Net framework - if you're looking to build a generic app and deploy it at an all-in price point, Windows is going to win hands down because you get so much bundled in."

On both the hardware and software side, an often overlooked cost advantage of Linux is the flexibility it provides in terms of future migration and upgrade paths. "With Linux, you control your own upgrade cycle," Robinson says. For that reason, Linux makes sense.

Migration costs

When contemplating a move from Unix or Windows to Linux, companies should take a hard look at the one-time migration costs to determine if Linux makes sense. One of the biggest expenses is training systems administrators to get up to speed on Linux.

"You can correlate systems knowledge with age," explains Avery Lyford, chief executive officer of Linuxcare, which develops management software for Linux environments.

"It's a gross generalisation, but if you talk to someone in their 20s, they know Linux; in their 30s, they know Microsoft; in their 40s, Unix; in their 50s, big systems like VMS (Virtual Memory System)."

So in theory, Lyford says, you could gauge your Linux migration costs by figuring out the average age of your system administrators. This is how Linux makes sense.

In reality, Unix skills are closer to Linux skills, which lowers the cost of migrating from Unix to Linux. "If you're a pure NT shop, and you don't have any Linux skills, then the barrier is a heck of a lot higher," Lyford says. "All the Unix people instantly get Linux." Hence, Linux makes sense to them.

Those with Unix skills who don't catch on right away can easily download and try it at home, Lyford notes.

The ability to download Linux freely also makes it easier to prototype potential deployments, a gap which Microsoft is aiming to equalise.

"I need to make it easier for people to try to do things on my stuff, to try to build a scenario or an environment," says Martin Taylor, Microsoft's general manager of platform strategy .

"One of the issues that causes people to not take a full picture on [Linux costs]) is they download something for free and they invest time to get it where they want it. They don't fully account for the time and effort it took to even get their model scenario running."

Other migration costs that can determine if the move to Linux makes sense include code that may have to be rewritten, data that must be migrated, integration work to back-end systems, and software that must be purchased to replicate a capability that already exists on the platform Linux is displacing.

"There were a lot of costs I didn't expect - hidden migration costs," says Cedars-Sinai's Duncan. During the migration from NT to Linux, his staff insisted that because they had been running RAID disk mirroring and striping on NT they should buy SCSI RAID controllers for the Linux servers. "It was like $1,000 per box extra that I hadn't planned on."

One-time migration costs will be lower if your application already runs on top of middleware that will easily port to Linux, such as an application server. Here, Linux makes sense.

"Modern development practices and cycles are helping reduce the migration cost," Robinson notes.

Management costs

By far the biggest cost in most Linux TCO studies is the staffing required for operational systems management. In a 2002 Windows vs. Linux study produced by IDC (and sponsored by Microsoft), staffing accounted for 62% of the total five-year cost for both environments. It also made up the biggest cost difference between the two, with Windows coming out ahead at a slightly lower cost.

Although most analysts believe Windows administrators cost less than Linux systems admins, the real debate when  Linux makes sense centres around the cost benefits of consolidation, and the availability and quality of management software tools for the Linux platform.

"The operational savings vary wildly," says Dave Dargo, vice president of Oracle's Linux Program Office. "Customers who simply adopt Linux side by side with their other OSes probably won't see savings."

He makes the consolidation argument: If you move wholesale to Linux and buy or build robust management tools, you can save more with Linux than with proprietary Unix or Windows because Linux management tools and personnel skills can be spread across a wider target (servers, mainframes and desktops). Because Linux developers have unfettered access to the Linux OS, fewer administrators are needed to manage more machines and greater workloads. Linux makes sense in this case.

The only problem with this scenario for large Unix shops, says DuWayne Mutchler, director of enterprise hosting at EDS, is that some of those tools don't exist. "The argument that Linux is cheaper to operate is one we struggle with," Mutchler says. "The tools and processes and the automation capabilities have not evolved as far as they have for Unix, so we're finding zero cost savings in moving to Linux." Of EDS's 50,000 servers, less than 2% are running Linux.

Cedars-Sinai's Duncan has also found some key cost-saving tools missing, although he's generally happy with his organisation's migration to Linux.

"Backups have been a nagging problem," says Duncan, who notes that the medical centre had been using a hot backup agent for Oracle databases on AIX and NT as part of IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager, but that this agent was not yet available for Linux.

"That is kind of annoying that we can't use our standard backup methodology on Linux yet."

Duncan also found that San support for servers could be problematic.

One management cost area where Linux makes sense and seems to trump Windows consistently  is the cost of managing security. A big driver for Cedars-Sinai's switch to Linux was "the tremendous amount of churn we have on our NT servers" because of hot fixes, service packs, and so on, Duncan says.

"We did an analysis of the amount of time we were spending tweaking NT servers, and it really was kind of terrifying. We should be able to set up a server and just leave it alone - we really got into Linux from that point of view."

Support costs

The final major cost item in the debate over Linux TCO is support. Linux proponents claim Linux support is cheaper and available from a more diverse supplier population, and that Linux machines often run for years without so much as a reboot.

"Sun provides fantastic support on their equipment, and you pay dearly for it," says's Olson. But when one of his new Linux machines breaks down, his staff either replace it because that approach is cheaper than a fix, or they turn to what he calls "Google service," looking on web newsgroups and message boards for the solution. "People are willing to share their experiences. You can find out a lot quickly."

Organisations are overcoming their initial suspicion of this support method. "Early on, Linux support was an inhibitor to enterprise adoptions," says Robinson. "Now it's turning into a strong point."

Users can choose support from their hardware or software vendor, distribution vendor, or a third party. "That's possible with Windows, but with the Microsoft solution, providers can't actually make a change to Windows for you," Robinson says. "All of the Linux support vendors are equally empowered."

Other cost contingencies

Although it is a factor hard to put into a spreadsheet, existing and potential Linux users are also concerned about future cost risks associated with Linux's ownership and development path. Some worry about how the SCO lawsuit will play out. SCO  claims that Linux infringes on its intellectual property and is trying to collect licence fees from enterprise Linux users.

Although few expect the outcome of this controversy to have an impact on Linux TCO, the surrounding uncertainty is affecting how some companies might time their adoption of Linux.