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Consider Hardware First In Figuring Linux Ownership Costs

Hardware considerations can muddle the seemingly lower cost of Linux ownership.

Editor's Note: Welcome to SmartAdvice, a weekly column by The Advisory Council (TAC), an advisory service firm. The feature answers three questions of core interest to you, ranging from career advice to enterprise strategies to how to deal with vendors. Submit questions directly to [email protected]

Question: What sense should we make of the wildly disparate claims about Linux cost-of-ownership?

Our advice: This question is an important one, given the historic and current emphasis on cost cutting, and the potential ability to do so with Linux solutions. After all, Linux established its roots in the open source community, and as such was available free of charge. Moving to Linux to reduce initial cost-of-ownership would appear to be a no-brainer.

What organizations are discovering, of course, is that their situations aren't quite that simple. One reason is that the strong emphasis of late on lower cost-of-ownership isn't just a question of moving to the Linux operating system, or, for that matter, availing oneself of other open-source software opportunities. Total cost-of-ownership also is a hardware issue, with many enterprises finding themselves considering a migration away from relatively expensive Unix-based systems to others that leverage Intel or AMD processors and other hardware technologies that in many cases cost much less per system to purchase and maintain.

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The concept of replacing Unix-based servers with Intel-based machines running Linux has therefore become a highly visible and popular approach to lowering overall IT costs. However, not all organizations begin going down the Intel-based server path by looking at Linux. There are many who consider the hardware decision first. For these folks, Linux isn't the only option. One could just as easily run Microsoft Windows on these machines, and that is, in fact, what some do.

Questions, Questions
Once the hardware decision is made, the question as to which operating system makes sense has to be answered. There are a number of factors that go into this decision other than initial or total cost: Availability of needed applications, levels and quality of support, licensing schemes, and others all play a role.

We have believed for some time, and we think recent events support our belief, that the cost of ownership profile for Linux will evolve to one where the concept of a "free" operating system will virtually disappear. We hear from users today who have halted migration to Linux, or are considering doing so for additional systems because of increases in support costs from Linux vendors. The reality is that enterprises need to know what their software does, how well it does it, and where and from whom to obtain support if problems occur. Meeting these needs in a reliable fashion will never be without cost, and is a profit motive for those who can provide it. Extend this to applications and tools, and the situation becomes more complex.

An evaluation of cost-of-ownership for Linux is therefore tied to other IT investments. As a standalone technology, however, the Linux story is in flux, and we believe will eventually reach a middle ground with more traditional software development and licensing schemes in which features and benefits will outweigh the cost issues. It's this movement toward bringing Linux to the enterprise that is causing the disparate cost-of-ownership claims. Only a careful evaluation of its needs by an enterprise considering change will reveal the true picture.

-- Steve Garone

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