Linux And Windows Square Off In Another Round Of TCO Testing

Two research reports sponsored by IBM argue that Linux is less expensive to buy and operate than Windows or Unix.

Larry Greenemeier, Contributor

August 31, 2005

4 Min Read

Just as the debate over whether Linux or Windows is cheaper to deploy and manage was threatening to become old hat, IBM on Wednesday fired the latest salvo by promoting two reports it sponsored that indicate Linux is significantly less expensive than Windows and Unix and that Linux usage brings with it a number of secondary benefits that add intangibles to the cost argument. IBM's Linux evangelism follows Microsoft's "Get The Facts" campaign last fall that insisted Windows was the clear cost leader.

When the Robert Frances Group study, titled "TCO For Application Servers: Comparing Linux With Windows And Solaris" and commissioned by IBM, compared the cost of acquiring, implementing, and running an application server on Linux, Windows, and Sun Solaris, it found that Linux is 40% less expensive than a comparable x86-based Windows server and 54% less than a comparable Sparc-based Solaris server. The Linux server's costs were $40,149, compared with $67,559 for Windows and $86,478 for Solaris.

Robert Frances Group interviewed IT executives involved with operating-system selection and purchase decisions at more than 20 midsize to large companies that have 250 or more employees. The research firm calculated hardware-acquisition costs, software license and maintenance costs, support and systems administration costs, and application-server support and system administration costs to come up with its numbers.

The biggest disparity in costs at this time comes from Linux's lack of licensing fees, Chad Robinson, principal analyst with Robert Francis Group, said Wednesday during an IBM roundtable. But other cost-of-ownership factors that weigh in favor of Linux, according to the report, include the crossover nature of Unix and Linux skills, as well as lower ongoing support and management costs and improvements in how customers manage their Linux systems.

But Linux's licensing-cost edge is likely to wane as Microsoft and some Unix vendors, notably Sun Microsystems, lower their prices. Another factor that will close the cost gap in time is the way Linux users are now treating the platform as they would a commercial product, purchasing the same support offerings, management tools, and other facilities that they would on any other platform. "How people look at Linux in the enterprise is evolving," Robinson says.

Another IBM-sponsored report by research firm Pund-IT highlights "second-stage" benefits that some companies are experiencing by implementing Linux. Second-stage benefits expand upon initial benefits such as lower hardware and licensing costs to include the ability to consolidate server workloads, reduce IT hardware upgrade costs, and attract new IT workers interested in open source. The Pund-IT report, titled "Beyond TCO--The Unanticipated Second Stage Benefits Of Linux," indicates that "Linux is enormously popular among IT staff members, many of whom are at the beginning of their careers, as well as with IT educators in universities and technical institutions worldwide." This has resulted in Linux playing a significant role in the recruitment and retention of IT staff and managers.

Pund-IT's conclusions are based on lengthy research with three companies: Alliance UniChem, Boscov's Department Stores, and Zahid Tractor & Heavy Machinery. Alliance UniChem CZ s.r.o. is part of Alliance UniChem plc., Europe's second-largest pharmaceutical wholesaler, its third-largest pharmaceutical retailer, and the fifth-largest international player in its industry. The company began its SuSE Linux deployment in 2002 with a data warehouse and logistics system project designed to replace the existing Windows-on-Intel infrastructure.

Boscov's, headquartered in Reading, Pa., and operating more than 40 department stores and outlets in five Eastern states, claims to have saved more than $2 million since its first Linux deployment on an IBM zSeries z900 server in 2001. Zahid Tractor, based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is a supplier of heavy and industrial equipment used in construction, manufacturing, shipping, the oil industry, ports, airports, steel works, and transportation that began its Windows-to-Linux migration in 2002 as part of an open-source strategy to improve IT flexibility, reliability, and security, the Pund-IT report says.

"Linux gave [these companies] a greater sense of choice," said Charles King, principal Pund-IT analyst. "We saw some limited concern over Linux fracturing, but it was a minor issue at best."

When IBM looks at Linux, the company sees a growth engine. IBM, which sells Linux, Unix, and Windows, says that it saw $1.5 billion in Linux server sales for the company's second quarter, which ended June 30. The company also makes much of Linux being the fastest-growing operating system in the world, although this observation is unsurprising given that Linux is newer than Windows or Unix.

Microsoft has worked diligently to fight Linux's growth, which it grudgingly concedes is a threat to the growth of Windows. In a letter E-mailed last November to customers, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer contended, "It's pretty clear that the facts show that Windows provides a lower total cost of ownership than Linux, the number of security vulnerabilities is lower on Windows, and Windows' responsiveness on security is better than Linux." Ballmer sent this memo in support of his company's "Get The Facts" marketing campaign.

The lesson to be learned from these Linux and Windows TCO comparisons is that companies need to conduct a little research of their own before making any IT platform decisions. Actual costs are bound to be very specific to each company's needs.

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