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Linux TCO edge: Lower labor costs
By Grant Gross, TechRepublic
January 3, 2003 1:30 PM PT
The question of whether Linux's total cost of ownership (TCO) is lower than that of Windows or other operating systems has inspired many fierce debates among enterprise IT professionals.
On initial review, the answer seems simple. Linux's low- or no-cost license fees should drive down the TCO of the open source OS, compared to Windows or other flavors of Unix. But the debate--like the larger debate of Linux vs. Windows--is complicated by administration and support costs that vary for each installation.
TCO is hard to pin down
Those variables and others--such as what distribution of Linux is in play and the version of Windows or Unix it's being compared with--make it impossible to plug numbers into a preset formula and spit out an easy answer, explained Al Gillen, research director of systems software for tech analyst IDC, which has been doing TCO studies for several years.
"It's not trivial to figure out, and even when we do a TCO study, you have to remember that our TCO studies are extremely specific in nature," Gillen said. The IDC studies examine a specific workload on two specific kinds of systems with specific kinds of hardware. "The chances are the stack that we select is probably not going to be representative of anybody's real-world configuration," he added.
The numbers you can measure and compare with often end up with complex explanations attached. For example, take licensing fees, where Linux easily beats Windows or other Unix OSs. When you figure out TCO over a three- to five-year period, the initial licensing costs end up being a miniscule piece of the cost, compared with large-ticket items like Linux administration and support, Gillen noted.
"The cost of acquisition of software, hardware--all the things you buy up front--that's a minority element of the total cost of ownership of any operating system," he said. "Whether you pay $2,000 for a Windows license or $49.95 for a boxed copy of Linux, over the course of its lifetime, that ends up being a minor cost."
Gillen pointed out that $2,000 divided over five years is $400. "What is the cost for a technical support professional per hour to be there on staff? Probably a couple of hundred dollars," he noted.
Administration and labor costs
The cost of administration
Gillen said the argument seems to make sense initially, but like other TCO arguments, it is more complicated than it appears.
As one Linux consultant noted, plenty of MCSEs are available, but that doesn't mean they're all qualified.
"If you throw a rock, you'll probably hit an MCSE in the head," said Brian Schenkenfelder, president of Kentucky-based Linux consultancy n + 1. "The problem is, how many of them are any good? There are a lot of paper tigers out there, and that's true of both sides."
Schenkenfelder argues that the typical Linux administrator can handle more than the typical Windows admin.
"What I've found is that a Linux administrator who knows what he's doing should be able to administer two to three times the amount of boxes a Windows administrator should be able to administer," he said.
A July study, conducted by Chad Robinson, senior research analyst at tech/business researcher Robert Frances Group (RFG), supports Schenkenfelder's claims. Robinson acknowledges that experienced admins for Linux or Solaris can be more expensive in some parts of the United States but noted that many of them have been working with Unix for dozens of years.
"One of the things that Microsoft is starting to lose out on now, and I'm not sure they realize this yet, is that they still claim Windows administrators are cheaper," Robinson said. "But the flip side of the same coin is that if one of my administrators on a Windows environment can manage only 10 to 15 systems at a time, but my Solaris admin or my NetBSD or my Linux admin can manage 1,000 servers at a time, I need fewer admins. Sure, the salary's more expensive, but I get more life out of them."
Labor costs significantly lower
Robinson compared Red Hat Linux 7.3 running Apache to Solaris running Apache, and to Windows running IIS. The comparison was all on x86 architecture, using a relatively small sample of 14 companies running mission-critical Web servers. The study found that Windows needed an average of 7.6 servers for a processing unit, Linux needed 7.4, and Solaris needed 2.2.
The software purchase costs per processing unit varied greatly. Linux had a one-time software purchase cost of $400, with most surveyed companies buying a few copies to test different distributions of Linux and then using the free download version on most servers. Solaris had a one-time cost of $27,500 per processing unit, and Windows' up-front cost was $5,320, with a total licensing cost of $7,980 over three years.
Hardware and maintenance costs were nearly the same for Windows and Linux; Solaris cost about 10 times more. In the area where Microsoft expects to pull ahead--server admin costs--the results are what Microsoft would expect, according to Robinson.
In the survey, Linux admin salaries were slightly higher than Windows admins, with Linux at $71,400 per admin, and Windows at $68,500 per admin. But Linux admins took care of an average of 44 servers and Windows admins an average of 10. So the salary per processing unit was Linux, $12,010, and Windows, $52,060.
"And finding Linux experience is not difficult anymore," Robinson noted. "Most of the customers told us that their Solaris admins basically picked it up and worked with it within a couple of weeks."
Bottom line for CIOs
According to the study, the three-year cost of a 100,000-hit processing unit was significantly different among the systems:
Unique cost factors play in
"Personally, I'm not finding Windows to be less expensive to administer, but those security holes--that'll kill 'em," he said.
IDC's Gillen hasn't conducted a comparison between Windows and Linux recently, but it produced a white paper for Red Hat (a leading Linux vendor) last February comparing Linux to RISC/Unix. That paper suggested Linux provides a 1.8:1 cost advantage over RISC/Unix for Internet/intranet/extranet workloads, and a 5.5:1 cost advantage for collaborative workloads.
Making the system choice