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Why Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS)? Look at the Numbers!

David A. Wheeler
Revised as of October 8, 2002

This paper provides quantitative data that, in many cases, using open source software / free software is a reasonable or even superior approach to using their proprietary competition according to various measures. This paper examines market share, reliability, performance, scalability, security, and total cost of ownership. It also has sections on non-quantitative issues, unnecessary fears, usage reports, other sites providing related information, and ends with some conclusions. You can view this paper at (HTML format). Palm PDA users can view it in Plucker format (you will also need Plucker to read it). Old archived copies are also available.

1. Introduction

Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) has risen to great prominence. Briefly, OSS/FS programs are programs whose licenses give users the freedom to run the program for any purpose, to study and modify the program, and to freely redistribute copies of either the original or modified program (without having to pay royalties to previous developers).

This goal of this paper is to show that you should consider using OSS/FS when you’re looking for software, based on quantitative measures. Some sites provide a few anecdotes on why you should use OSS/FS, but for many that’s not enough information to justify using OSS/FS. Instead, this paper emphasizes quantitative measures (such as experiments and market studies) on why using OSS/FS products is, in a number of circumstances, a reasonable or even superior approach. I should note that while I find much to like about OSS/FS, I’m not a rabid advocate; I use both proprietary and OSS/FS products myself. Vendors of proprietary products often work hard to find numbers to support their claims; this page provides a useful antidote of hard figures to aid in comparing proprietary products to OSS/FS.

Note that this paper’s goal is not to show that all OSS/FS is better than all proprietary software. Certainly, there are many who believe this is true from ethical, moral, or social grounds. However, no numbers could prove such broad statements. Instead, I’ll simply compare commonly-used OSS/FS software with commonly-used proprietary software, to show that at least in certain situations and by certain measures, some OSS/FS software is at least as good or better than its proprietary competition. Of course, some OSS/FS software is technically poor, just as some proprietary software is technically poor, and even very good software may not fit your specific needs. But although most people understand the need to compare proprietary products before using them, many people fail to even consider OSS/FS products. This paper is intended to explain why acquirers should consider OSS/FS alternatives.

I’ll emphasize the GNU/Linux operating system (which some abbreviate as “Linux”) and the Apache web server, since these are some of the most visible OSS/FS projects. I’ll also primarily compare OSS/FS software to Microsoft’s products (such as Windows and IIS), since Windows has a significant market share and Microsoft is one of proprietary software’s strongest proponents. I’ll mention Unix systems in passing as well, though the situation with Unix is more complex; many Unix systems include a number of OSS/FS components or software primarily derived from OSS/FS components. Thus, comparing proprietary Unix systems to OSS/FS systems (when examined as entire systems) is often not as clear-cut. I use the term “Unix-like” to mean systems intentionally similar to Unix; both Unix and GNU/Linux are “Unix-like” systems. The most recent Apple Macintosh operating system (MacOS OS X) presents the same kind of complications; older versions of MacOS were entirely proprietary, but Apple’s operating system has been redesigned so that it’s now based on a Unix system with a substantial contribution from OSS/FS programs. Indeed, Apple is now openly encouraging collaboration with OSS/FS developers. I include data over a series of years, not just the past year; I believe that all relevant data should be considered when making a decision, instead of arbitrarily ignoring older data, and the older data shows that OSS/FS has a history of many positive traits.

You can get a more detailed explanation of the terms “open source software” and “Free Software”, as well as related information, from my list of Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) references at Note that those who use the term “open source software” tend to emphasize technical advantages of such software (such as better reliability and security), while those who use the term “Free Software” tend to emphasize freedom from control by another and/or ethical issues. The opposite of OSS/FS is “closed” or “proprietary” software. Software for which the source code that can be viewed, but cannot modified and redistributed without further limitation (e.g., “source viewable” or “open box” software, including “shared source” and “community” licenses), are not considered here since they don’t meet the previously-given definition of OSS/FS. Note that many OSS/FS programs are commercial programs, so don’t make the mistake of calling OSS/FS software “non-commercial.” Almost no OSS/FS programs are in the “public domain” (which has a specific legal meaning), so avoid that term as well. Other alternative terms for OSS/FS software include “libre software” (where libre means free as in freedom), free/libre and open source software (FLOSS), open source / Free Software (OS/FS), open-source software (indeed, “open-source” is often used as a general adjective), “freed software,” and even “public service software” (since often these software projects are designed to serve the public at large).

Below is data discussing market share, reliability, performance, scalability, security, and total cost of ownership. I close with a brief discussion of non-quantitative issues, unnecessary fears, usage reports, other sites providing related information, and conclusions.

2. Market Share

Many people believe that a product is only a winner if it has significant market share. This is lemming-like, but there’s some rationale for this: products with big market shares get applications, trained users, and momentum that reduces future risk. Some writers argue against OSS/FS or GNU/Linux as “not being mainstream”, but if their use is widespread then such statements reflect the past, not the present. There’s excellent evidence that OSS/FS has significant market share in numerous markets:

  1. The most popular web server has always been OSS/FS since such data have been collected, for example, Apache is currently the #1 web server. Netcraft’s statistics on web servers have consistently shown Apache (an OSS/FS web server) dominating the public Internet web server market ever since Apache became the #1 web server in April 1996. Before that time, the NCSA web server (Apache’s ancestor) dominated the web from August 1995 through March 1996 - and it is also OSS/FS. For example, Netcraft’s September 2002 survey polled all the web sites they could find (totaling 35,756,436 sites), and found that of all the sites they could find, Apache had 59.91% of the market and Microsoft had 29.18% of the market, iPlanet had 2.08%, and Zeus had 1.36%.

    More recently, Netcraft has been trying to separately count “active” web sites. The problem is that many web sites have been created that are simply “placeholder” sites (i.e., their domain names have been reserved but they are not being used); such sites are termed “inactive.” Netcraft’s count of only the active sites is a more relevant figure, since this shows the web server selected by those who choose to develop a web site. When counting active sites, Apache does even better; in September 2002, Apache had 66.04% of the web server market, Microsoft had 24.18%, iPlanet had 1.57%, and Zeus had 1.34%.

    Market Share for Active Web Servers, June 2000 - September 2002
    Active servers across all domains, June 2000 - September 2002

    Netcraft’s September 2002 survey also reported on websites based on their “IP address” instead of the host name; this has the effect of removing “parked” (unused addresses), computers used to serve multiple sites, and sites with multiple names. When counting by IP address, Apache has shown a slow increase from 51% at the start of 2001 to 54%, while Microsoft was unchanged at 35%.

    The same overall result has been determined independently by E-soft - their report on web server market share published October 1, 2002 surveyed 9,045,027 web servers in September 2002 and found that Apache was #1 (66.75%), with Microsoft IIS being #2 (21.83%). E-soft also reports specifically on secure servers (web servers supporting SSL/TLS, such as e-commerce sites), and even here Apache has a commanding 51.26% market share, as compared to Microsoft’s 34.85%, Netscape/iPlanet’s 5.68%, and Stronghold’s 2.71%. Indeed, since Stronghold is a repackaging of Apache, Apache’s real market share is at least 53.97%.

    Obviously these figures fluctuate monthly; see Netcraft and E-soft for the latest survey figures.

  2. GNU/Linux is the #2 web serving operating system on the public Internet (counting by physical machine), according to a study by Netcraft surveying March and June 2001. Some of Netcraft’s surveys have also included data on operating systems; two 2001 surveys (their June 2001 and September 2001 surveys) found that GNU/Linux is the #2 operating system for web servers when counting physical machines (and has been consistently gaining market share since February 1999). As Netcraft themselves point out, the usual Netcraft web server survey (discussed above) counts web server hostnames rather than physical computers, and so it doesn’t measure such things as the installed hardware base. Companies can run several thousand web sites on a single computer, and most of the world’s web sites are located at hosting and co-location companies.

    Therefore, Netcraft developed a technique that indicates the number of actual computers being used as Web servers, together with the operating system and web server software used. The technique is based on arranging a number of IP addresses to send packets to Netcraft nearly simultaneously; low level TCP/IP characteristics can be used to work out if those packets originate from the same computer by checking for similarities in a number of TCP/IP protocol header fields. This is a statistical approach, so many visits to the site are used over a month to build up sufficient certainty. This technique has its weaknesses; Round robin DNS, reverse web proxies, some load balancing/failover products like Cisco LocalDirector and BIG-IP, and some connection level firewalls hide a number of web servers behind a hostname. Only a single “front” web server will be counted, and with some of these products the operating system detected is that of the “front” device rather than the web server behind. Still, Netcraft believes that the error margins world-wide are well within the order of plus or minus 10%, and this is the best available survey of such data.

    Before presenting the data, it’s important to explain Netcraft’s system for dating the data. Netcraft dates their information based on the web server surveys (not the publication date), and they only report operating system summaries from an earlier month. Thus, the survey dated “June 2001” was published in July and covers operating system survey results of March 2001, while the survey dated “September 2001” was published in October and covers the operating system survey results of June 2001.

    Here’s a summary of Netcraft’s study results:

    OS groupPercentage (March)Percentage (June)Composition
    Windows49.2%49.6%Windows 2000, NT4, NT3, Windows 95, Windows 98
    Solaris7.6%7.1%Solaris 2, Solaris 7, Solaris 8
    BSD6.3%6.1%BSDI BSD/OS, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD
    Other Unix2.4%2.2%AIX, Compaq Tru64, HP-UX, IRIX, SCO Unix, SunOS 4 and others
    Other non-Unix2.5%2.4%MacOS, NetWare, proprietary IBM OSs
    Unknown3.6%3.0%not identified by Netcraft operating system detector

    Much depends on what you want to measure. Several of the BSDs (FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD) are OSS/FS as well; so at least a portion of the 6.1% for BSD should be added to GNU/Linux’s 29.6% to determine the percentage of OSS/FS operating systems being used as web servers. Thus, it’s likely that approximately one-third of web serving computers use OSS/FS operating systems. There are also regional differences, for example, GNU/Linux leads Windows in Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

    Well-known web sites using OSS/FS include Google (GNU/Linux) and Yahoo (FreeBSD).

    If you really want to know about the web server market breakdown of “Unix vs. Windows,” you can find that also in this study. All of the various Windows operating systems are rolled into a single number (even Windows 95/98 and Windows 2000/NT4/NT3 are merged together, although they are fundamentally very different systems). Merging all the Unix-like systems in a similar way produces a total of 44.8% for Unix-like systems (compared to Windows’ 49.2%) in March 2001.

    Note that these figures would probably be quite different if they were based on web addresses instead of physical computers; in such a case, the clear majority of web sites are hosted by Unix-like systems. As stated by Netcraft, “Although Apache running on various Unix systems runs more sites than Windows, Apache is heavily deployed at hosting companies and ISPs who strive to run as many sites as possible on a single computer to save costs.”

  3. GNU/Linux is the #1 server operating system on the public Internet (counting by domain name), according to a 1999 survey of primarily European and educational sites. The first study that I’ve found that examined GNU/Linux’s market penetration is a survey by Zoebelein in April 1999. This survey found that, of the total number of servers deployed on the Internet in 1999 (running at least ftp, news, or http (WWW)) in a database of names they used, the #1 operating system was GNU/Linux (at 28.5%), with others trailing. It’s important to note that this survey, which is the first one that I’ve found to try to answer questions of market share, used existing databases of servers from the .edu (educational domain) and the RIPE database (which covers Europe , the Middle East, parts of Asia, and parts of Africa), so this isn’t really a survey of “the entire Internet” (e.g., it omits “.com” and “.net”). This is a count by domain name (e.g., the text name you would type into a web browser for a location) instead of by physical computer, so what it’s counting is different than the Netcraft June 2001 operating system study. Also, this study counted servers providing ftp and news services (not just web servers).

    Here’s how the various operating systems fared in the study:

    Market ShareOperating SystemComposition
    Windows24.4%All Windows combined (including 95, 98, NT)
    Sun17.7%Sun Solaris or SunOS
    BSD15.0%BSD Family (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, BSDI, ...)

    A portion of the BSD family is also OSS/FS, so the OSS/FS operating system total is even higher; if over 2/3 of the BSDs are OSS/FS, then the total share of OSS/FS would be about 40%. Advocates of Unix-like systems will notice that the majority (around 66%) were running Unix-like systems, while only around 24% ran a Microsoft Windows variant.

  4. GNU/Linux was the #2 server operating system sold in 1999, 2000, and 2001. According to a June 2000 IDC survey of 1999 licenses, 24% of all servers (counting both Internet and intranet servers) installed in 1999 ran GNU/Linux. Windows NT came in first with 36%; all Unixes combined totaled 15%. Again, since some of the Unixes are OSS/FS systems (e.g., FreeBSD, OpenBSD, and NetBSD), the number of OSS/FS systems is actually larger than the GNU/Linux figures. Note that it all depends on what you want to count; 39% of all servers installed from this survey were Unix-like (that’s 24%+15%), so “Unix-like” servers were actually #1 in installed market share once you count GNU/Linux and Unix together.

    IDC released a similar study on January 17, 2001 titled “Server Operating Environments: 2000 Year in Review”. On the server, Windows accounted for 41% of new server operating system sales in 2000, growing by 20% - but GNU/Linux accounted for 27% and grew even faster, by 24%. Other major Unixes had 13%.

    IDC’s 2002 report found that Linux held its own in 2001 at 25%. All of this is particularly intriguing since GNU/Linux had 0.5% of the market in 1995, according to a Forbes quote of IDC. Data such as these (and the TCO data shown later) have inspired statements such as this one from IT-Director on November 12, 2001: “Linux on the desktop is still too early to call, but on the server it now looks to be unstoppable.”

    These measures do not measure all server systems installed that year; some Windows systems are not paid for (they’re illegally pirated), and OSS/FS operating systems such as GNU/Linux and the BSDs are often downloaded and installed on multiple systems (since it’s legal and free to do so).

  5. An Evans Data survey published in November 2001 found that 48.1% of international developers and 39.6% of North Americans plan to target most of their applications to GNU/Linux. The November 2001 edition of the Evans Data International Developer Survey Series reported on in-depth interviews with more than 400 developers representing over 70 countries, and found that when asked which operating system they plan to target with most of their applications next year, 48.1% of international developers and 39.6% of North Americans stated that they plan to target most of their applications to GNU/Linux. This is particularly surprising since only a year earlier less than a third of the international development community was writing GNU/Linux applications. The survey also found that 37.8% of the international development community and 33.7% of North American developers have already written applications for GNU/Linux, and that more than half of those surveyed have enough confidence in GNU/Linux to use it for mission-critical applications.

    Later data seems to confirm this, for example, the Japanese Linux white paper 2003 found that 49.3% of IT solution vendors support Linux in Japan.

  6. A Japanese survey found widespread use and support for GNU/Linux; overall use of GNU/Linux jumped from 35.5% in 2001 to 64.3% in 2002 of Japanese corporations, and GNU/Linux was the most popular platform for small projects. The book Linux White Paper 2003 (published by Impress Corporation) surveys the use of GNU/Linux in Japan (it is an update to an earlier book, “Linux White Paper 2001-2002”). This is written in Japanese; here is a brief summary of its contents.

    The survey has two parts, user and vendor. In “Part I : User enterprise”, they surveyed 729 enterprises that use servers. In “Part II : Vendor enterprise”, they surveyed 276 vendor enterprises who supply server computers, including system integrators, software developers, IT service suppliers, and hardware resellers. The most interesting results are those that discuss the use of Linux servers in user enterprises, the support of Linux servers by vendors, and Linux server adoption in system integration projects.

    First, the use of Linux servers in user enterprises:
    Linux server64.3%35.5%
    Windows 2000 Server59.9%37.0%
    Windows NT Server64.3%74.2%
    Commercial Unix server37.7% 31.2%

    And specifically, here’s the average use in 2002:
    SystemAve. units# samples
    Linux server13.4N=429 (5.3 in 2001)
    Windows 2000 Server24.6N=380
    Windows NT Server4.5N=413
    Commercial Unix server6.9N=233
    Linux servers are the fastest growing category from last year. The average units of server per enterprise increased by 2.5-fold from 5.3 units to 13.4 units.

    Second, note the support of GNU/Linux servers by vendors:
    SystemYear 2002 Support
    Windows NT/2000 Server66.7%
    Linux server49.3%
    Commercial Unix server38.0%
    This is the rate of vendors that develop or sale products supporting Linux server; note that Linux is already a major OS when compared with its competitors. The reasons for supporing Linux server were also surveyed, which turn out to be different than the reasons in some other counties (for a contrast, see the European FLOSS report):
    Increase of importance in the future44.1%
    Requirement from their customers41.2%
    Major OS in their market38.2%
    Free of licence fee37.5%
    Most reasonable OS for their purpose36.0%
    Open source34.6%
    High reliability27.2%

    Third, note the rate of Linux server adoption in system integration projects:
    Project Size (Million Yen)LinuxWin2000Unix
    Where 1 Million Yen = $8,000 US. GNU/Linux servers are No.1 (62.5%) in small projects less than 3,000,000 Yen ($24,000 US), and GNU/Linux has grown in larger projects more than 50,000,000 Yen ($400,000 US) from 20.0% to 39.0%. In projects more than 100,000,000 Yen ($800,000 US), Linux is adopted by 24.4% of the projects (mainly as a substitute for proprietary Unix systems). Note that many projects (especially large ones) use multiple platforms simultaneously, so the values need not total 100%.

    This makes sense given that GNU/Linux is a more recent competitor to Windows and Linux. No (rational) organization is going to commit its largest projects to a new server system immediately; instead, they will try it on small projects, use it more often on small projects if that succeeds, and then gradually use the product on larger projects if it appears to be successful and scaleable. The trend here shows GNU/Linux already dominant on small projects, and growing rapidly on the larger ones.

  7. The European FLOSS study found significant use of OSS/FS. The large report Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS): Survey and Study, published in June 2002, examined a number of issues including the use of OSS/FS. This study found significant variance in the use of OSS/FS; 43.7% of German establishments reported using OSS/FS, 31.5% of British establishments reported using OSS/FS, while only 17.7% of Swedish establishments reported using OSS/FS. In addition, they found that OSS usage rates of larger establishments were larger than smaller establishments, and that OSS usage rates in the public sector were above average.

  8. Microsoft sponsored its own research to “prove” that GNU/Linux isn’t as widely used, but this research has been shown to be seriously flawed. Microsoft sponsored a Gartner Dataquest report claiming only 8.6% of servers shipped in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2000 were Linux-based. However, it’s worth noting that Microsoft (as the research sponsor) has every incentive to create low numbers, and these numbers are quite different from IDC’s research in the same subject. IDC’s Kusnetzky commented that the likely explanation is that Gartner used a very narrow definition of “shipped”; he thought the number was “quite reasonable” if it only surveyed new servers with Linux, “But our research is that this is not how most users get their Linux. We found that just 10 to 15 percent of Linux adoption comes from pre-installed machines... for every paid copy of Linux, there is a free copy that can be replicated 15 times.” Note that it’s quite difficult to buy a new x86 computer without a Microsoft operating system (Microsoft’s contracts with computer makers ensure this), but that doesn’t mean that these operating systems are used. Gartner claimed that it used interviews to counter this problem, but its final research results (when compared to known facts) suggest that Gartner did not really counter this effect. For example, Gartner states that Linux shipments in the supercomputer field were zero. In fact, Linux is widely used on commodity parallel clusters at many scientific sites, including a number of high-profile sites. Many of these systems were assembled in-house, showing that Gartner’s method of defining a “shipment” does not appear to correlate to working installations. The Register’s article, “No one’s using Linux” (with its companion article “90% Windows..”) discusses this further. In short, Microsoft-sponsored research reported low numbers, but these numbers are quite suspect.

  9. Businesses plan to increase their use of GNU/Linux. A Zona Research study found that more than half of the large enterprise respondents expected increases of up to 25% in the number of GNU/Linux users in their firm, while nearly 20% expected increases of more than 50%. In small companies, more than one third felt that GNU/Linux usage would expand by 50%. The most important factors identified that drove these decisions were reliability, lower price, speed of applications, and scalability. Here are the numbers:
    Expected GNU/Linux UseSmall BusinessMidsize BusinessLarge BusinessTotal
    50% increase21.0%16%19.0%19%
    10-25% increase30.5%42%56.5%44%
    No growth45.5%42%24.5%36%
    You can see more about this study in “The New Religion: Linux and Open Source” (ZDNet) and in InfoWorld’s February 5, 2001 article “Linux lights up enterprise: But concerns loom about OS vendor profitability.”

  10. The global top 1000 Internet Service Providers expect GNU/Linux use to increase by 154%, according to Idaya’s survey conducted January through March 2001. A survey conducted by Idaya of the global top 1000 ISPs found that they expected GNU/Linux to grow a further 154% in 2001. Also, almost two thirds (64%) of ISPs consider the leading open source software meets the standard required for enterprise level applications, comparable with proprietary software. Idaya produces OSS/FS software, so keep that in mind as a potential bias.

  11. A 2002 European survey found that 49% of CIOs in financial services, retail, and the public sector expect to be using OSS/FS. OpenForum Europe published in February 2002 a survey titled Market Opportunity Analysis For Open Source Software. Over three months CIOs and financial directors in financial services, retail and public sector were interviewed for this survey. In this survey, 37% of the CIOs stated that they were already using OSS/FS, and 49% expected to be using OSS/FS in the future. It is quite likely that even more companies are using OSS/FS but their CIOs are not aware of it. Perceived benefits cited included decreased costs in general (54%), lower software license cost (24%), better control over development (22%), and improved security (22%).

  12. IBM found a 30% growth in the number of enterprise-level applications for GNU/Linux in the six month period ending June 2001. At one time, it was common to claim that “Not enough applications run under GNU/Linux” for enterprise-level use. However, IBM found there are more than 2,300 GNU/Linux applications (an increase in 30% over 6 months) available from IBM and the industry’s top independent software vendors (ISVs). A Special report by Network Computing on Linux for the Enterprise discusses some of the strengths and weaknesses of GNU/Linux, and found many positive things to say about GNU/Linux for enterprise-class applications.

  13. A 2001 survey found that 46.6% of IT professionals were confident that their organizations could support GNU/Linux, a figure larger than any OS except Windows. A TechRepublic Research survey titled Benchmarks, Trends, and Forecasts: Linux Report found that “support for Linux runs surprisingly deep” when it surveyed IT professionals and asked them how confidently their organizations could support various operating systems. Given Windows’ market dominance on the desktop, it’s not surprising that most were confident that their organizations could support various versions of Windows (for Windows NT the figure was 90.6%; for Windows 2000, 81.6%). However, GNU/Linux came in third, at 46.4%; about half of those surveyed responded that their organizations were already confident in their ability to support GNU/Linux! This is especially shocking because GNU/Linux beat other well-known products with longer histories including Unix (42.1%), Novell Netware (39.5%), Sun Solaris (25.7%), and Apple (13.6%). TechRepublic suggested that there are several possible reasons for this surprisingly large result: TechRepublic suggests that IT executives should inventory their staff’s skill sets, because they may discover that their organization can already support GNU/Linux if they aren’t currently using it.

  14. Sendmail, an OSS/FS program, is the leading email server. A survey between 2001-09-27 and 2001-10-03 by D.J. Bernstein of one million random IP addresses successfully connected to 958 SMTP (email) servers (such servers are also called mail transport agents, or MTAs). Bernstein found that Unix Sendmail had the largest market share (42% of all email servers), followed by Windows Microsoft Exchange (18%), Unix qmail (17%), Windows Ipswitch IMail (6%), Unix smap (2%), UNIX Postfix (formerly VMailer, 2%) and Unix Exim (1%). Note that Bernstein implements one of Sendmail’s competitors (qmail), so he has a disincentive to identify Sendmail’s large market share. Qmail is not OSS/FS, because derivatives of Qmail cannot be freely redistributed; Qmail is “source viewable,” so some people are confused into believing that Qmail is OSS/FS. However, Sendmail, Postfix, and Exim are all OSS/FS. Indeed, not only is the leading program (Sendmail) OSS/FS, but that OSS/FS program has more than twice the installations of its nearest competition.

  15. A survey in the second quarter of 2000 found that 95% of all reverse-lookup domain name servers (DNS) used bind, an OSS/FS product. The Internet is built from many mostly-invisible infrastructure components. This includes domain name servers (DNSs), which take human-readable machine names (like “”) and translate them into numeric addresses. Publicly accessible machines also generally support “reverse lookups”, which convert the numbers back to names; for historical reasons, this is implemented using the hidden “” domain. By surveying the in-addr domain, you can gain insight into how the entire Internet is supported. Bill Manning has surveyed the in-addr domain and found that 95% of all name servers (in 2q2000) performing this important Internet infrastructure task are some version of “bind.” This includes all of the DNS root servers, which are critical for keeping the Internet functioning. Bind is an OSS/FS program.

  16. PHP is the web’s #1 Server-side Scripting Language. PHP, a recursive acronym for “Hypertext Preprocessor”, is an open source server-side scripting language designed for creating dynamic Web pages (e.g., such as e-commerce). As noted in a June 3, 2002 article, PHP recently surpassed Microsoft’s ASP to become the most popular server-side Web scripting technology on the Internet, and was used by over 24% of the sites on the Internet. Of the 37.6 million web sites surveyed worldwide, PHP is running on over 9 million sites, and over the past two years PHP has averaged a 6.5% monthly growth rate.

  17. OpenSSH is the Internet’s #1 implementation of the SSH security protocol. The Secure Shell (SSH) protocol is widely used to securely connect to computers and control them remotely (using either a text or X-Windows graphical interface). On April 2002, a survey of 2.4 million Internet addresses found that OpenSSH, an OSS/FS implementation of SSH, was the #1 implementation, with 66.8% of the market; the proprietary “SSH” had 28.1%, Cisco had 0.4%, and others totaled 4.7%. You can see general information about the survey, or the specific SSH statistics for April 2002. It’s also interesting to note that OpenSSH had less than 5% of the market in the third quarter of 2000, but its use steadily grew. By the fourth quarter of 2001, over half of all users of the SSH protocol were using OpenSSH, and its market share has continued to grow since.

  18. GNU/Linux has a tiny client (desktop and laptop) market share, but there are reasons to believe it will grow in the future. Many users’ only direct experience with computers is through their desktop or laptop computers running “basic client applications” such as a web browser, email reader, word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software (the last three together are often called an “office suite”), possibly with additional client applications, and all of these must have a graphical user interface and be supported by an underlying graphical environment. Such computers are often called “client” computers (even if they are not using the technical approach called the “client-server model”). OSS/FS systems like GNU/Linux have a wealth of server and developer applications, but GNU/Linux is a brand new contender in the client operating system (OS) market and has only begun penetrating into that market. First, let’s look at the available figures.

    According to the June 2000 IDC survey of 1999 licenses for client machines, GNU/Linux had 80% as many client shipments in 1999 as Apple’s MacOS (5.0% for Mac OS, 4.1% for GNU/Linux). More recent figures in 2002 suggest that GNU/Linux has 1.7% or 3.8% of the client OS market (depending on which quote you believe). Obviously, while this shows that there are many users (because there are so many client systems), this is still small compared to Microsoft’s effective monopoly on the client operating system market.

    But this should not be surprising, because before 2002 OSS/FS systems like GNU/Linux could not really meet the requirements for a client system. Few users can even consider buying a client system without basic client applications, since that system won’t meet their fundamental requirements. As a practical matter, client systems must be compatible with the market leader (e.g., the office suite must be able to read and write Microsoft Office formats); before 2002 the most available products could not do this well. Finally, for systems like GNU/Linux to compete with its competitors, the basic client applications and environment have to be OSS/FS as well, and this is a point not often understood. There have been proprietary basic client applications for GNU/Linux for several years, but they don’t really help GNU/Linux; a GNU/Linux system combined with a proprietary basic client applications still lacks the freedoms and low cost of purely OSS/FS systems, and the combination has to compete with established proprietary systems which have many more applications available to them. This doesn’t mean that GNU/Linux can’t support proprietary programs; certainly some people will buy proprietary basic client applications, and many people have already decided to buy many other kinds of proprietary applications and run them on a GNU/Linux system. However, few will find that a GNU/Linux system with proprietary basic client applications has an advantage over its competition. After all, the result is still proprietary, and since there are fewer desktop applications on GNU/Linux, many capabilities have been lost, little has been gained, and the switching costs will dwarf those minute gains.

    However, the situation is changing dramatically, due to three factors: OSS/FS basic client software is now available, Microsoft is raising prices, and governments want open systems:

    1. OSS/FS basic client software is available. Back in 1997 I predicted that GNU/Linux would be “ready for the desktop” in 2002-2003 (5 years later). I think my prediction was correct; OSS/FS applications and environments matured in 2002 where they are finally competitive on the client. In 2002, Mozilla finally released version 1.0 of their suite (including a web browser, email reader, and other tools), and the first reasonably usable version of Open Office (an office suite) was released. Desktop environments matured as well; in 2002 both the GNOME and KDE projects released capable, more mature versions of their desktop environments. In addition the WINE product (a product that allows OSS/FS systems to run Windows programs) was finally able to run Microsoft Office 97, suggesting that although WINE is still immature, it may be sufficient to run some Windows applications developed internally by some organizations.

      There are other plausible alternatives for client applications as well, such as Evolution (an excellent mail reader), Abiword (a lighter-weight but less capable word processor which also released its version 1.0 in 2002), Gnumeric (a spreadsheet), and KOffice (an office suite).

      However, I will emphasize Mozilla and Open Office, for two reasons. First, they also run on Microsoft Windows, which makes it much it easier to transition users from the competition (this enables users to migrate a step at a time, instead of making a single massive change). Second, they are full-featured, including compatibility with Microsoft’s products; many users want to use fully-featured products since they don’t want to switch programs just to get a particular feature. In short, it looks like there are now several OSS/FS products that have begun to rival their proprietary competitors in both usability and in the functionality that people need, including some very capable programs.

    2. Microsoft is raising prices. Microsoft is changing many of its practices, resulting in increasing costs to its customers. It has changed its licensing so that a single copy of Windows cannot be used for both home and office. Microsoft has switched its largest customers to a subscription-based approach (called “Licensing 6”), greatly increasing the costs to its customers. TIC/Sunbelt Software Microsoft Licensing Survey Results (covering March 2002) reports the impact on customers of this new licensing scheme. 80% had a negative view of the new licensing scheme, noting, for example, that the new costs for software assurance (25% of list for server and 29% of list for clients) are the highest in the industry. Of those who had done a cost analysis, an overwhelming 90% say their costs will increase if they migrate to 6.0, and 76% said their costs would increase from 20% to 300% from what they are paying now under their current 4.0 and 5.0 Microsoft Licensing plans. Indeed, 38% of those surveyed said that they are actively seeking alternatives to Microsoft products.

      Gartner’s review of Star Office (Sun’s variant of Open Office) also noted that Microsoft’s recent licensing policies may accelerate moving away from Microsoft. As Gartner notes, “This [new license program] has engendered a lot of resentment among Microsoft’s customers, and Gartner has experienced a marked increase in the number of clients inquiring about alternatives to Microsoft’s Office suite... enterprises are realizing that the majority of their users are consumers or light producers of information, and that these users do not require all of the advanced features of each new version of Office... unless Microsoft makes significant concessions in its new office licensing policies, Sun’s StarOffice will gain at least 10 percent market share at the expense of Microsoft Office by year-end 2004 (0.6 probability).” They also note that “Because of these licensing policies, by year-end 2003, more than 50 percent of enterprises will have an official strategy that mixes versions of office automation products - i.e., between multiple Microsoft Office versions or vendor products (0.7 probability).”

    3. Governments want open systems. A New York Times article noted that “More than two dozen countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America, including China and Germany, are now encouraging their government agencies to use ‘open source’ software - developed by communities of programmers who distribute the code without charge and donate their labor to cooperatively debug, modify and otherwise improve the software.”

      Indeed, the advantages of OSS/FS to governments are clear, especially to non-U.S. governments. No government wants their computing infrastructure controlled by a single company (and outside the U.S., a foreign company at that). Jiang Guangzhi, director of a software development center in Shanghai, emphasized that the Chinese government did not want one company “to manipulate or dominate the Chinese market.” IBM signed a Linux deal with Germany; Germany’s Interior Minister, Otto Schilly, said the move would help cut costs, improve security in the nation’s computer networks, and lower dependence on a single supplier. Ralph Nader’s Consumer Project on Technology gives reasons the U.S. government should encourage OSS/FS. Many countries favor or are considering favoring OSS/FS in some way, such as Peru, the UK, South Africa, and Taiwan. An older but broad survey was published in 2001 by CNet.

      Indeed, so many governments have begun enacting preferences for OSS/FS that Microsoft has sponsored an organization called the Initiative for Software Choice. This organization makes many nice-sounding statements, but it appears that the real purpose of this organization is to forbid governments from considering software licenses when they procure software and to encourage standards that lock out OSS/FS. An opposing group, founded by Bruce Perens, is Sincere, which advocates that there be a “fair, competitive market for computer software, both proprietary and Open Source.” Bruce Perens has published an article discussing why “Software Choice” is not what it first appears to be.

    There are some interesting hints that GNU/Linux is already starting to gain on the client. Some organizations, such as TrustCommerce and the city of Largo, Florida, report that they’ve successfully transitioned to using Linux on the desktop.

    There’s already some evidence that others anticipate this; Richard Thwaite, director of IT for Ford Europe, stated in 2001 that an open source desktop is their goal, and that they expect the industry to eventually go there (he controls 33,000 desktops, so this would not be a trivial move). It could be argued that this is just a ploy for negotiation with Microsoft - but such ploys only work if they’re credible.

    There are other sources of information on OSS/FS or GNU/Linux for clients. is a web site devoted to the use of GNU/Linux on the desktop; they state that “We believe Linux is ready now for widespread use as a desktop operating system, and we have created this website to help spread the word and accelerate the transition to a more open desktop, one that offers greater freedom and choice for both personal and business users.”

    Indeed, it appears that many users are considering such a transition. ZDNet published survey results on August 22, 2002, which asked “Would your company switch its desktop PCs from Windows to Linux if Windows apps could run on Linux?” Of the more than 15,000 respondents, 58% said they’d make the switch immediately; another 25% said they’d consider dumping Windows in favor of Linux within a year. While all such surveys need to be taken with a grain of salt, still, these are not the kind of responses you would see from users happy with their current situation. They also noted that ZDNet Australia found that 55% of the surveyed IT managers were considering switching from Microsoft products.

3. Reliability

There are a lot of anecdotal stories that OSS/FS is more reliable, but finally there is quantitative data confirming that mature OSS/FS programs are more reliable:

  1. Equivalent OSS/FS applications are more reliable, according to a 1995 study. The 1995 “Fuzz Revisited” paper measured reliability by feeding programs random characters and determining which ones resisted crashing and freeze-ups. Some researchers scoff at this measure, since this approach is unlikely to find subtle failures, but the study authors note that their approach still manages to find many errors in production software and is a useful tool for finding software flaws.

    OSS/FS had higher reliability by this measure. It states in section 2.3.1 that:

    It is also interesting to compare results of testing the commercial systems to the results from testing “freeware” GNU and Linux. The seven commercial systems in the 1995 study have an average failure rate of 23%, while Linux has a failure rate of 9% and the GNU utilities have a failure rate of only 6%. It is reasonable to ask why a globally scattered group of programmers, with no formal testing support or software engineering standards can produce code that is more reliable (at least, by our measure) than commercially produced code. Even if you consider only the utilities that were available from GNU or Linux, the failure rates for these two systems are better than the other systems.

    There is evidence that Windows applications have similar reliability to the proprietary Unix software (e.g., less reliable than the OSS/FS software). A later paper, “An Empirical Study of the Robustness of Windows NT Applications Using Random Testing”, found that with Windows NT GUI applications, they could crash 21% of the applications they tested, hang an additional 24% of the applications, and could crash or hang all the tested applications when subjecting them to random Win32 messages. Thus, there’s no evidence that proprietary Windows software is more reliable than OSS/FS by this measure. Yes, Windows has progressed since that time - but so have the OSS/FS programs.

    Although this experiment was done in 1995, nothing that’s happened since suggests that proprietary software has become much better than OSS/FS programs since then. Indeed, since 1995 there’s been an increased interest and participation in OSS/FS, resulting in far more “eyeballs” examining and improving the reliability of OSS/FS programs.

    The fuzz paper’s authors found that proprietary software vendors generally didn’t fix the problems identified in an earlier version of their paper, and found that concerning. In contrast, Scott Maxwell led an effort to remove every flaw identified in the OSS/FS software in the 1995 fuzz paper, and eventually fixed every flaw. Thus, the OSS/FS community’s response shows why, at least in part, OSS/FS programs have such an edge in reliability; if problems are found, they’re often fixed. Even more intriguingly, the person who spearheaded ensuring that these problems were fixed wasn’t an original developer of the programs - a situation only possible with OSS/FS.

    Now be careful: OSS/FS is not magic pixie dust; beta software of any kind is still buggy! However, the 1995 experiment measured mature OSS/FS to mature proprietary software, and the OSS/FS software was more reliable under this measure.

  2. GNU/Linux is more reliable than Windows NT, according to a 10-month ZDnet experiment. ZDnet ran a 10-month test for reliability to compare Caldera Systems OpenLinux, Red Hat Linux, and Microsoft’s Windows NT Server 4.0 with Service Pack 3. All three used identical (single-CPU) hardware, and network requests were sent to each server in parallel for standard Internet, file, and print services. The result: NT crashed an average of once every six weeks, each taking about 30 minutes to fix; that’s not bad, but neither GNU/Linux server ever went down. This ZDnet article also does a good job of identifying GNU/Linux weaknesses (e.g., desktop applications and massive SMP). Hopefully Windows has made improvements since this study - but the OSS/FS have certainly made improvements as well.

  3. GNU/Linux is more reliable than Windows NT, according to a one-year Bloor Research experiment. Bloor Research had both operating systems running on relatively old Pentium machines. In the space of one year, GNU/Linux crashed once because of a hardware fault (disk problems), which took 4 hours to fix, giving it a measured availability of 99.95 percent. Windows NT crashed 68 times, caused by hardware problems (disk), memory (26 times), file management (8 times), and a number of odd problems (33 times). All this took 65 hours to fix, giving an availability of 99.26 percent. It’s intriguing that the only GNU/Linux problem and a number of the Windows problems were hardware-related; it could be argued that the Windows hardware was worse, or it could be argued that GNU/Linux did a better job of avoiding and containing hardware failures. In any case, file management failure can be blamed on Windows, and the “odd problems” appear to be caused by Windows as well, indicating that GNU/Linux is far more reliable than Windows. Gnet summarized this as saying “the winner here is clearly Linux.”

  4. Sites using Microsoft’s IIS web serving software have more than double the time offline (on average) than sites using the Apache software, according to a 3-month Swiss evaluation. These are the results of Syscontrol AG’s analysis of website uptime (announced February 7, 2000) They measured over 100 popular Swiss web sites over a three-month period, checking from 4 different locations every 5 minutes (it’d be interesting to see what a larger sample would find!). You can see their report (in German), or a Babelfish (machine) translation of the report. Here’s their entire set of published data on “average down-time in an hour per type of server”, plus a 3-month average that I’ve computed:

    It’s hard not to notice that Apache (the OSS web server) had the best results over the three-month average (and with better results over time, too). Indeed, Apache’s worst month was better than Microsoft’s best month. I believe the difference between Netscape and Apache is statistically insignificant - but this still shows that the freely-available OSS/FS solution (Apache) has a reliability at least as good as the most reliable proprietary solution. The report does note that this might not be solely the fault of the software’s quality, since there were several Microsoft IIS sites that had short interruptions at the same time each day (suggesting regular restarts). However, this still begs the question -- why did the IIS sites require so many more regular restarts than the Apache sites? Every outage, even if preplanned, results in a service loss (and for e-commerce sites, a potential loss of sales).

  5. According to a separate uptime study by Netcraft, OSS/FS does very well; as of August 3, 2001, of the 50 sites with the highest uptimes, 92% use Apache and 50% run on OSS/FS operating systems. Netcraft keeps a track of the 50 often-requested sites with the longest uptimes at Looking at the August 3, 2001 uptime report, I found that 92% (46/50) of the sites use Apache; one site’s web server was unknown, and three others were not Apache. Of those three, only one reported to be Microsoft IIS, and that one instance is suspicious because its reported operating system is BSD/OS (this apparent inconsistency can be explained in many ways, e.g., perhaps there is a front-end BSD/OS system that “masks” the IIS web site, or perhaps the web server is lying about its type to confuse attackers). In this snapshot, 50% (25/50) ran on an open source operating system, and only Unix-like operating systems had these large uptimes (no Windows systems were reported as having the best uptimes).

    As with all surveys, this one has weaknesses, as discussed in Netcraft’s Uptime FAQ. Their techniques for identifying web server and operating systems can be fooled. Only systems for which Netcraft was sent many requests were included in the survey (so it’s not “every site in the world”). Any site that is requested through the “what’s that site running” query form at is added to the set of sites that are routinely sampled; Netcraft doesn’t routinely monitor all 22 million sites it knows of for performance reasons. Many operating systems don’t provide uptime information and thus can’t be included; this includes AIX, AS/400, Compaq Tru64, DG/UX, MacOS, NetWare, NT3/Windows 95, NT4/Windows 98, OS/2, OS/390, SCO UNIX, Sony NEWS-OS, SunOS 4, and VM. Thus, this uptime counter can only include systems running on BSD/OS, FreeBSD (but not the default configuration in versions 3 and later), recent versions of HP-UX, IRIX, GNU/Linux 2.1 kernel and later (except on Alpha processor based systems), MacOS X, recent versions of NetBSD/OpenBSD, Solaris 2.6 and later, and Windows 2000. Note that Windows NT systems cannot be included in this survey (because their uptimes couldn’t be counted). Windows 2000 systems’s data are included in the source source for this survey, but they have a different problem. Windows 2000 had little hope to be included in the August 2001 list, because the 50th system in the list had an uptime of 661 days, and Windows 2000 had only been launched about 17 months (about 510 days) earlier. Note that HP-UX, GNU/Linux (usually), Solaris and recent releases of FreeBSD cycle back to zero after 497 days, exactly as if the machine had been rebooted at that precise point. Thus it is not possible to see an HP-UX, GNU/Linux (usually), or Solaris system with an uptime measurement above 497 days, and in fact their uptimes can be misleading (they may be up for a long time, yet not show it). There is yet one other weakness: if a computer switches operating systems later, the long uptime is credited to the new operating system. Still, this survey does compare Windows 2000, GNU/Linux (up to 497 days usually), FreeBSD, and several other operating systems, and OSS/FS does quite well.

    It could be argued that perhaps systems on the Internet that haven’t been rebooted for such a long time might be insignificant, half-forgotten, systems. For example, it’s possible that security patches aren’t being regularly applied, so such long uptimes are not necessarily good things. However, a counter-argument is that Unix and Linux systems don’t need to be rebooted as often for a security update, and this is a valuable attribute for a system to have. Even if you accepted that unproven claim, it’s certainly true that there are half-forgotten Windows systems, too, and they didn’t do so well. Also, only systems someone specifically asked for information about were included in the uptime survey, which would limit the number of insignificant or half-forgotten systems.

    At the very least, Unix and Linux are able to quantitatively demonstrate longer uptimes than their Windows competitors can, so Unix and Linux have significantly better evidence of their reliability than Windows.

Of course, there are many anecdotes about Windows reliability vs. Unix. For example, the Navy’s “Smart Ship” program caused a complete failure of the entire USS Yorktown ship in September 1997. Anthony DiGiorgio (a whistle-blower) stated that Windows is “the source of the Yorktown’s computer problems.” Ron Redman, deputy technical director of the Fleet Introduction Division of the Aegis Program Executive Office, said “there have been numerous software failures associated with [Windows] NT aboard the Yorktown.” Redman also said “Because of politics, some things are being forced on us that without political pressure we might not do, like Windows NT... If it were up to me I probably would not have used Windows NT in this particular application. If we used Unix, we would have a system that has less of a tendency to go down.”

One problem with reliability measures is that it takes a long time to gather data on reliability in real-life circumstances. Thus, there’s more data comparing older Windows editions to older GNU/Linux editions. The key is that these tests contemporary versions of both OSS/FS and proprietary systems; both have moved forward since, but it’s a fair test. Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests that OSS/FS has a significant edge in reliability.

4. Performance

Comparing GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows performance on equivalent hardware has a history of contentious claims and different results based on different assumptions. I think that OSS/FS has at least shown that it’s often competitive, and in many circumstances it beats the competition.

Performance benchmarks are very sensitive to the assumptions and environment, so the best benchmark is one you set up yourself to model your intended environment. Failing that, you should use unbiased measures, because it’s so easy to create biased measures.

First, here are a few recent studies suggesting that some OSS/FS systems beat their proprietary competition in at least some circumstances:

  1. In 2002, TPC-C database measures found that a Linux based system was faster than a Windows 2000 based system. More specifically, an HP ProLiant DL580 with 32 Intel Xeon 900MHz CPUs running Oracle 9i R2 Enterprise edition ran faster running on a stock Red Hat Linux Advanced Server than on Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server. You can see the Linux and Windows reports; note that HP did not modify the Linux kernel to get these results.
  2. PC Magazine’s November 2001 performance tests for file servers found that Linux with Samba significantly outperformed Windows 2000. PC Magazine’s article Performance Tests: File Server Throughput and Response Times found that Linux with Samba significantly outperformed Windows 2000 Server when used as a file server for Microsoft’s own network file protocols. This was true regardless of the number of simultaneous clients (they tested a range up to 30 clients), and it was true on the entire range on computers they used (Pentium II/233MHz with 128MiB RAM, Pentium III/550MHz with 256MiB RAM, and Pentium III/1GHz with 512MiB RAM, where MiB is 2^20 bytes). Indeed, as the machines became more capable the absolute difference became more pronounced. On the fastest hardware while handling largest number of clients, GNU/Linux’s throughput was about 130 MB/sec vs. Windows’ 78 MB/sec (GNU/Linux was 78% faster).

  3. PC Magazine file server performance tests again in April 2002; again Linux with Samba beat Windows 2000, only now Samba surpasses Windows 2000 by about 100% and can handle 4 times as many clients. PC Magazine published another comparison of Samba and Windows; a summary is available electronically as “Samba runs rings around Win2000.” They noted that the latest Samba software now surpasses the performance of Windows 2000 by about 100 percent under benchmark tests, and found that Linux and Samba can handle four times as many client systems as Windows 2000 before performance begins to drop off. Jay White, IT manager at electronics firm BF Group, said that Samba is one of the most useful pieces of server software available for a mixed Windows and Linux environment. “Our Samba server has been online for 394 days so far. The total cost is the hardware plus 30 minutes of my time each year,” he said. Mark Twells, IT coordinator at a large education facility, said, “We run six Samba servers on a variety of hardware [and] we have around 1,000 users.

  4. In performance tests by Sys Admin magazine, GNU/Linux beat Solaris (on Intel), Windows 2000, and FreeBSD. The article “Which OS is Fastest for High-Performance Network Applications?” in the July 2001 edition of Sys Admin magazine examined high-performance architectures and found that GNU/Linux beat its competition when compared with Solaris (on Intel), FreeBSD (an OSS/FS system), and Windows 2000. They intentionally ran the systems “out of the box” (untuned), except for increasing the number of simultaneous TCP/IP connections (which is necessary for testing multi-threaded and asynchronous applications). They used the latest versions of operating systems and the exact same machine. They reported (by operating system) the results of two different performance tests.

    The FreeBSD developers complained about these tests, noting that FreeBSD by default emphasizes reliability (not speed) and that they expected anyone with a significant performance need would do some tuning first. Thus, Sys Admin’s re-did the tests for FreeBSD after tuning FreeBSD. One change they made was switching to “asynchronous” mounting, which makes a system faster (though it increases the risk of data loss in a power failure) - this is the GNU/Linux default and easy to change in FreeBSD, so this was a very small and reasonable modification. However, they also made many other changes, for example, they found and compiled in 17 FreeBSD kernel patches and used various tuning commands. The other operating systems weren’t given the chance to “tune” like this, so comparing untuned operating systems to a tuned FreeBSD isn’t really fair.

    In any case, here are their two performance tests:

    1. Their “real-world” test measured how quickly large quantities of email could be sent using their email delivery server (MailEngine). Up to 100 simultaneous sends there was no difference, but as the number increased the systems began showing significant differences in their hourly email delivery speed. By 500 simultaneous sends GNU/Linux was clearly faster than all except FreeBSD-tuned, and GNU/Linux remained at the top. FreeBSD-tuned had similar performance to GNU/Linux when running 1000 or less simultaneous sends, but FreeBSD-tuned peaked around 1000-1500 simultaneous connections with a steady decline not suffered by GNU/Linux, and FreeBSD-tuned had trouble going beyond 3000 simultaneous connections. By 1500 simultaneous sends, GNU/Linux was sending 1.3 million emails/hour, while Solaris managed approximately 1 million, and Windows 2000 and FreeBSD-untuned were around 0.9 million.
    2. Their “disk I/O test” created, wrote, and read back 10,000 identically-sized files in a single directory, varying the size of the file instances. Here Solaris was the slowest, with FreeBSD-untuned the second-slowest. FreeBSD-tuned, Windows 2000, and GNU/Linux had similar speeds at the smaller file sizes (in some cases FreeBSD-tuned was faster, e.g., 8k and 16k file size), but when the file sizes got to 64k to 128k the operating systems began to show significant performance differences; GNU/Linux was the fastest, then Windows 2000, then FreeBSD. At 128k, FreeBSD was 16% worse than Windows 2000, and 39% worse than GNU/Linux; all were faster than FreeBSD-untuned and Solaris. When totaling these times across file sizes, the results were GNU/Linux: 542 seconds, Windows 2000: 613 seconds, FreeBSD-tuned: 630 seconds, FreeBSD-untuned: 2398 seconds, and Solaris: 3990 seconds.

  5. GNU/Linux with TUX has produced better SPEC values than Windows/IIS in several cases, even when given inferior drive configurations. One organization that tries to develop unbiased benchmarks is the SPEC Consortium, which develops and maintains a whole series of benchmarks. We can compare Microsoft Windows versus GNU/Linux by comparing SPECweb99 results (which measure web server performance) on identical hardware if both have undergone the same amount of performance optimization effort. Alas, things are not so simple; rarely are the same basic hardware platforms tested with both operating systems, and even when that occurs, as of July 13, 2001 no exactly identical configurations have been tested (they differ in ways such as using a different number of hard drives, or including some faster hard drives). Using all results available by July 13, 2001, there were three hardware configurations, all from Dell, which ran both GNU/Linux (using the TUX web server/accelerator) and Windows (using IIS) on exactly the same underlying hardware. Here are the SPECweb99 results as of July 13, 2001 (larger is better), noting configuration differences:
    SystemWindows SPEC ResultLinux SPEC Result
    Dell PowerEdge 4400/800, 2 800MHz Pentium III Xeon1060 (IIS 5.0, 1 network controller)2200 (TUX 1.0, 2 network controllers)
    Dell PowerEdge 6400/700, 4 700MHz Pentium III Xeon1598 (IIS 5.0, 7 9GB 10KRPM drives)4200 (TUX 1.0, 5 9GB 10KRPM drives)
    Dell PowerEdge 8450/700, 8 700MHz Pentium III Xeon 7300/NC (IIS 5.0, 1 9Gb 10KRPM and 8 16Gb 15KRPM drives) then 8001 (IIS 5.0, 7 9Gb 10KRPM and 1 18Gb 15KRPM drive) 7500 (TUX 2.0, 5 9Gb 10KRPM drives)

    The first row (the PowerEdge 4400/800) doesn’t really prove anything. The IIS system has lower performance, but it only had one network controller and the TUX system has two - so while the TUX system had better performance, that could simply be because it had two network connections it could use.

    The second entry (the PowerEdge 6400/700) certainly suggests that GNU/Linux plus TUX really is much better - the IIS system had two more disk drives available to it (which should increase performance), but the TUX system had more than twice the IIS system’s performance.

    The last entry for the PowerEdge 8450/700 is even more complex. First, the drives are different - the IIS systems had at least one drive that revolved more quickly than the TUX systems (which should give IIS higher performance overall, since the transfer speed is almost certainly higher). Also, there were more disk drives (which again should give IIS still higher performance). When I originally put this table together showing all data publicly available in April 2001 (covering the third quarter of 1999 through the first quarter of 2001), IIS 5.0 (on an 8-processor Dell PowerEdge 8450/700) had a SPECweb99 value of 7300. Since that time, Microsoft changed the availability of Microsoft SWC 3.0, and by SPECweb99 rules, this means that those test results are “not compliant” (NC). This is subtle; it’s not that the test itself was invalid, it’s that Microsoft changed what was available and used the SPEC Consortium’s own rules to invalidate a test (possibly because the test results were undesirable to Microsoft). A retest then occurred, with yet another disk drive configuration, at which point IIS produced a value of 8001. However, both of these figures are on clearly better hardware - and in one circumstance the better hardware didn’t do better.

    Thus, in these configurations the GNU/Linux plus TUX system was given inferior hardware yet still sometimes won on performance. Since other factors may be involved, it’s hard to judge - there are pathological situations where “better hardware” can have worse performance, or there may be another factor not reported that had a more significant effect. Hopefully in the future there will be many head-to-head tests in a variety of identical configurations.

    Note that TUX is intended to be used as a “web accelerator” for many circumstances, where it rapidly handles simple requests and then passes more complex queries to another server (usually Apache). I’ve quoted the TUX figures because they’re the recent performance figures I have available. As of this time I have no SPECweb99 figures or other recent performance measures for Apache on GNU/Linux, or for Apache and TUX together; I also don’t have TUX reliability figures. I expect that such measures will appear in the future.

  6. Low-level benchmarks by IBM found that GNU/Linux had better performance than Windows for pipes (an input/output mechanism), and also process and thread creation. Ed Bradford (manager of Microsoft Premier Support for IBM Software group) published in October 2001 the study Pipes in Linux, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. In this study he examined the the performance of pipes, a common low-level mechanism for communicating between program processes. He found the pipes in Red Hat 7.1 (with Linux kernel version 2.4.2) had a peak I/O rate of around 700 MB/sec, with a steady state at near 100 MB/sec for very large block sizes. In contrast, Windows 2000 peaked at 500 MB/sec, with a large block steady state of 80 MB/sec. Windows XP Professional (evaluation version) was especially disappointing; its peak I/O rate was only 120 MB/sec, with a stead state of 80 MB/sec, all on the same platform and all running a GUI.

    In February 2002 he published Managing processes and threads, in which he compared the performance of Red Hat Linux 7.2, Windows 2000 Advanced Server (”Win2K”), and Windows XP Professional (”WinXP”), all on a Thinkpad 600X with 320MiB of memory. Linux managed to create over 10,000 threads/second, while Win2K didn’t quite manage 5,000 threads/second and WinXP only created 6,000 threads/second. In process creation, Linux managed 330 processes/second, while Win2K managed less than 200 processes/second and WinXP less than 160 processes/second.

  7. Fastcenter ran Oracle performance tests and found that, on the same hardware, Microsoft Windows 2000 Server was capable of only 85% of the throughput of SuSE Linux Enterprise 7. Fastcenter ran a benchmark of database performance tests using Oracle on exactly the same hardware (twin 1 GHz processors, 2 Gibibytes of ram, and two 10K RPM 160MB/sec disks). They compared Microsoft Windows 2000 Server (Version 5.0.2195, build 2195, no patches) with SuSE Enterprise Linux Server 7 (standard installation). Both operating systems were installed essentially as “stock” installations; see FastCenter’s benchmarks for more information. The Windows 2000 server instance build only achieved 70% of the performance of the Linux (on Windows 2000 server this action took 5 minutes and 56 seconds, while on SuSE Linux the same action took 4 minutes and 12 seconds). Once installed, Microsoft’s Windows 2000 server averaged 85% of the throughput of SuSE Linux (it varied depending on the load, but in all cases SuSE Linux had better performance). Fastcenter is a partner with SuSE Corporation - a Linux distributor - so take that into account. For more information, see Fastcenter’s paper.

All operating systems in active development are in a constant battle for performance improvements over their rivals. The history of comparing Windows and GNU/Linux helps put this in perspective:

  1. Ziff-Davis found that GNU/Linux with Apache beat Windows NT 4.0 with IIS by 16%-50% depending on the GNU/Linux distribution. Ziff-Davis compared Linux and Windows NT’s performance at web serving. They found that “Linux with Apache beats NT 4.0 with IIS, hands down. SuSE, the least effective Linux, is 16% faster than IIS, and Caldera, the leader, is 50% faster.”

  2. Mindcraft released a report in April 1999 that claimed that Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 is 2.5 times faster than Linux (kernel 2.2) as a File Server and 3.7 times faster as a Web Server when running on a 4-CPU SMP system. Several people and organizations, such Linux Weekly News (LWN) and Dan Kegel, identified serious problems with this study. An obvious issue was that NT was specially tuned by Microsoft’s NT experts, at Microsoft, while GNU/Linux was not tuned at all. Another issue is that the price/performance wasn’t considered (nor was total expenditure kept constant - for the same amount of money, the GNU/Linux system could have had better hardware). Mindcraft claimed they asked for help, but they didn’t use the documented methods for getting help nor did they purchase a support contract. Many were especially offended that even though this study was funded by Microsoft (one of the contestants) and held at their facility, neither Mindcraft’s initial announcement nor its paper made any mention of this conflict-of-interest - and it could be easily claimed that their configuration was designed to put GNU/Linux at a disadvantage. Their configuration was somewhat bizarre - it assumed all web pages were static (typical big sites tend to use many dynamically generated pages) and that there were 100 or so clients connected via 100baseT (in 1999 a more typical situation would be that most clients are using slower 28.8 or 56 Kbps modems).

    Careful examination of the benchmark did find some legitimate Linux kernel problems, however. These included a TCP bug, the lack of “wake one” semantics, and SMP bottlenecks (see Dan Kegel’s pages for more information). The Linux kernel developers began working on the weaknesses identified by the benchmark.

  3. PC Week confirmed that Windows did indeed do better in this less probable configuration. In June 30, 1999, Mindcraft released their Open Benchmark in conjunction with PC Week. While this didn’t excuse Mindcraft’s biases, it did make a convincing case that there were legitimate problems in the Linux kernel and Apache that made GNU/Linux a poorer-performing product in this somewhat improbable configuration (serving static web pages to clients with high-speed connections). Note that this configuration was considerably different than Ziff-Davis’s, so the benchmarks don’t necessarily conflict; it’s merely that different assumptions can produce different results (as I’ve already stressed).

  4. The German magazine c’t found that web sites with NT was better at static content and dual network connections, but GNU/Linux was better for sites with dynamic content and single connections. Their article Mixed Double: Linux and NT as Web Server on the Test Bed examined Windows NT with IIS against GNU/Linux (kernel 2.2.9) with Apache on a machine with four Pentium II Xeon CPUs. They found that the performance winner depended on the situation (by now that should not be a surprise). If the web server primarily served static web pages through two high-performance network cards, NT’s performance was better. However, they also noted that in sophisticated web sites this result didn’t apply, because such sites tend to have primarily dynamic content, and that few sites had this kind of dual-network connection (when only one network board was available, GNU/Linux generally had an edge). They concluded that “Mindcraft’s result can’t be transferred to situations with mainly dynamic contents - the common case in nearly every sophisticated web site... In the web server areas most relevant for practical use, Linux and Apache are already ahead by at least one nose. If the pages don’t come directly from the system’s main memory, the situation is even reverted to favor Linux and Apache: Here, the OpenSource movement’s prime products leave their commercial competitors from Redmond way behind.” See their paper for more figures and background.

  5. Network Computing found that GNU/Linux with Samba ran at essentially the same speed as Windows for file serving. In their article “Is it Time for Linux”, Network Computing compared Red Hat Linux v5.2 running Samba 2.0.3 against Microsoft Windows NT Server Enterprise Edition on a Pentium II-based HP NetServer LPr, stressing the machine with multiple reads and writes of small, medium and large files over the course of several hours.

    For file serving, they discovered only “negligible performance differences between the two for average workloads... [and] depending on the degree of tuning performed on each installation, either system could be made to surpass the other slightly in terms of file-sharing performance.” Red Hat Linux slightly outperformed NT on file writes, while NT edged out Red Hat Linux on massive reads. Note that their configuration was primarily network-limited; they stated “At no point were we able to push the CPUs much over 50-percent utilization-the single NIC, full duplex 100BASE-T environment wouldn’t allow it.”

    They also noted that “examining the cost difference between the two licenses brings this testing into an entirely new light... the potential savings on licenses alone is eye-opening. For example, based on the average street price of $30 for a Windows NT client license, 100 licenses would cost around $3,000, plus the cost of an NT server license (around $600). Compare this to the price of a Red Hat Linux CD, or perhaps even a free download, and the savings starts to approach the cost of a low-end workgroup server. Scale that up to a few thousand clients and you begin to see the savings skyrocket.” See this paper’s section on total cost of ownership.

  6. The Linux developers’ various efforts to improve performance appear to have paid off. In June 2000, Dell measured the various SPECweb99 values noted above.

There are other benchmarks available, but I’ve discounted them on various grounds:

  1. A more recent set of articles from eWeek on June 2001, shows some eye-popping performance numbers for GNU/Linux with TUX. However, although they compare it to Microsoft IIS, they don’t include Microsoft’s SWC (Scalable Web Cache), Microsoft’s response to TUX - and omitting it makes this comparison unfair in my opinion. You can read more at “Tux: Built for Speed”, “Smart Coding pays off Big”, and Kegel’s detailed remarks.

  2. The ZDNet article Take that! Linux beats MS in benchmark test, loudly trumpeted that GNU/Linux was the May 2001 performance leader in the TPC-H decision support (database) benchmark (“100Gb” category). However, this result should not be taken very seriously; the hardware that Linux ran on was more powerful than that of the runner-up (Windows 2000). Frankly, the more surprising fact than its top score (which can be easily explained by the hardware) is its mere measurement at all with this benchmark - traditionally only Microsoft’s numbers are reported for this benchmark at this range. For more information, see the TPC results.

More information on various benchmarks is available from Kegel’s NT vs. Linux Server Benchmark Comparisons, SPEC, and the dmoz entry on benchmarking.

Remember, in benchmarking everything depends on the configuration and assumptions that you make. Many systems are constrained by network bandwidth; in such circumstances buying a faster computer won’t help at all. Even when network bandwidth isn’t the limitation, neither Windows nor GNU/Linux do well in large-scale symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) configurations; if you want 64-way CPUs with shared memory, neither are appropriate (Sun Solaris, which is not OSS/FS, does much better in this configuration). On the other hand, if you want massive distributed (non-shared) memory, GNU/Linux does quite well, since you can buy more CPUs with a given amount of money. If massive distribution can’t help you and you need very high performance, Windows isn’t even in the race; today Windows 2000 only runs on Intel x86 compatible chips, while GNU/Linux runs on much higher performance processors as well as the x86.

5. Scalability

Which brings us to the topic of scalability, a simple term with multiple meanings:
  1. GNU/Linux and NetBSD (both OSS/FS) support a wider range of hardware platforms and performance than any other operating system. Many people mean by “scalability” to answer the question, “can you use the same software system for both small and large projects?” Often the implied issue is that you’d like to start with a modest system, but have the ability to grow the system as needs demand without expensive modifications. Here OSS/FS is unbeatable; because many people can identify scalability problems, and because its source code can be optimized for its platform, the scalability of many OSS/FS products is amazing. Let’s specifically look at GNU/Linux. GNU/Linux works on PDAs (including the Agenda VR3), obsolete hardware (so you needn’t throw the hardware away), common modern PC hardware, over a dozen different chipsets (not just Intel x86s), mainframes, massive clusters, and a number of supercomputers. GNU/Linux can be used for massive parallel processing; a common approach for doing this is the Beowulf architecture. Sandia’s “CPlant” runs on a set of systems running GNU/Linux, and it’s the forty-second most powerful computer in the world as of June 2001 (number 42 on the TOP 500 Supercomputer list, June 2001). There’s even a prototype implementation of GNU/Linux on a wrist watch, And GNU/Linux runs on a vast number of different CPU chips, including the x86, Intel Itanium, ARM, Alpha, IBM AS/400 (midrange), SPARC, MIPS, 68k, and Power PC. Another operating system that widely scales to many other hardware platforms is NetBSD.

    Thus, you can buy a small GNU/Linux or NetBSD system and grow it as your needs grow; indeed, you can replace small hardware with massively parallel or extremely high-speed processors or very different CPU architectures without switching operating systems. Windows CE/ME/NT scales down to small platforms, but not to large ones, and it only works on x86 systems. Many Unix systems (such as Solaris) scale well to specific large platforms but not as well to distributed or small platforms. These OSS/FS systems are some of the most scalable programs around.

  2. OSS/FS development processes can scale to develop large software systems. At one time it was common to ask if the entire OSS/FS process is “scalable,” that is, if OSS/FS processes could really develop large-scale systems. Bill Gates’ 1976 “Open Letter to Hobbyists” asked rhetorically, “Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product, and distribute it for free?” He presumed these were unanswerable questions - but he was wrong. See my reports estimating GNU/Linux’s size. For Red Hat Linux 6.2, I found the size to be over 17 million source lines of code (SLOC). Implemented traditionally it would have taken 4,500 person-years and over $600 million to implement this distribution. For Red Hat Linux 7.1, I found it to have over 30 million SLOC, representing 8,000 person-years or $1 billion (a “Gigabuck”). Most developers ascribe to the design principle that components should be divided into smaller components where practical - a practice also applied to GNU/Linux - but some components aren’t easily divided, and thus some components are quite large themselves (e.g., over 2 million lines of code for the kernel, mostly in device drivers). Thus, it’s no longer reasonable to argue that OSS/FS cannot scale to develop large systems -- because it clearly can.

6. Security

Quantitatively measuring security is very difficult. However, here are a few attempts to do so, and they suggest that OSS/FS is often superior to proprietary systems, at least in some cases. I’ll concentrate in particular on comparing OSS/FS to Windows systems.

  1. J.S. Wurzler Underwriting Managers’ “hacker insurance” costs 5-15% more if Windows is used instead of Unix or GNU/Linux for Internet operation. At least one insurance company has indicated that Windows NT is less secure than Unix or GNU/Linux systems, resulting in higher premiums for Windows-based systems. It’s often difficult to find out when a company has been successfully cracked; companies often don’t want to divulge such information to the public for a variety of reasons. Indeed, if consumers or business partners lost trust in a company, the resulting loss might be much greater than the original attack. However, insurance companies that insure against cracking can require that they get such information (as a condition of coverage), and can compute future premiums based on that knowledge. According to CNET, Okemos, Mich.-based J.S. Wurzler Underwriting Managers, one of the earliest agencies to offer “hacker insurance” (and thus more likely to have historical data for premium calculation), has begun charging its clients anywhere from 5 to 15 percent more if they use Microsoft’s Windows NT software instead of Unix or GNU/Linux for their Internet operations. Walter Kopf, senior vice president of underwriting, said that “We have found out that the possibility for loss is greater using the NT system.” He also said the decision is based on findings from hundreds of security assessments the company has done on their small and midsize business clients over the past couple of years.

  2. Most defaced web sites are hosted by Windows, and Windows sites are disproportionately defaced more often than explained by its market share. Another way to look at security is to look at the operating system used by defaced web sites, and compare them to their market share. A “defaced” web site is a site that has been broken into and has its content changed (usually in a fairly obvious way, since subtle modifications are often not reported). The advantage of this measure is that unlike other kinds of security break-ins (which are often “hushed up”), it’s often very difficult for victims to hide the fact that they’ve been successfully attacked. Historically, this information was maintained by A summary can be found in James Middleton’s article, with the actual data found in’s web site.’s data showed that 59% of defaced systems ran Windows, 21% Linux, 8% Solaris, 6% BSD, and 6% all others in the period of August 1999 through December 2000. Thus, Windows systems have has nearly 3 times as many defacements as GNU/Linux systems. This would make sense if there were 3 times as many Windows systems, but no matter which figures you use, that’s simply not true.

    Of course, not all sites are broken through their web server and OS - many are broken through exposed passwords, bad web application programming, and so on. But if this is so, why is there such a big difference in the number of defacements based on the operating system? No doubt some other reasons could be put forward (this data only shows a correlation not a cause), but this certainly suggests that OSS/FS can have better security. has decided to abandon keeping track of this information due to the difficulty of keeping up with the sheer volume of broken sites, and it appeared that tracking this information wouldn’t be possible. However, has decided to perform this valuable service. Their recent reports show that this trend has continued; on July 12, 2001, they report that 66.09% of defaced sites ran Windows, compared to 17.01% for GNU/Linux, out of 20,260 defaced websites.

  3. The Bugtraq vulnerability database suggests that the least vulnerable operating system is OSS/FS, and that all the OSS/FS operating systems in its study were less vulnerable than Windows in 1999-2000, unless you counted every GNU/Linux vulnerability multiple times. One approach to examining security is to use a vulnerability database; an analysis of one database is the Bugtraq Vulnerability Database Statistics page. As of September 17, 2000, here are the total number of vulnerabilities for some leading operating systems:
    Debian GNU/Linux223020
    Red Hat Linux5104140
    Windows NT/2000479985

    You shouldn’t take these numbers very seriously. Some vulnerabilities are more important than others (some may provide little if exploited or only be vulnerable in unlikely circumstances), and some vulnerabilities are being actively exploited (while others have already been fixed before exploitation). Open source operating systems tend to include many applications that are usually sold separately in proprietary systems (including Windows and Solaris) - for example, Red Hat 7.1 includes two relational database systems, two word processors, two spreadsheet programs, two web servers, and a large number of text editors. In addition, in the open source world, vulnerabilities are discussed publicly, so vulnerabilities may be identified for software still in development (e.g., “beta” software). Those with small market shares are likely to have less analysis. The “small market share” comment won’t work with GNU/Linux, of course, since we’ve already established that GNU/Linux is the #1 or #2 server OS (depending on how you count them). Still, this clearly shows that the three OSS/FS OSs listed (Debian GNU/Linux, OpenBSD, and Red Hat Linux) did much better by this measure than Windows in 1999 and (so far) in 2000. Even if a bizarre GNU/Linux distribution was created explicitly to duplicate all vulnerabilities present in any major GNU/Linux distribution, this intentionally bad GNU/Linux distribution would still do better than Windows (it would have 88 vulnerabilities in 1999, vs. 99 in Windows). The best results were for OpenBSD, an OSS/FS operating system that for years has been specifically focused on security. It could be argued that its smaller number of vulnerabilities is because of its rarer deployment, but the simplest explanation is that OpenBSD has focused strongly on security - and achieved it better than the rest.

    This data is partly of interest because various reporters make the same mistake: counting the same vulnerability multiple times. One journalist, Fred Moody, failed to understand his data sources - he used these figures to try to show show that GNU/Linux had worse security. He took these numbers and then added the GNU/Linux ones so each Linux vulnerability was counted at least twice (once for every distribution it applied to plus one more). By using these nonsensical figures he declared that GNU/Linux was worse than anything. If you read his article, you also need to read the rebuttal by the manager of the Microsoft Focus Area at SecurityFocus to understand why the journalist’s article was so wrong.

    In 2002, another journalist (James Middleton) made the same mistake, apparently not learning from previous work. Middleton counted the same Linux vulnerability up to four times. What’s bizarre is that he even reported the individual numbers showing that specific Linux systems were actually more secure by using Bugtraq’s vulnerability list through August 2001, and somehow he didn’t realize what it meant. He noted that Windows NT/2000 suffered 42 vulnerabilities, while Mandrake Linux 7.2 notched up 33 vulnerabilities, Red Hat Linux 7.0 suffered 28, Mandrake 7.1 had 27 and Debian 2.2 had 26. In short, all of the GNU/Linux distributions had significantly fewer vulnerabilities by this count. It’s not entirely clear what was being considered as being “in” the operating system in this case, which would of course make a difference; there are some hints that vulnerabilities in some Windows-based products (such as Exchange) weren’t counted while vulnerabilities in the same functionality (e.g., sendmail) were counted. It also appears that many of the Windows attacks were more dangerous (which were often remote attacks actively exploited), as compared to the GNU/Linux ones (which were often local attacks, found by looking at source and not actively exploited at the time). I would appreciate links to someone who’s analyzed these issues more carefully. The funny thing is that given all these errors, the paper gives evidence that the GNU/Linux distributions were more secure.

    The September 30, 2002 article “Honeymoon over for Linux Users”, claims that there are more “Linux bugs” than “Microsoft bugs.” In particular, it quotes X-Force (the US-based monitoring group of security software firm Internet Security Systems), and summarizes by saying that in 2001 the centre found 149 bugs in Microsoft software compared to 309 for Linux, and in 2002 485 Linux bugs were found compared to Microsoft’s 202. However, Linux Weekly News discovered and reported serious flaws in these figures:

    1. “Each distribution is counted independently. The same vulnerability in five distributions will count as five separate vulnerabilities. This practice, of course, inflates the number of reported Linux problems.
    2. Linux vulnerabilities include those in applications (i.e. PostgreSQL) which are not part of a standard Windows system.
    3. Most Linux vulnerabilities are found through code audits and similar efforts; they are patched and reported before any exploits happen. Any Windows bugs found through similar audits are fixed silently and do not appear in these counts.
    Indeed, assuming that the vulnerabilities were only counted three times (and thus dividing by only 3) would show Linux as having a better result, never mind the fact that there are more than than 3 distributions and the other factors noted by Linux Weekly News.

    Indeed, as noted in Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-gram of September 15, 2000, vulnerabilities are affected by other things such as how many attackers exploit the vulnerability, the speed at which a fix is released by a vendor, and the speed at which they’re applied by administrators. Nobody’s system is invincible.

    A more recent analysis by John McCormick in Tech Republic compared Windows and Linux vulnerabilities using numbers through September 2001. This is an interesting analysis, showing that although Windows NT lead in the number of vulnerabilities in 2000, using the 2001 numbers through September 2001, Windows 2000 had moved to the “middle of the pack” (with some Linux systems having more, and others having fewer, vulnerabilities). However, it appears that in these numbers, bugs in Linux applications have been counted with Linux, while bugs in Windows applications haven’t - and if that’s so, this isn’t really a fair comparison. As noted above, typical Linux distributions bundle many applications that are separately purchased from Microsoft.

  4. Red Hat (an OSS/FS vendor) responded more rapidly than Microsoft or Sun to advisories; Sun had fewer advisories to respond to yet took the longest to respond. Another data point is that SecurityPortal has compiled a list of the time it takes for vendors to respond to vulnerabilities. They concluded that:
    How did our contestants [fare]? Red Hat had the best score, with 348 recess days on 31 advisories, for an average of 11.23 days from bug to patch. Microsoft had 982 recess days on 61 advisories, averaging 16.10 days from bug to patch. Sun proved itself to be very slow, although having only 8 advisories it accumulated 716 recess days, a whopping three months to fix each bug on average.
    Their table of data for 1999 is as shown:
    1999 Advisory Analysis
    Vendor Total Days, Hacker Recess Total Advisories Recess Days/Advisory
    Red Hat348 31 11.23
    Microsoft982 61 16.10
    Sun716 8 89.50

    Clearly this table uses a different method for counting security problems than the previous table. Of the three noted here, Sun’s Solaris had the fewest vulnerabilities, but it took by far the longest to fix security problems identified. Red Hat was the fastest at fixing security problems, and placed in the middle of these three in number of vulnerabilities. It’s worth noting that the OpenBSD operating system (which is OSS/FS) had fewer reported vulnerabilities than all of these. Clearly, having a proprietary operating system doesn’t mean you’re more secure - Microsoft had the largest number of security advisories, by far, using either counting method.

    More recent examples seem to confirm this; on September 30, 2002, eWeek Labs’ article “Open Source Quicker at Fixing Flaws” listed specific examples of more rapid response. This article can be paraphrased as follows: In June 2002, a serious flaw was found in the Apache Web server; the Apache Software Foundation made a patch available two days after the Web server hole was announced. In September 2002, a flaw was announced in OpenSSL and a patch was available the same day. In contrast, a serious flaw was found in Windows XP that made it possible to delete files on a system using a single URL; Microsoft quietly fixed this problem in Windows XP Service Pack 1 without notifying users of the problem. A more direct comparison can be seen in how Microsoft and the KDE Project responded to an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) vulnerability that made the Internet Explorer and Konqueror browsers, respectively, potential tools for stealing data such as credit card information. The day the SSL vulnerability was announced, KDE provided a patch. Later that week, Microsoft posted a memo on its TechNet site basically downplaying the problem.

  5. A 2002 survey of developers found that GNU/Linux systems are relatively immune from attacks from outsiders. Evans Data Corp.’s Spring 2002 Linux Developer Survey surveyed more than 400 GNU/Linux developers, and found that Linux systems are relatively immune from attacks from outsiders. Even though computer attacks have almost doubled annually since 1988 (according to CERT), 78% of the respondents to the GNU/Linux developers survey have never experienced an unwanted intrusion and 94% have operated virus-free. Clearly, the survey shows that GNU/Linux “doesn’t get broken into very often and is even less frequently targeted by viruses,” according to Jeff Child (Evans Data Corp.’s Linux Analyst); and claims that “Linux systems are relatively immune from attacks from outsiders.” Child notes that it’s much harder to hack a knowledgeable owner’s system (and most Linux developers have hands-on, technical knowledge) and that because there are fewer desktop GNU/Linux systems there are fewer viruses being created to attack GNU/Linux. The developers being surveyed attributed the low incidence of attacks to the Open Source Software (OSS) environment; “more than 84% of Linux developers believe that Linux is inherently more secure than software not created in an OSS environment,” and they ranked “Linux’s security roughly comparable in security to Solaris and AIX ... and above any of the Windows platforms by a significant margin.”

  6. Apache has a better security record than Microsoft’s IIS, as measured by reports of serious vulnerabilities. Eweek’s July 20, 2001 article “Apache avoids most security woes” examined security advisories dating back to Apache 1.0. They found that Apache’s last serious security problem (one where remote attackers could run arbitrary code on the server) was announced in January 1997. A group of less serious problems (including a buffer overflow in the server’s logresolve utility) was announced and fixed in January 1998 with Apache 1.2.5. In the three and a half years since then, Apache’s only remote security problems have been a handful of denial-of-service and information leakage problems (where attackers can see files or directory listings they shouldn’t).

    In contrast, in the article “IT bugs out over IIS security,” eWeek determined that Microsoft has issued 21 security bulletins for IIS from January 2000 through June 2001. Determining what this number means is a little difficult, and the article doesn’t discuss these complexities, so I’ve examined Microsoft’s bulletins myself to find their true significance. Not all of the bulletins have the same significance, so just stating that there were “21 bulletins” doesn’t give the whole picture. However, it’s clear that several of these bulletins discuss dangerous vulnerabilities that allow an external user to gain control over the system. I count 5 bulletins on such highly dangerous vulnerabilities for IIS 5.0 (in the period from January 2000 through June 2001), and previous to that time, I count 3 such bulletins for IIS 4.0 (in the period of June 1998 through December 1999). Feel free to examine the bulletins yourself; they are MS01-033, MS01-026, MS01-025, MS01-023, MS00-086, MS99-025, MS99-019, and MS99-003. The Code Red worm, for example, exploited a vast number of IIS sites through the vulnerabilities identified in the June 2001 security bulletin MS01-033.

    In short, by totaling the number of reports of dangerous vulnerabilities (that allow attackers to execute arbitrary code), I find a total of 8 bulletins for IIS from June 1998 through June 2001, while Apache had zero such vulnerabilities for that time period. Apache’s last such report was in January 1998, and that one affected the log analyzer not the web server itself. As was noted above, the last such dangerous vulnerability in Apache itself was announced in January 1997.

    It’s time-consuming to do this kind of analysis, so I haven’t repeated the effort more recently. However, it’s worth noting eWeek’s April 10, 2002 article noting that ten more IIS flaws have been found in IIS Server 4.0, 5.0, and 5.1, some of which would allow attackers to crash the IIS service or allow the attacker to run whatever code he chooses.

    Even this doesn’t give the full story, however; a vulnerability in IIS tends to be far more dangerous than an equivalent vulnerability in Apache, because Apache wisely follows the good security practice of “least privilege.” IIS is designed so that anyone who takes over IIS can take over the entire system, performing actions such as reading, modifying, or erasing any file on the system. In contrast, Apache is installed with very few privileges by default, so even taking over Apache gives attackers relatively few privileges. For example, cracking Apache does not give attackers the right to modify or erase most files. This is still not good, of course, and an attacker may be able to find another vulnerability to give them complete access, but an Apache system presents more challenges to an attacker than IIS.

    The article claims there are four reasons for Apache’s strong security, and three of these reasons are simply good security practices. Apache installs very few server extensions by default (a “minimalist” approach), all server components run as a non-privileged user (supporting “least privilege” as noted above), and all configuration settings are centralized (making it easy for administrators to know what’s going on). However, the article also claims that one of the main reasons Apache is more secure than IIS is that its “source code for core server files is well-scrutinized,” a task that is made much easier by being OSS/FS, and it could be argued that OSS/FS encourages the other good security practices.

    Simple counts of vulnerability notices aren’t necessarily a good measure, of course. A vendor could intentionally release fewer bulletins - but since Apache’s code and its security is publicly discussed, it seems very unlikely that Apache is deliberately underreporting security vulnerabilities. Fewer vulnerability notices could result if the product isn’t well scrutinized or is rarely used - but this simply isn’t true for Apache. Even the trend line isn’t encouraging - using the months of the bulletins (2/99, 6/99, 7/99, 11/00, three in 5/01, and 6/01), I find the time in months between new major IIS vulnerability announcements to be 4, 1, 18, 6, 0, 0, 1, and 3 as of September 2001; this compares to 12 and 44 as of September 2001 for Apache. Given these trends, it looks like IIS’s security is slowly improving, but it has little likelihood of meeting Apache’s security in the near future. Indeed, these vulnerability counts are corroborated by other measures such as the web site defacement rates.

    The issue here isn’t whether or not a particular program is invincible (what nonsense!) - the issue here is which is more likely to resist future attacks, based on past performance. It’s clear that the OSS/FS Apache has much a better security record than the proprietary IIS, so much so that Gartner Group decided to make an unusual recommendation (described below).

  7. IIS was attacked 1,400 times more frequently than Apache in 2001, and Windows was attacked more than all versions of Unix. SecurityFocus co-founder and CEO Arthur Wong reported an analysis of the various vulnerabilities and attacks (based on SecurityFocus’s data) in the February 2002 article RSA: Security in 2002 worse than 2001, exec says. IIS was attacked 17 million times, while Apache was attacked only 12,000 times; this is a particularly shocking comparison, since there are significantly more Apache systems. In 2001, Windows systems were attacked 31 million times, while Unix systems were attacked 22 million times. See the article for more information.

  8. The Gartner Group is recommending that businesses switch from Microsoft IIS to Apache or iPlanet due to IIS’s poor security track record, noting that enterprises had spent $1.2 billion simply fixing Code Red (IIS-related) vulnerabilities by July 2001. Microsoft’s IIS has such a bad security record that in September 2001, Gartner Group announced a recommendation that “businesses hit by both Code Red and Nimda immediately investigate alternatives to IIS, including moving Web applications to Web server software from other vendors such as iPlanet and Apache. Although those Web servers have required some security patches, they have much better security records than IIS and are not under active attack by the vast number of virus and worm writers.” Microsoft is sometimes a Gartner Group customer, so this announcement is especially surprising.

    In a background document by Gartner, they discuss Code Red’s impacts further. By July 2001, Computer Economics (a research firm) estimated that enterprises worldwide had spent $1.2 billion fixing vulnerabilities in their IT systems that Code Red could exploit (remember, Code Red is designed to only attack IIS systems; systems such as Apache are immune). To be fair, Gartner correctly noted that the problem is not just that IIS has vulnerabilities; part of the problem is that enterprises using IIS are not keeping their IT security up to date, and Gartner openly wondered why this was the case. However, Gartner also asked the question, “why do Microsoft’s software products continue to provide easily exploited openings for such attacks?” This was prescient, since soon after this the “Nimba” attack surfaced which attacked IIS, Microsoft Outlook, and other Microsoft products.

    A brief aside is in order here. Microsoft spokesman Jim Desler tried to counter Gartner’s recommendation, trying to label it as “extreme” and saying that “serious security vulnerabilities have been found in all Web server products and platforms.. this is an industry-wide challenge.” While true, this isn’t the whole truth. As Gartner points out, “IIS has a lot more security vulnerabilities than other products and requires more care and feeding.” It makes sense to select the product with the best security track record, even if no product has a perfect record.

  9. The majority of the most serious security problems only apply to Microsoft’s products, and not to OSS/FS products, as suggested by the CERT/CC’s “most frequent, high-impact types of security incidents and vulnerabilities” and the ICAT database. Some security vulnerabilities are more important than others, for a variety of reasons. Thus, some analysis centers try to determine what’s “most important,” and their results suggest that OSS/FS just doesn’t have as many vulnerabilities.

    The CERT Coordination Center (CERT/CC) is federally funded to study security vulnerabilities and perform related activities such as publishing security alerts. I sampled their list of “current activity” of the most frequent, high-impact security incidents and vulnerabilities on September 24, 2001, and found yet more evidence that Microsoft’s products have poor security compared to others (including OSS/FS). Four of the six most important security vulnerabilities were specific to Microsoft: W32/Nimda, W32/Sircam, cache corruption on Microsoft DNS servers, and “Code Red” related activities. Only one of the six items primarily affected non-Microsoft products (a buffer overflow in telnetd); while this particular vulnerability is important, it’s worth noting that many open source systems (such as Red Hat 7.1) normally don’t enable this service (telnet) in the first place and thus are less likely to be vulnerable. The sixth item (“scans and probes”) is a general note that there is a great deal of scanning and probing on the Internet, and that there are many potential vulnerabilities in all systems. Thus, 4 of 6 issues are high-impact vulnerabilities are specific to Microsoft, 1 of 6 are vulnerabilities primarily affecting Unix-like systems (including OSS/FS operating systems), and 1 of 6 is a general notice about scanning. Again, it’s not that OSS/FS products never have security vulnerabilities - but they seem to have fewer of them.

    The ICAT system provides a searchable index and ranking for the vulnerabilities cross-references by CVE. I sampled its top ten list on December 19, 2001; this top ten list is defined by the number of requests made for a particular vulnerability in ICAT (and including only vulnerabilities within the last year). In this case, 8 of the top 10 vulnerabilities only affect proprietary systems (in all cases, Windows). Only 2 of 10 affect OSS/FS systems (#6, CAN-2001-0001, a weakness in PHP-Nuke 4.4, and #8, CVE-2001-0013, a new vulnerability found in an old version of BIND - BIND 4). Obviously, by itself this doesn’t prove that there are fewer serious vulnerabilities in OSS/FS programs, but it is suggestive of it.

  10. Computer viruses are overwhelmingly more prevalent on Windows than any other system. Virus infection has been a major cost to users of Microsoft Windows. The LoveLetter virus alone is estimated to have cost $960 million in direct costs and $7.7 billion in lost productivity, and the anti-virus software industry sales total nearly $1 billion annually. Dr Nic Peeling and Dr Julian Satchell’s Analysis of the Impact of Open Source Software includes an analysis of the various data sources for virus counts, noting the disproportionate vulnerability of Windows systems. Here is what they said:

    The numbers differ in detail, but all sources agree that computer viruses are overwhelmingly more prevalent on Windows than any other system. There are about 60,000 viruses known for Windows, 40 or so for the Macintosh, about 5 for commercial Unix versions, and perhaps 40 for Linux. Most of the Windows viruses are not important, but many hundreds have caused widespread damage. Two or three of the Macintosh viruses were widespread enough to be of importance. None of the Unix or Linux viruses became widespread - most were confined to the laboratory.

    Many have noted that one reason Windows is attacked more often is simply because there are so many Windows systems in use. Windows is an attractive target for virus writers simply because it is in such widespread use. For a virus to spread, it has to transmit itself to other susceptible computers; on average, each infection has to cause at least one more. The ubiquity of Windows machines makes it easier for this threshold to be reached.

    There may be a darker reason: there are many who do not like Microsoft’s business practices, and perhaps this contributes to the problem. Some of Microsoft’s business practices have been proven in court to be illegal, but the U.S. government appears unwilling to effectively punish or stop those practices. Some computer literate people may be taking their frustration out on users of Microsoft’s product. This is absolutely wrong, and in most countries illegal. It is extremely unethical to attack an innocent user of a Microsoft product simply because of Microsoft’s policies, and I condemn such behavior. At this point, although this has been speculated many times, I have not found any evidence that this is a widespread motivator for actual attacks. On the other hand, if you are choosing products, do you really want to choose the product whom people may have a vendetta against?

    However, the reasons given above don’t explain the disproportionate vulnerability of Microsoft’s products. A simpler explanation, and one that is easily proven, is that Microsoft has made a number of design choices over the years in Microsoft’s products that are fundamentally less secure, and this has made their products a much easier target than many other systems. Examples include execution of start-up macros in Word, execution of attachments in Outlook, and lack of write protection on system directories in Windows 3.1/95/98. This may be because Microsoft has assumed that customers will buy their products whether or not Microsoft secures them; since until recently there’s been little competition, there was no need to spend money on “invisible” attributes such as security. It’s also possible that Microsoft is still trying to adjust to an Internet-based world; the Internet would not have developed as it has without Unix-like systems, which have supported the Internet standards for decades, while for many years Microsoft ignored the Internet and then suddenly had to play “catch-up” in the early 1990s. Microsoft has sometimes claimed that they can’t secure their products because they want to make sure that their products are “easy to use”. While it’s true that some security features can make a product harder to use, usually a secured product can be just as easy to use if the security features are carefully designed into the product. Besides, what’s so easy to use about a system that has to be reformatted and reinstalled every few months because yet another virus got in? But for whatever the reason, it’s demonstrably true that Microsoft’s designers have in the past made decisions that made their products’ security much weaker than other systems.

    In contrast, while it’s possible to write a virus for OSS/FS operating systems, their design makes it more difficult for viruses to spread... showing that Microsoft’s design decisions were not inevitable. It appears that OSS/FS developers tend to select design choices that limit the damage of viruses, perhaps in part because their code is subject to public inspection and comment. For example, OSS/FS programs generally do not support start-up macros nor execution of mail attachments that can be controlled by attackers. Also, leading OSS/FS operating systems (such as GNU/Linux and the *BSDs) have always had write protection on system directories. Another discussion on why viruses don’t seem to significantly affect OSS/FS systems is available from Roaring Penguin. OSS/FS systems are not immune to malicious code, but they are certainly more resistant.

  11. According to a Network Security evaluation, an OSS/FS vulnerability scanner (Nessus) was found to be the best (most effective). On January 8, 2001, Network Computing’s article Vulnerability Assessment Scanners. reported an evaluation of nine network scanning tools, most of them proprietary. In their evaluation, Network Computing set up demonstration systems with 17 of the most common and critical vulnerabilities; they then used the various network scanning tools to see how effectively each of the tools detected these vulnerabilities. Sadly, not one product detected all vulnerabilities; the best scanner was the OSS/FS program Nessus Security Scanner, which found 15 of the 17 (which also received their top total score); the next best was a proprietary scanner which only found 13.5 out of 17.

    In their words,

    Some of us were a bit skeptical of the open-source Nessus project’s thoroughness until [Nessus] discovered the greatest number of vulnerabilities. That’s a hard fact to argue with, and we are now eating our words ... [Nessus] got the highest overall score simply because it did more things right than the other products.

    I agree with the authors that ideally a network vulnerability scanner should find every well-known vulnerability, and that “even one hole is too many.” Still, perfection is rare in the real world. More importantly, a vulnerability scanner should only be part of the process to secure an organization - it shouldn’t be the sole activity. Still, this evaluation suggests that an organization will be more secure, not less secure, by using an OSS/FS program. It could be argued that this simply shows that this particular OSS/FS program had more functionality - not more security - but in this case, the product’s sole functionality was to improve security.

One serious problem is that there are strong economic disincentives for proprietary vendors to make their software secure. For example, if vendors make their software more secure, they would often fail to be “first” in a given market; this often means that they will lose that market. Since it is extremely difficult for customers to distinguish proprietary software with strong security from those with poor security, the poor products tend to eliminate the good ones (after all, they’re cheaper to develop and thus cost less). Governments have other disincentives as well. For a discussion of some of the economic disincentives for secure software, see Why Information Security is Hard - an Economic Perspective by Ross Anderson (Proceedings of the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC), December 2001, pp. 358-365). It’s not clear that OSS/FS always avoids these disincentives, but it appears in at least some cases it does. For example, OSS/FS source code is public, so the difference in security is far more visible than in proprietary products.

One of the most dangerous security problems with proprietary software is that if intentionally malicious code is snuck into it, such code is extremely difficult to find. Few proprietary vendors have other developers examine all code in great detail - their testing processes are designed to catch mistakes (not malice) and often don’t look at the code at all. In contrast, malicious code can be found by anyone when the source code is publicly available, and with OSS/FS, there are incentives for arbitrary people to review it (such as to add new features or perform a security review of a product they intend to use). Thus, someone inserting malicious code to an OSS/FS project runs a far greater risk of detection. Here are two examples, one confirmed, one not confirmed:

  1. Some time between 1992 and 1994, Borland inserted an intentional “back door” into their database server, “InterBase”, as a secret username and fixed password. This back door allowed any local or remote user to manipulate any database object and install arbitrary programs, and in some cases could lead to controlling the machine as “root”. This vulnerability stayed in the product for at least 6 years - no one else could review the product, and Borland had no incentive to remove the vulnerability. Then Borland released its source code on July 2000 as an OSS/FS project. The “Firebird” project began working with the source code, and uncovered this serious security problem with InterBase in December 2000 (only 5 months after release). By January 2001 the CERT announced the existence of this back door as CERT advisory CA-2001-01. What’s discouraging is that the backdoor can be easily found simply by looking at an ASCII dump of the program (a common cracker trick), so it’s quite possible that this vulnerability was exploited many times in the intervening years. Once this problem was found by open source developers reviewing the code, it was patched quickly.
  2. Mohammad Afroze Abdul Razzak, arrested by Mumbai (Bombay) police Oct. 2, 2001, claims that Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda network were able to gain employment at Microsoft and attempted to plant “trojans, trapdoors, and bugs in Windows XP.” This was reported to Ravi Visvesvaraya Prasad, a New Delhi information systems and telecommunication consultant, and then reported by the Washington Post’s Newsbytes division. This claim has not been confirmed; indeed, I’m somewhat skeptical. The problem, however, is that this is impossible to disprove. Even if this particular case isn’t true, note that this threat is unfortunately a credible threat to proprietary software, because very few of its users can review the code. This is far less dangerous to OSS/FS software, because of the worldwide review that’s possible (including the ability to see the changes made in each version).

Bruce Perens, in “Open sourcers wear the white hats”, makes the interesting claim that most of the people reviewing proprietary products looking for security flaws (aside from one or two paid reviewers) are “black hats,” outsiders who disassemble the code or try various types of invalid input in search of a flaw that they can exploit (and not report). There is simply little incentive, and many roadblocks, for someone to search for security flaws simply to improve someone else’s proprietary product. “Only a black hat would disassemble code to look for security flaws. You won’t get any ‘white hats’ doing this for the purpose of [just] closing the flaws.” In contrast, he believes many open source developers do have such an incentive. I think this article slightly overstates the case; there are other incentives (such as fame) that can motivate a few people to review some other company’s proprietary product for security. Still, he has a point; even formal reviews often only look at designs (not code), proprietary code is often either unreviewed or poorly reviewed, and there are many cases (including the entire OpenBSD system) where legions of developers review open source code for security issues. As he notes, “open source has a lot of ‘white hats’ looking at the source. They often do find security bugs while working on other aspects of the code, and the bugs are reported and closed.”

The “Alexis de Tocqueville Institute” (ADTI) published a white paper called “Opening the Open Source Debate” that purported to examine OSS/FS issues. Unfortunately, it makes a large number of wrong, specious, and poorly-argued claims about OSS/FS, including some related to security. Wired (in its article Did MS Pay for Open-Source Scare?) made some startling discoveries about ADTI, and found strong circumstantial evidence that the paper was paid for by Microsoft (a prime competitor to OSS/FS), directly or indirectly: “A Microsoft spokesman confirmed that Microsoft provides funding to the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution... Microsoft did not respond to requests for comment on whether the company directly sponsored the debate paper. De Tocqueville Institute president Ken Brown and chairman Gregory Fossedal refused to comment on whether Microsoft sponsored the report.” Politech found additional suspicious information about ADTI. ADTI apparently has a history of creating “independent” results that are apparently paid for by corporations (e.g., see the Smoke Free for Health article about ADTI’s pro-tobacco-lobby papers). Reputable authors clearly identify any potential conflict of interest, even if it’s incidental; ADTI did not when it developed this OSS/FS paper. Not surprisingly, the ADTI paper makes a number of errors and draws unwarranted conclusions. I’ll just note a few examples of the paper’s problems that aren’t as widely noted elsewhere: incorrect or incomplete quotations, rewriting web browser history, and cleverly omitting the most important data in one of their charts:

Thus, I recommend that anyone who reads the ADTI paper also examine the detailed rebuttals available from many different sources, since these rebuttals expose the paper’s numerous flaws. Rebuttals are available from John Viega and Bob Fleck of Secure Software (Viega is a respected security expert), Juliao Duartenn (Director of the Security Skill Center, Oblog Software, SA), Roaring Penguin’s David Skoll (via the Register), Ken Ambrose (via LWN), and Leon Brooks. Anthony Awtrey analyzed the changes made in the published editions of the ADTI paper. In short, ADTI’s paper is a highly biased and poorly researched “report.”

Now it should be obvious from these figures that OSS/FS systems are not magically invincible from security flaws. Indeed, some have argued that making the source code available gives attackers an advantage (because they have more information to make an attack). While OSS/FS gives attackers more information, this ignores opposing forces: having the source code also gives the defenders more information (because they can also examine its original source code), and in addition, the defenders can improve the code. More importantly, the necessary information for breaking into a program is in the binary executable of the program; disassemblers and decompilers can quickly extract whatever information is needed from executables to break into a program, so hiding the source code isn’t all that helpful for preventing attacks. It is not true that proprietary programs are always more secure, or that OSS/FS is always more secure, because there are many factors at work. For a longer description of these issues, see my discussion on open source and security (part of my book on writing secure software). However, from these figures, it appears that OSS/FS systems are in many cases better - not just equal - in their resistance to attacks as compared to proprietary software.

7. Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Total cost of ownership (TCO) is an important measure; it doesn’t matter if a product starts out cheaply if it costs you more down the line. However, TCO is extremely sensitive to the set of assumptions you make.

Indeed, whatever product you use or support, you can probably find a study to show it has the lowest TCO for some circumstance. Not surprisingly, both Microsoft and Sun provide studies showing that they have the lowest TCO (but see my comments later about Microsoft’s study). Xephon has a study determining that mainframes are the cheapest per-user (due to centralized control) at £3450 per user per year; Centralized Unix cost £7350 per user per year, and a decentralized PC environment costs £10850 per user per year. Xephon appears to be a mainframe-based consultancy, though, and would want the results to come out this way. There are indeed situations where applying a mainframe makes sense.. but as we’ll see in a moment, you can use OSS/FS in such environments too.

In short, what has a smaller TCO depends on your environment and needs. To determine TCO you have to identify all the important cost drivers (the “cost model”) and estimate their costs. Don’t forget “hidden” costs, such as administration costs, upgrade costs, technical support, end-user operation costs, and so on. However, OSS/FS has a number of strong cost advantages in various categories that, in many cases, will result in its having the smallest TCO.

  1. OSS/FS costs less to initially acquire. OSS/FS costs much less to get initially. OSS/FS isn’t free in the monetary sense, because the “free” in “free software” refers to freedom, not price. This distinction is usually summarized as “free speech, not free beer”. Merrill Lynch executive Robert Lefkowitz found what may be a better way to describe it: “We like to think of it as ‘free as in market.’”

    OSS/FS isn’t cost-free, because you’ll still spend money for paper documentation, support, training, system administration, and so on, just as you do with proprietary systems. In many cases, the actual programs in OSS/FS distributions can be acquired freely by downloading them ( provides some pointers on how to get distributions). However, most people (especially beginners and those without high-speed Internet connections) will want to pay a small fee to a distributor for a nicely integrated package with CD-ROMs, paper documentation, and support. Even so, OSS/FS is far less expensive to acquire.

    For example, look at some of the price differences when trying to configure a server (say a public web server or an intranet file and email server, in which you’d like to use C++ and an RDBMS for some portions of it). This is an example, of course; different missions would involve different components. I used the prices from “Global Computing Supplies” (Suwanee, GA), September 2000, and rounded to the nearest dollar. Here’s a quick summary of some costs:

     Microsoft Windows 2000Red Hat Linux
    Operating System$1510 (25 client)$29 (standard), $76 deluxe, $156 professional (all unlimited)
    Email Server$1300 (10 client)included (unlimited)
    RDBMS Server$2100 (10 CALs)included (unlimited)
    C++ Development$500included

    Basically, Microsoft Windows 2000 (25 client) costs $1510; their email server Microsoft Exchange (10-client access) costs $1300, their RDBMS server SQL Server 2000 costs $2100 (with 10 CALs), and their C++ development suite Visual C++ 6.0 costs $500. Red Hat Linux 6.2 (a widely-used GNU/Linux distribution) costs $29 for standard (90 days email-based installation support), $76 for deluxe (above plus 30 days telephone installation support), or $156 for professional (above plus SSL support for encrypting web traffic); in all cases it includes all of these functionalities (web server, email server, database server, C++, and much more). A public web server with Windows 2000 and an RDBMS might cost $3610 ($1510+$2100) vs. Red Hat Linux’s $156, while an intranet server with Windows 2000 and an email server might cost $2810 ($1510+$1300) vs. Red Hat Linux’s $76.

    Both packages have functionality the other doesn’t have. The GNU/Linux system always comes with an unlimited number of licenses; the number of clients you’ll actually use depends on your requirements. However, this certainly shows that no matter what, Microsoft’s server products cost thousands of dollars more per server than the equivalent GNU/Linux system.

    For another in-depth analysis comparing the initial costs GNU/Linux with Windows, see Linux vs. Windows: The Bottom Line by Cybersource Pty Ltd. Here’s a summary of their analysis (in 2001 U.S. dollars):

     Microsoft SolutionOSS/FS (GNU/Linux) SolutionSavings by using GNU/Linux
    Company A (50 users)$69,987$80$69,907
    Company B (100 users)$136,734$80$136,654
    Company C (250 users)$282,974$80$282,894

    Consulting Times found that as the number of mailboxes got large, the three-year TCO for mainframes with GNU/Linux became in many cases quite compelling. For 50,000 mailboxes, an Exchange/Intel solution cost $5.4 million, while the Linux/IBM(G6) solution cost $3.3 million. For 5,000 mailboxes, Exchange/Intel cost $1.6 million, while Groupware on IFL cost $362,890. For yet another study, see the Cost Comparison from Obviously, the price difference depends on exactly what functions you need for a given task, but for many common situations, GNU/Linux costs far less to acquire.

  2. Upgrade costs are typically far less. Long-term upgrade costs are far less for OSS/FS systems. For example, upgrading a Microsoft system will typically cost around half the original purchase. What’s worse, you are essentially at their mercy for long-term pricing, because there is only a single supplier (see Microsoft Turns the Screws). In contrast, the GNU/Linux systems can be downloaded (free), or simply re-purchased (generally for less than $100), and the single upgrade be used on every system. This doesn’t include technical support, but the technical support can be competed (a situation that’s not practical for proprietary software). An anti-trust lawyer would say that OSS/FS technical support is “contestable.” In short, if you don’t like your GNU/Linux supplier (e.g., they’ve become too costly), you can switch.

  3. OSS/FS does not impose license management costs and avoids nearly all litigation risks. Proprietary vendors make money from the sale of licenses, and are imposing increasingly complex mechanisms on consumers to manage these licenses. Customers who cannot later prove than they paid for every installed copy of proprietary software (e.g., due to copying by an employee or losing the license paperwork) risk stiff penalties. In short: by using proprietary software, you run the risk of having the vendor to sue you. In contrast, there’s no license management or litigation risk in using OSS/FS software. Some OSS/FS software do have legal requirements if you modify the program or embed the program in other programs, but proprietary software usually completely forbids modifying the program and often imposes licensing requirements for embedding a program (e.g., royalty payments). Thus, software developers need to examine what components they’re employing to understand their ramifications, but this would be true for both OSS/FS and proprietary programs. See the licensing litigation discussion later in this paper for more about licensing costs and risks.

  4. OSS/FS can often use older hardware more efficiently than proprietary systems, yielding smaller hardware costs and sometimes eliminating the need for new hardware. OSS/FS runs faster on faster hardware, of course, but many OSS/FS programs can use older hardware more efficiently than proprietary systems, resulting in lower hardware costs - and in some cases requiring no new costs (because “discarded” systems can suddenly be used again). For example, the minimum requirements for Microsoft Windows 2000 Server (according to Microsoft) are a Pentium-compatible CPU (133 MHz or higher), 128 MiB of RAM minimum (with 256MiB the “recommended minimum”), and a 2 GB hard drive with at least 1.0 GB free. According to Red Hat, Red Hat Linux 7.1 (a common distribution of GNU/Linux) requires at a minimum an i486 (Pentium-class recommended), 32MiB RAM (64MiB recommended), and 650MB hard disk space (1.2 GB recommended).

    In Scientific American’s August 2001 issue, the article The Do-It-Yourself Supercomputer discusses how the researchers built a powerful computing platform with a large number of obsolete, discarded computers and GNU/Linux. The result was dubbed the “Stone Soupercomputer”; by May 2001 it contained 133 nodes, with a theoretical peak performance of 1.2 gigaflops.

  5. When used as an application server based system, the total costs for hardware drop by orders of magnitude. Many people make the mistake of deploying OSS/FS workstations (such as GNU/Linux or the *BSDs) the same way they would deploy Windows systems. Although it’s possible, this is an unnecessarily expensive approach if they’re installing a set of workstations for typical productivity applications (e.g., word processing, spreadsheets, etc. for an office), For many, a better approach is to provide each user with a very old GNU/Linux-based machine which is merely a graphics display (an “X terminal”), and then run the actual applications on an “application server” that is shared by all the users. See How to create a Linux-based network of computers for peanuts for more information about this. With this application server approach, workstations can cost about $30 each (using “obsolete” machines), a server (shared by many users) can cost about $1000 each, and nearly all system administration is centralized (reducing administration costs). A nice side-effect of this approach is that users can use any workstation just by logging in. A more detailed discussion of this approach is given in Paul Murphy’s article, Total cost of ownership series revisited. This is how the City of Largo, Florida, and many other organizations use GNU/Linux.

  6. As the number of systems and hardware performance increases, this difference in initial and upgrade costs becomes even more substantial. As the number of servers increases, proprietary solutions become ever more expensive. First, many proprietary systems (including Microsoft) sell per-client licenses; this means that even if your hardware can support more clients, you’ll have to pay more to actually use the hardware you’ve purchased. Secondly, if you want to use more computers, you have to pay for more licenses in proprietary systems. In contrast, for most GNU/Linux distributions, you can install as many copies as you like for no additional fee, and there’s no performance limit built into the software. There may be a fee for additional support, but you can go to competing vendors for this support.

    According to Network World Fusion News, Linux is increasingly being used in healthcare, finance, banking, and retail because of its cost advantages when large numbers of identical sites and servers are built. According to their calculations for a 2,000 site deployment, SCO UnixWare would cost $9 million, Windows would cost $8 million, and Red Hat Linux costs $180.

  7. There are many other factors; their effect varies on what you’re trying to do. There are many other factors in TCO, but it’s difficult to categorize their effects in general, and it’s generally difficult to find justifiable numbers for these other effects. Windows advocates claim that system administrators are cheaper and easier to find than Unix/Linux administrators, while GNU/Linux and Unix advocates argue that fewer such administrators are needed (because administration is easier to automate and the systems are more reliable to start with) - and quantitative studies are back this latter claim. Some GNU/Linux advocates have told me that GNU/Linux lends itself to hosting multiple services on a single server in cases where Windows installations must use multiple servers. License compliance administration can be costly for proprietary systems (e.g., time spent by staff to purchase CALS, keep track of licenses, and undergo audits) - a cost that simply isn’t relevant to OSS/FS.

  8. Cybersource’s 2002 study found TCO savings of 24% to 34% when using OSS/FS instead of Microsoft’s proprietary approach. Cybersource’s “Linux vs. Windows: Total Cost of Ownership Comparison” modeled an organization with 250 computer-using staff, an appropriate number of workstations, servers, with Internet connectivity, an e-business system, network cabling and hardware, standard software, and salaries for IT professionals to establish and support this infrastructure and technology. Using existing hardware and infrastructure, they found a three-year savings of 34.26% ($251,393 U.S. dollars) when using the “Linux/Open Source Solution” instead of the proprietary “Microsoft solution”. When new hardware and infrastructure were purchased, the savings were 24.69%. Note that this study is a follow-on of their earlier study; a commentary is available at Linux Journal. It could be argued that this was merely a paper study, but they claim that they’ve seen significant savings in their consulting work. In any case, TCO savings have been reported by real organizations, corroborating these results, as discussed below.

  9. An Italian study in 2002 found GNU/Linux to have a TCO 34.84% less than Windows. The full study is in Italian; you can try to read an automatically-generated translation.

  10. For many circumstances, the total cost savings can be substantial; for example, real-world savings exceeding $250,000 per year were reported by 32% of the Chief Technical Officers (CTOs) surveyed in a 2001 InfoWorld survey; 60% of these CTOs saved more than $50,000 annually. The August 27, 2001 InfoWorld (pages 49-50) reported on a survey of 40 CTOs who were members of the InfoWorld CTO network. In this survey, 32% using OSS reported savings greater than $250,000; 12% reported savings between 100,001 and $250,000; and 16% reported saving between $50,001 and $100,000. Indeed, only 8% reported annual savings less than $10,000 (so 92% were saving $10,000 or more annually). A chief benefit of OSS, according to 93% of the CTOs, was reduced cost of application development or acquisition; 72% said that a chief benefit was reduced development or implementation time (multiple answers were allowed). The CTOs reported using or planning to use OSS for web servers (65%), server operating systems (63%), web-application servers (45%), application development testing (45%), and desktop operating system (38%), among other uses. InfoWorld summarized it this way: “in early 2000, it seemed as if no one was using open-source software for business-critical tasks... a vast majority of today’s corporate IT executives are now using or plan to use OSS operating systems and web servers for their enterprise applications.”

  11. The Robert Frances Group’s July 2002 study found the TCO of GNU/Linux is roughly 40% (less than half) that of Microsoft Windows and only 14% that of Sun Microsystem’s Solaris. The Robert Frances Group (RFG), in Westport, Conn., studied actual costs at production deployments of Web servers running on GNU/Linux with Apache, Microsoft Windows with IIS, and Sun Solaris with Apache at 14 Global 2000 enterprises. Their TCO analysis was based on software purchase price, hardware purchase and maintenance prices, software maintenance and upgrade prices, and administrative costs. To make the numbers comparable, these figures were were scaled to a “processing unit” able to handle 100,000 hits per day; see the study for more information. They determined that over three years a (scaled) GNU/Linux deployment cost $74,475, a Windows deployment cost $190,662, and a Solaris deployment cost $561,520. Thus, the cost of running GNU/Linux is roughly 40% that of Microsoft Windows and only 14% that of Sun Microsystem’s Solaris.

    This report also found that GNU/Linux and Solaris had smaller administrative costs than Windows. Although Windows system administrators were individually less expensive, each Linux or Solaris administrator could administrate many more machines, making Windows administration much more expensive. The study also revealed that Windows administrators spent twice as much time patching systems and dealing with other security-related issues than did Solaris or GNU/Linux administrators.

    RFG also examined some areas that were difficult to monetize. In the end, they concluded that “Overall, given its low cost and flexible licensing requirements, lack of proprietary vendor goals, high level of security, and general stability and usability, Linux is worth considering for most types of server deployments.”

  12. A majority of InternetWeek Newsbreak subscribers from companies with revenues more than $5 million reported that OSS/FS software was substantially less expensive than proprietary software.

    A survey was by (a joint editorial effort between and InformationWeek) of individuals with management responsibility for IT and software specifically in companies with more than $5 million in revenue. In this survey, Indeed, 39% said “open source/standards-based software” was 25% to 50% less expensive than proprietary software, while 27% (more than 1 in 4) said it’s 50% to 75% less expensive in their experience. In context, it appears their phrase was intended to mean the same (or similar) thing as the term OSS/FS in this paper, since in many cases they simply use the term “open-source.” As they note, “Would your CFO react favorably to a 50-75% reduction in software costs?”

  13. Many organizations have reported significant savings when using OSS/FS. Here are a few examples of specific organizations saving money through OSS/FS:
    1. The paper Linux as a Replacement for Windows 2000 is an example of an analysis comparing Red Hat Linux 7.1 to Windows 2000; in this customer’s case, using Linux instead of Windows 2000 saved $10,000. The reviewer came from a Windows/DOS background, and after performing an intensive hands-on Linux project lasting several months, determined that “you will be stunned by the bang for the buck that ... open source software offers.”

    2. Intel’s IT Vice President, Doug Busch, reported savings of $200 million by replacing expensive Unix servers with cheaper servers running GNU/Linux.

    3. was able to cut $17 million in technology expenses in a single quarter, largely because of a switch to Linux. Amazon spent $54 million on technology and content expenses in its third quarter (ending Sept. 30), compared with $71 million in the year-ago quarter, and executives expected that technology costs as a portion of net sales would decrease by 20% this year.

    4. The city of Largo, Florida reports a savings of $1 million per year using GNU/Linux and “thin clients.”

    5. Dell offers a savings of 21% when using GNU/Linux. Dell computer has dedicated hosting service, and, in particular, the D-2800 offering. This service offers a respectable system (Pentium 850, 256MiB, 20GB, 21GB/month bandwidth) in two configurations: Red Hat Linux 7.1 for $189/month, and Windows 2000 for $239/month. Thus, with identical hardware and bandwidth provision, the GNU/Linux system is 21% cheaper. This is especially interesting because Dell is not out to prove which system is better; as a business, they’ve just figured out competitive prices at which they can offer their services.

    There are many other reports from those who have switched to OSS/FS systems; see the usage reports section for more information.

  14. Even Microsoft has finally admitted that its products are more expensive than GNU/Linux. For some time Microsoft has tried to convince users that its products are somehow less expensive. However, as documented in Var Business and The Register, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in 2002 admitted that Microsoft has not “figured out how to be lower-priced than Linux. For us as a company, we’re going through a whole new world of thinking.” The Register summarizes Microsoft’s new approach as saying that “it costs more because it’s worth more”; whether this is true is rather debatable in many cases, but at least it’s a more sensible argument.

You may also want to see MITRE’s business case study of OSS, which considered military systems.

Most of these items assume that users will use the software unmodified, but even if the OSS/FS software doesn’t do everything required, that is not necessarily the end of the story. One of the main hallmarks of OSS/FS software is that it can be modified by users. Thus, any true TCO comparison should consider not just the products that fully meet the requirements, but the existing options that with some modifications could meet the requirements. It may be cheaper to start with an existing OSS/FS program, and improve it, than to start with a proprietary program that has all of the necessary functionality. Obviously, the total TCO including such costs varies considerably depending on the circumstances.

Brendan Scott (a lawyer specializing in IT and telecommunications law) argues that the long run TCO of OSS/FS must be lower than proprietary software. Scott’s paper makes some interesting points, for example, “TCO is often referred to as the total cost of ‘ownership’... [but] ‘ownership’ of software as a concept is anathema to proprietary software, the fundamental assumptions of which revolve around ownership of the software by the vendor. ... The user [of proprietary software] will, at best, have some form of (often extremely restrictive) license. Indeed, some might argue that a significant (and often uncosted) component of the cost of ‘ownership’ of proprietary software is that users don’t own it at all.” The paper also presents arguments as to why GPL-like free software gives better TCO results than other OSS/FS licenses. Scott concludes that “Customers attempting to evaluate a free software v. proprietary solution can confine their investigation to an evaluation of the ability of the packages to meet the customer’s needs, and may presume that the long run TCO will favor the free software package. Further, because the licensing costs are additional dead weight costs, a customer ought to also prefer a free software solution with functionality shortfalls where those shortfalls can be overcome for less than the licensing cost for the proprietary solution.”

Microsoft’s TCO study (mentioned earlier) is probably not useful as a starting point for estimating your own TCO. Their study reported the average TCO at sites using Microsoft products compared to the average TCO at sites using Sun systems, but although the Microsoft systems cost 37% less to own, the Solaris systems handled larger databases, more demanding applications connecting to those databases, 63% more concurrent connections, and 243% more hits per day. In other words, the Microsoft systems that did less work were less expensive. This is not a useful starting point if you’re using TCO to help determine which system to buy -- to make a valid comparison by TCO, you need to compare the TCOs of systems that both perform the job that you need to do. A two-part analysis by Thomas Pfau (see part 1 and part 2) identifies this and many other flaws in the study.

There are some studies that emphasize Unix-like systems, not OSS/FS, which claim that that there are at least some circumstances where Unix-like systems are more cost-effective than Windows. A Strategic Comparison of Windows vs. Unix by Paul Murphy is one such paper. It appears that many of these arguments would also apply to OSS/FS systems, since many of them are Unix-like.

Again, it’s TCO that matters, not just certain cost categories. However, given these large differences, in many situations OSS/FS has a smaller TCO than proprietary systems. At one time it was claimed that OSS/FS installation took more time, but nowadays OSS/FS systems can be purchased pre-installed and automatic installers result in equivalent installation labor. Some claim that system administration costs are higher, but studies like Sun’s suggest than in many cases the system administration costs are lower, not higher, for Unix-like systems (at least Sun’s). For example, on Unix-like systems it tends to be easier to automate tasks (because you can, but do not need, to use a GUI) - thus over time many manual tasks can be automated (reducing TCO). Retraining costs can be significant - but now that GNU/Linux has modern GUI desktop environments, there’s anecdotal evidence that this cost is actually quite small (I’ve yet to see serious studies quantitatively evaluating this issue). In short, it’s often hard to show that a proprietary solution’s purported advantages really help offset their demonstrably larger costs in other categories when there’s a competing mature OSS/FS product for the given function.

Does this mean that OSS/FS always have the lowest TCO? No! As I’ve repeatedly noted, it depends on its use. But the notion that OSS/FS always has the larger TCO is simply wrong.

8. Non-Quantitative Issues

In fairness, I must note that not all issues can be quantitatively measured, and to many they are the most important issues. The issues most important to many include freedom, protection from license litigation, and flexibility. Another issue that’s hard to measure is innovation.

  1. OSS/FS protects its users from the risks and disadvantages of single source solutions. While “free software” advocates use the term “freedom,” and some businesses emphasize different terms such as “multiple sources”, “alternate supply channels”, and “the necessity of multiple vendors”, the issue is the same: users do not want to be held hostage by any one vendor. Businesses often prefer to buy products in which there is a large set of competing suppliers, because it reduces their risk; they can always switch to another supplier if they’re not satisfied, the supplier raises their prices substantially, or the original supplier goes out of business. This translates into an effect on the products themselves: if customers can easily choose and switch between competing products, the products’ prices go down and their quality goes up. Conversely, if there is a near or real monopoly for a given product, over time the vendor will continuously raise the cost to use the product and limit its uses to those that benefit the monopolist. Users who are unwilling to leave single source solutions often pay dearly later as their single source raises their costs.

    For example, many organizations have chosen to use Microsoft’s products exclusively, and Microsoft is trying to exploit this through its new “Microsoft Licensing 6.0 Program.” The TIC/Sunbelt Software Microsoft Licensing Survey Results (covering March 2002) reports the impact on customers of this new licensing scheme. 80% had a negative view of the new licensing scheme, noting, for example, that the new costs for software assurance (25% of list for server and 29% of list for clients) are the highest in the industry. Of those who had done a cost analysis, an overwhelming 90% say their costs will increase if they migrate to 6.0, and 76% said their costs would increase from 20% to 300% from what they are paying now under their current 4.0 and 5.0 Microsoft Licensing plans. This survey found that 36% of corporate enterprises don’t have the necessary funds to upgrade to the Microsoft Licensing 6.0 Program. Half indicated that the new agreement would almost certainly delay their migration initiatives to new Microsoft client, server and Office productivity platforms, and 38% say they are actively seeking alternatives to Microsoft products. In New Zealand a Commerce Commission Complaint has been filed claiming that Microsoft’s pricing regime is anti-competitive. In particular, after reading the “Open License” contract, Craig Horrocks notes that Software Assurance was in fact not assuring the purchaser of software, but merely buying the “right” to upgrade to any version Microsoft releases in the period of cover. Microsoft may levy further charges on a release, and the contract does not obligate Microsoft to deliver anything in the time period.

    More generally, defining an organization’s “architecture” as being that of a single vendor is sometimes called “Vendor Lock-in” or “Pottersville”, and this “solution” is a well-known AntiPattern (an AntiPattern is a “solution” that has more problems than it solves).

    Historically, proprietary vendors eventually lose to vendors selling products available from multiple sources, even when their proprietary technology is (at the moment) better. Sony’s Betamax format lost to VHS in the videotape market, IBM’s microchannel architecture lost to ISA in the PC architecture market, and Sun’s NeWS lost to X-windows in the networking graphics market, all because customers prefer the reduced risk (and eventually reduced costs) of non-proprietary products. This is sometimes called “commodification”, a term disparaged by proprietary vendors and loved by users. Since users spend the money, users eventually find someone who will provide what they want, and then the other suppliers discover that they must follow or give up the market area.

    With OSS/FS, users can choose between distributors, and if a supplier abandons them they can switch to another supplier. As a result, suppliers will be forced to provide good quality products and services for relatively low prices, because users can switch if they don’t. Users can even band together and maintain the product themselves (this is how the Apache project was founded), making it possible for groups of users to protect themselves from abandonment.

  2. OSS/FS protects its users from licensing management and litigation. Proprietary vendors make money from the sale of licenses, and are imposing increasingly complex mechanisms on consumers to manage these licenses. For example, Microsoft’s Windows XP requires product activation - a scheme that means that an accumulation of hardware changes requires a new activation code. A license no longer gives unlimited rights to reinstall - if you have hardware trouble, you may end up being forced to re-buy your product. Indeed, for a variety of reasons, businesses are finding that they have to buy the same proprietary software more than once.

    Proprietary vendors also litigate against those who don’t comply with their complex licensing management requirements, creating increased legal risks for users. For example, the Business Software Alliance (BSA) is a proprietary software industry organization sponsored by Microsoft, Macromedia, and Autodesk, and spends considerable time searching for and punishing companies who cannot prove they are complying. As noted in the SF Gate (Feb. 7, 2002), the BSA encourages disgruntled employees to call the BSA if they know of any license violations. “If the company refuses to settle or if the BSA feels the company is criminally negligent and deliberately ripping off software, the organization may decide to get a little nastier and organize a raid: The BSA makes its case in front of a federal court in the company’s district and applies for a court order. If the order is granted, the BSA can legally storm the company’s offices, accompanied by U.S. marshals, to search for unregistered software.”

    Software Licensing by Andrew Grygus discusses the risks and costs of proprietary licensing schemes in more detail. According to their article, “the maximum penalty is $150,000 per license deficiency; typically, this is negotiated down, and a company found deficient at around $8,000 will pay a penalty of around $85,000 (and have to buy the $8,000 in software too).” For example, information services for the city of Virginia Beach, VA were practically shut down for over a month and 50 employees were tied up trying to put its licensing in order to answer a random audit demand by Microsoft. Eventually the city was fined $129,000 for missing licenses the city had probably paid for but couldn’t match to paperwork. Temple University had to pay $100,000 to the BSA, in spite of strong policies forbidding unauthorized copying.

    In contrast, OSS/FS users have no fear of litigation from the use and copying of OSS/FS. Licensing issues do come up when OSS/FS software is modified and then redistributed, but to be fair, proprietary software essentially forbids this action (so it’s a completely new right). Even in this circumstance, redistributing modified OSS/FS software generally requires following only a few simple rules (depending on the license), such as giving credit to previous developers and releasing modifications under the same license as the original program.

    One intriguing example is the musical instrument company Ernie Ball (described in the May 2002 issue of World Trade). A disgruntled ex-employee turned them into the Business Software Alliance (BSA); who then arranged to have them raided by armed Federal Marshals. Ernie Ball was completely shut down for a day, and then was required to not touch any data other than what is minimally necessary to run their business. After the investigation was completed, Ernie Ball was found to be noncompliant by 8%; Ball argued that it was “nearly impossible to be totally compliant” by their rules, and felt that they were treated unfairly. The company ended up paying a $90,000 settlement, $35,000 of which were Microsoft’s legal fees. Ball then decided at that moment his company would become “Microsoft free.” In one year he converted to a Linux-based network and UNIX “mainframe” using Sun’s StarOffice (Sun’s proprietary cousin to OpenOffice); he now has no Microsoft products at all, and much of the software is OSS/FS or based on OSS/FS products.

  3. OSS/FS has greater flexibility. OSS/FS users can tailor the product as necessary to meet their needs in ways not possible without source code. Users can tailor the product themselves, or hire whoever they believe can solve the problem (including the original developer). Some have claimed that this creates the “danger of forking,” that is, of multiple incompatible versions of a product. This is “dangerous” only to those who believe competition is evil - we have multiple versions of cars as well. And in practice, the high cost of maintaining software yourself has resulted in a process in which the change is contributed back to the community. If it’s not contributed (e.g., it solves a problem that needed solving but only for a particular situation), then it’s still a win for the user - because it solved a user’s problem which would not have been solved otherwise.

    For example, in 1998 Microsoft decided against developing an Icelandic version of Windows 95 because the limited size of the market couldn’t justify the cost. Without the source code, the Islandic people had little recourse. However, OSS/FS programs can be modified, so Icelandic support was immediately added to them, without any need for negotiation with a vendor. Users never know when they will have a specialized need not anticipated by their vendor; being able to change the source code makes it possible to support those unanticipated needs.

  4. There are good reasons to believe OSS/FS encourages, not quashes, innovation. Microsoft publicly claims that OSS/FS (in particular its most common license, the GPL) will eliminate innovation, but the facts undermine these claims. Most IT managers don’t believe these claims by Microsoft; in 2000 a Forrester Research study interviewed 2,500 IT managers and found that 84% of them predicted that open source software would be the spark behind major innovations throughout the industry. Indeed, when examining the most important software innovations, it’s quickly discovered that Microsoft invented no key innovations, nor was Microsoft the first implementor of any of them. In fact, there is significant evidence that Microsoft is not an innovator at all. In contrast, a number of the key innovations were OSS/FS projects. For example, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, stated in December 2001 that “ A very significant factor [in widening the Web’s use beyond scientific research] was that the software was all (what we now call) open source. It spread fast, and could be improved fast - and it could be installed within government and large industry without having to go through a procurement process.” Note that this didn’t end after the ideas were originally developed; the #1 web server in 2001 (Apache) is open source and the #2 web browser in 2001 (Netscape Navigator) is almost entirely open source, ten years after the original development of the web. Indeed, recent court cases give strong evidence that the only reason the proprietary Internet Explorer was the #1 web browser was due to years of illegal use of monopoly power by Microsoft.

    This history of innovation shouldn’t be surprising; OSS/FS approaches are based on the scientific method, allowing anyone to make improvements or add innovative techniques and then make them immediately available to the public. Eric Raymond has made a strong case for why innovation is more likely, not less likely, in OSS/FS projects. The Sweetcode web site reports on innovative free software. Here’s what Sweetcode says about their site: “Innovative means that the software reported here isn’t just a clone of something else or a minor add-on to something else or a port of something else or yet another implementation of a widely recognized concept... Software reported on sweetcode should surprise you in some interesting way.”

    If Microsoft’s proprietary approaches were better for research, then you would expect that to be documented in the research community. However, the opposite is true; the paper “NT Religious Wars: Why Are DARPA Researchers Afraid of Windows NT?” found that, in spite of strong pressure by paying customers, computer science researchers strongly resisted basing research on Windows. Reasons given were: developers believe Windows is terrible, Windows really is terrible, Microsoft’s highly restrictive non-disclosure agreements are at odds with researcher agendas, and there is no clear technology transition path for operating system and network research products built on Windows (since only Microsoft can distribute changes to its products). Microsoft’s own secret research (later leaked as “Halloween I”) found that “Research/teaching projects on top of Linux are easily ‘disseminated’ due to the wide availability of Linux source. In particular, this often means that new research ideas are first implemented and available on Linux before they are available / incorporated into other platforms.” Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig (the “special master” in Microsoft’s antitrust trial) noted that “Microsoft was using its power to protect itself against new innovation” and that Microsoft’s practices generally threaten technical innovation - not promote it.

    Given an entire site dedicated to linking to innovative OSS/FS projects, OSS/FS’s demonstrated history in key innovations, Microsoft’s failure to demonstrate innovation itself, reports from IT managers supporting OSS/FS, reports of dissatisfaction by researchers and others about Microsoft’s proprietary approaches, and Microsoft’s own research finding that new research ideas are often first implemented and available on Linux before other platforms, the claim that OSS/FS quashes innovation is demonstrably false.

While I cannot quantitatively measure these issues, these issues (particularly the first three) are actually the most important issues to many.

9. Unnecessary Fears

Some avoid OSS/FS, not because of the issues noted earlier, but because of unnecessary fears of OSS/FS. Let’s counter some of them:
  1. Is proprietary software fundamentally better supported than OSS/FS? No. There are actually two kinds of support for OSS/FS: traditional paid-for support and informal community support. There are many organizations who provide traditional support for a fee; since these can be competed (an option not available for proprietary software), you can often get an excellent price for support. Again, an anti-trust lawyer would say that OSS/FS support is “contestable.” For example, many GNU/Linux distributions include installation support when you purchase their distribution, and for a fee they’ll provide additional levels of support. There are many independent organizations that provide traditional support for a fee as well. The article ‘Team’work Pays Off for Linux evaluated four different technical support services for GNU/Linux systems, and found that “responsiveness was not a problem with any of the participants” and that “No vendor failed to solve the problems we threw at it.” It’s very important to understand that OSS/FS support can be competed separately from the software product; in proprietary products, support is essentially tied to purchase of a usage license.

    As an alternative, you can also get unpaid support from the general community of users and developers through newsgroups, mailing lists, web sites, and other electronic forums. While this kind of support is non-traditional, many have been very satisfied with it. Indeed, in 1997 InfoWorld awarded the “Best Technical Support” award to the “Linux User Community,” beating all proprietary software vendors’ technical support. Many believe this is a side-effect of the Internet’s pervasiveness - increasingly users and developers are directly communicating with each other and finding such approaches to be more effective than the alternatives (for more on this business philosophy, see The Cluetrain Manifesto). Using this non-traditional approach effectively for support requires following certain rules; for more on these rules, consult “How to ask smart questions”. But note that there’s a choice; using OSS/FS does not require you to use non-traditional support (and follow its rules), so those who want guaranteed traditional support can pay for it just as they would for proprietary software.

  2. Does proprietary software give you more legal rights than OSS/FS? No. Some have commented that “with OSS/FS you give up your right to sue if things go wrong.” The obvious retort is that essentially all proprietary software licenses also forbid lawsuits - so this isn’t a difference at all! Anyone who thinks that they can sue Microsoft or other shrink-wrap proprietary vendors when things go wrong is simply fooling themselves. In any case, most users aren’t interested in suing vendors - they want working systems. See “A Senior Microsoft Attorney Looks at Open-Source Licensing”, where Bryan Pfaffenberger argues that “With open-source software... you are, in principle, walking into the deal with your eyes wide open. You know what you’re getting, and if you don’t, you can find someone who does. Open-source licenses enable the community of users to inspect the code for flaws and to trade knowledge about such flaws, which they most assuredly do. Such licenses allow users to create derivative versions of the code that repair potentially hazardous problems the author couldn’t foresee. They let users determine whether the program contains adequate safeguards against safety or security risks. In contrast, the wealthy software firms pushing UCITA are asking us to buy closed-source code that may well contain flaws, and even outright hazards attributable to corporate negligence - but they won’t let us see the code, let alone modify it. You don’t know what you’re getting.” Finally, if the software goes wrong and it’s very important, you can fix it yourself or pay to have it fixed; this option greatly reduces risk, and this option doesn’t exist for proprietary software.

    There is a another legal difference that’s not often mentioned. Many proprietary programs require that users permit software license audits and pay huge fees if the organization can’t prove that every use is licensed. So in some cases, if you use proprietary software, the biggest legal difference is that the vendors get to sue you.

  3. Does OSS/FS expose you to greater risk of abandonment? No. Businesses go out of business, and individuals lose interest in products, in both the proprietary and OSS/FS world. A major difference, however, is that all OSS/FS programs are automatically in escrow - that is, if their original developer stops supporting the product, any person or group can step forward to support it instead. This has been repeatedly demonstrated in OSS/FS. For example, the GIMP is a bitmapped graphical editor that was abandoned by its original developers (what’s worse, they abandoned it before its initial release and failed to arrange for anyone else to succeed them). Nevertheless, even in this worst-case situation, after a period of time other users came forward and continued its development. As another example, NCSA abandoned its web server “httpd”, so some of its users banded together to maintain it - its results became Apache, the world’s most popular web server.

  4. Is OSS/FS economically viable? Yes. There are companies that are making money on OSS/FS, or using OSS/FS to support their money-making activities. Many papers have been written about how to make money using OSS/FS, such as Eric S. Raymond’s “The Magic Cauldron” and Donald K. Rosenberg’s “How to make money with open-source software.” OSS/FS isn’t compatible with some business models, but capitalism does not guarantee that businesses can remain unchanged in changing environments.

    Also, looking only at companies making money from OSS/FS misses critical issues, because that analysis looks only at the supply side and not the demand side. Consumers are saving lots of money and gaining many other benefits by using OSS/FS, so there is a strong economic basis for its success. Anyone who is saving money will fight to keep the savings, and it’s often cheaper for consumers to work together to pay for small improvements in an OSS/FS product than to keep paying and re-paying for a proprietary product. A proprietary vendor may have trouble competing with a similar OSS/FS product, because the OSS/FS product is probably much cheaper and frees the user from control by the vendor. For many, money is still involved - but it’s money saved, not money directly acquired as profit. Some OSS/FS vendors have done poorly financially - but many proprietary vendors have also done poorly too. Luckily for consumers, OSS/FS products are not tied to a particular vendor’s financial situation as much as proprietary products are.

    Joel Spolsky’s “Strategy Letter V” notes that “most of the companies spending big money to develop open source software are doing it because it’s a good business strategy for them.” His argument is based on microeconomics, in particular, that every product in the marketplace has substitutes and complements. A substitute is another product you might buy if the first product is too expensive, while a complement is a product that you usually buy together with another product. Since demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease, smart companies try to commoditize their products’ complements. For many companies, supporting an OSS/FS product turns a complementary product into a commodity, resulting in more sales (and money) for them.

    Although many OSS/FS projects originally started with an individual working in their spare time, and there are many OSS/FS projects which can still be described that way, the “major” widely-used projects tend to no longer work that way. Instead, most major OSS/FS projects have large corporate backing with significant funds applied to them. This shift has been noted for years, and is discussed in papers such as Brian Elliott Finley’s paper Corporate Open Source Collaboration?.

    Fundamentally, software is economically different than physical goods; it is infinitely replicable, it costs essentially nothing to reproduce, and it can be developed by thousands of programmers working together with little investment (driving the per-person development costs down to very small amounts). It is also durable (in theory, it can be used forever) and nonrival (users can use the same software without interfering with each other, a situation not true of physical property). Thus, the marginal cost of deploying a copy of a software package quickly approaches zero. This explains how Microsoft got so rich so quickly (by selling a product that costs nearly nothing to replicate), and why many OSS/FS developers can afford to give software away. See “Open Source-onomics: Examining some pseudo-economic arguments about Open Source” by Ganesh Prasad, which counters “several myths about the economics of Open Source.” People are already experimenting with applying OSS/FS concepts to other intellectual works, and it isn’t known how well OSS/FS concepts will apply to other fields. However, it is clear that making economic decisions based on analogies between software and physical objects is not sensible, because software has many economic characteristics that are different from physical objects.

  5. Will OSS/FS destroy the software industry? Won’t programmers starve if many programs become OSS/FS? No. It’s certainly possible that many OSS/FS products will eliminate their proprietary competition, but that’s the nature of competition. No one mourns the loss of buggy whip manufacturers, who were driven out of business by a superior approach to transportation (cars). If OSS/FS approaches pose a significant threat to proprietary development approaches, then proprietary vendors need to either find ways to compete or join the OSS/FS movement.

    OSS/FS doesn’t require that software developers work for free; many OSS/FS products are developed or improved by employees (whose job is to do so) and/or by contract work (who contract to make specific improvements in OSS/FS products). If an organization needs to have a new capability added to an OSS/FS program, they will need to find someone to add it... and generally, that will mean paying a developer to develop the addition. The difference is that, in this model, the cost is paid for development of those specific changes to the software, and not for making copies of the software. Since copying bits is essentially a zero-cost operation today, this means that this model of payment more accurately reflects the actual costs.

    Indeed, there has been a recent shift in OSS/FS away from volunteer programmers and towards paid development by experienced developers. Again, see Ganesh Prasad’s article for more information. There’s even quantitative evidence that OSS/FS developers are experienced; the Boston Consulting Group/OSDN Hacker Survey (January 31, 2002) surveyed users of SourceForge and found that OSS/FS developers had an average age of 28 and that their programming experience averaged 11 years.

    OSS/FS enables inexperienced developers to gain experience and credibility, while enabling organizations to find the developers they need. Often organizations will find the developers they need by looking at the OSS/FS projects they depend on (or on related projects). Thus, lead developers of a particular OSS/FS project are more likely to be hired by organizations when those organizations need an extension or support for that project’s program. This gives both hope and incentive to inexperienced developers; if they start a new project, or visibly contribute to a project, they’re more likely to be hired to do additional work. Other developers can more easily evaluate that developer’s work (since the code is available for all to see), and the inexperienced developer gains experience by interacting with other developers. This isn’t just speculation; one of Netscape’s presenters at FOSDEM 2002 was originally a volunteer contributor to Netscape’s Mozilla project; his contributions led Netscape to offer him a job (which he accepted).

    Karen Shaeffer has written an interesting piece, Prospering in the Open Source Software Era, which discusses what she views to be the effects of OSS/FS, for example, it has the disruptive effect of commoditizing what used to be proprietary property and it invites innovation (as compared to proprietary software which constrained creativity). She believes the big winners will be end users and the software developers, because “the value of software no longer resides in the code base - it resides in the developers who can quickly adapt and extend the existing open source code to enable businesses to realize their objectives concerned with emerging opportunities. This commoditization of source code represents a quantum step forward in business process efficiency - bringing the developers with the expertise into the business groups who have the innovating ideas.”

    Eric Raymond’s “The Magic Cauldron” describes a number of ways to make money with OSS/FS, and also gives some evidence that 95% of all software is not developed for sale. For the vast majority of software, organizations have to pay to develop it anyway. Thus, even if OSS/FS eliminated all shrink-wrapped programs, it would hardly affect the number of jobs available for software development.

  6. Is OSS/FS compatible with Capitalism? Yes. Years ago some tried to label OSS/FS as “communistic” or “socialistic” (i.e., anti-capitalist), but that rhetoric has failed. One article explaining why OSS/FS and capitalism are compatible is How Does the Capitalist View Open Source?. This paper shows that OSS/FS is quite consistent with capitalism: it increases wealth without violating principles of property ownership or free will. See the earlier notes on economic viability.

  7. If only OSS/FS programs exist in a software category, will that completely eliminate competition? No. Oddly enough, OSS/FS programs sometimes compete with each other in a given functional area. The text editors emacs (primarily GNU emacs) and vi (primarily vim) have dueled for decades. Sendmail is still a popular program for delivering email, but it has competition from other OSS/FS programs such as Postfix and Exim. The desktop environments GNOME and KDE compete with each other, as do the operating system kernels of Linux and the BSDs. Generally, competing OSS/FS projects have to distinguish themselves from each other to succeed (e.g., through user interface philosophies, design approaches, characteristics like security, licensing strategies, and so on), but of course that’s true for competing proprietary programs too. One encouraging thing is that competing OSS/FS programs generally try to stay compatible with each other (because their customers demand it) and even help each other with technical problems. For example, provides a forum to encourage cooperation among open source desktops for the X Window System (such as KDE and GNOME), and is part of the Free Standards Group which tries to accelerate the use and acceptance of open source technologies through the development, application and promotion of standards. Thus, even if you believe that OSS/FS will eliminate all proprietary programs in a given category, that still will not eliminate competition.

  8. Is OSS/FS a “destroyer of intellectual property”? No. You can use OSS/FS products (e.g., a word processor) to develop private and proprietary information, and you can keep the information as confidential and proprietary as you want. What you can’t do is use someone else’s material in a way forbidden by law... and this is true for all software, not just OSS/FS.

    One interesting case is the “General Public License” (GPL), the most common OSS/FS license. Software covered by the GPL can be modified, but any release of that modified software must include an offer for the source code under the same GPL license. Basically, the GPL creates a consortium; anyone can use the program, but you can’t make changes to the program or use its code in another program and make the results proprietary. Since the GPL is a legal document, it can be hard for some to understand. Here is one less legal summary (posted on Slashdot):

    This software contains the intellectual property of several people. Intellectual property is a valuable resource, and you cannot expect to be able to use someone else’s intellectual property in your own work for free. Many businesses and individuals are willing to trade their intellectual property in exchange for something of value; usually money. For example, in return for a sum of money, you might be granted the right to incorporate code from someone’s software program into your own.

    The developers of this software are willing to trade you the right to use their intellectual property in exchange for something of value. However, instead of money, the developers are willing to trade you the right to freely incorporate their code into your software in exchange for the right to freely incorporate your code [which incorporates their code] into theirs. This exchange is to be done by way of and under the terms of the GPL. If you do not think that this is a fair bargain, you are free to decline and to develop your own code or purchase it from someone else. You will still be allowed to use the software, which is awfully nice of the developers, since you probably didn’t pay them a penny for it in the first place.

    Microsoft complains that the GPL does not allow them to take such code and make changes that it can keep proprietary, but this is hypocritical. Microsoft doesn’t allow others to make and distribute changes to Microsoft software at all, so the GPL grants far more rights to customers than Microsoft does.

    In some cases Microsoft will release source code under its “shared source” license, but that license (which is not OSS/FS) is far more restrictive. For example, it prohibits distributing software in source or object form for commercial purposes under any circumstances. Examining Microsoft’s shared source license also shows that it has even more stringent restrictions on intellectual property rights. For example, it states that “if you sue anyone over patents that you think may apply to the Software for a person’s use of the Software, your license to the Software ends automatically,” and “the patent rights Microsoft is licensing only apply to the Software, not to any derivatives you make.” A longer analysis of this license, and the problems it causes developers, is available at; the FSF has also posted a press release on why they believe the GPL protects software freedoms.

    It’s true that organizations that modify and release GPL’ed software must yield any patent and copyright rights for those additions they release, but such organizations do so voluntarily (no one can force anyone to modify GPL code) and with full knowledge (all GPL’ed software comes with a license clearly stating this). And such grants only apply to those particular modifications; organizations can hold other unrelated rights if they wish to do so, or develop their own software instead. Since organizations can’t make such changes at all to proprietary software in most circumstances, and generally can’t redistribute changes in the few cases where they can make changes, this is a fair exchange, and organizations get far more rights with the GPL than with proprietary licenses (including the “shared source” license). If organizations don’t like the GPL license, they can always create their own code, which was the only option even before GPL’ed code became available.

    Although the GPL is sometimes called a “virus” by proprietary vendors because of the way it encourages others to also use the GPL license, it’s only fair to note that many proprietary products also have virus-like effects. Many proprietary products with proprietary data formats or protocols have “network effects,” that is, once many users begin to use that product, that group puts others who don’t use the same product at a disadvantage. For example, once some users pick a particular product such as a proprietary operating system or word processor, it becomes increasingly difficult for other users to use a different product. Over time this enforced use of a particular proprietary product also spreads “like a virus.”

    Certainly many technologists and companies don’t believe Microsoft that the GPL will destroy their businesses. Many seem too busy mocking Microsoft’s claims instead (for an example, see John Lettice’s June 2001 article “ Gates: GPL will eat your economy, but BSD’s cool”). After all, Microsoft sells a product which has GPL’ed components, and still manages to hold intellectual property (see below).

    Perhaps Microsoft means the GPL “destroys” intellectual property because the owners of competing software may be driven out of business. If so, this is hypocritical; Microsoft has driven many companies out of business, or bought them up at fractions of their original price. Indeed, sometimes the techniques that Microsoft used have later been proven in court to be illegal. In contrast, there are excellent reasons to believe that the GPL is on very solid legal ground. “Destruction” of one organization by another through legal competition is quite normal in capitalistic economies.

    The GPL does not “destroy” intellectual property; instead, it creates a level playing field where people can contribute improvements voluntarily to a common project without having them “stolen” by others. You could think of the GPL as creating a consortium; no one is required to aid the consortium, but those who do must play by its rules. The various motivations for joining the consortium vary considerably (see the article License to FUD), but that’s true for any other consortium too. It’s understandable that Microsoft would want to take this consortium’s results and take sole ownership of derivative works, but there’s no reason to believe that a world where the GPL cannot be used is really in consumers’ best interests.

  9. Is having the ability to view and change source code really valuable/important for many people? Surprisingly, yes. It’s certainly true that few people need direct access to source code; only developers or code reviewers need the ability to access and change code. But not having access to how your computer is controlled is still a significant problem. Bob Young of Red Hat uses the analogy of having your car’s hood welded shut to explain why even non-technical users need access to the source code. Here is his explanation, in his own words:
    Open source gives the user the benefit of control over the technology the user is investing in... The best analogy that illustrates this benefit is with the way we buy cars. Just ask the question, “Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?” and we all answer an emphatic “No.” So ask the follow-up question, “What do you know about modern internal-combustion engines?” and the answer for most of us is, “Not much.”

    We demand the ability to open the hood of our cars because it gives us, the consumer, control over the product we’ve bought and takes it away from the vendor. We can take the car back to the dealer; if he does a good job, doesn’t overcharge us and adds the features we need, we may keep taking it back to that dealer. But if he overcharges us, won’t fix the problem we are having or refuses to install that musical horn we always wanted -- well, there are 10,000 other car-repair companies that would be happy to have our business.

    In the proprietary software business, the customer has no control over the technology he is building his business around. If his vendor overcharges him, refuses to fix the bug that causes his system to crash or chooses not to introduce the feature that the customer needs, the customer has no choice. This lack of control results in high cost, low reliability and lots of frustration.

    To developers, source code is critical. Source code isn’t necessary to break the security of most systems, but to really fix problems or add new features it’s quite difficult without it. Microsoft’s Bill Gates has often claimed that most developers don’t need access to operating system source code, but Graham Lea’s article “Bill Gates’ roots in the trashcans of history” exposes that Gates actually extracted operating system source code himself from other companies by digging through their trash cans. Mr. Gates said, “I’d skip out on athletics and go down to this computer center. We were moving ahead very rapidly: Basic, FORTRAN, LISP, PDP-10 machine language, digging out the operating system listings from the trash and studying those.” If source code access isn’t needed by developers, why did he need it?

    See also the discussion on the greater flexibility of OSS/FS.

  10. Is OSS/FS really just an anti-Microsoft campaign? No. Certainly there are people who support OSS/FS who are also against Microsoft, but it’d be a mistake to view OSS/FS as simply anti-Microsoft. Microsoft already uses OSS/FS software in its own applications; Windows’ implementation of the basic Internet protocols (TCP/IP) was derived from OSS/FS code, and its Office suite depends on the OSS/FS compression library “zlib.” Microsoft could, at any time, release programs such as its operating systems as OSS/FS, take an existing OSS/FS operating system and release it, or provide applications for OSS/FS systems. There is no licensing agreement that prevents this. Indeed, OSS/FS leaders often note that they are not against Microsoft per se, just some of its current business practices, and many have repeatedly asked Microsoft to join them (e.g., see Free Software Leaders Stand Together).

    In many cases OSS/FS is developed with and for Microsoft technology. On June 21, 2002, SourceForge listed 831 projects that use Visual Basic (a Microsoft proprietary technology) and 241 using C# (a language that originated from Microsoft). A whopping 8867 projects are listed as working in Windows. This strongly suggests that there are many OSS/FS developers who are not “anti-Microsoft.”

    Microsoft says it’s primarily opposed to the GPL, but Microsoft sells a product which has GPL’ed components. Microsoft’s Interix product provides an environment which can run UNIX-based applications and scripts on the Window NT and Windows 2000 operating systems. There’s nothing wrong with this; clearly, there are a lot of Unix applications, and since Microsoft wants to sell its operating systems, Microsoft decided to sell a way to run Unix applications on its own products. But many of the components of Interix are covered by the GPL; see Microsoft’s ftp site to see the list of Interix components that are covered by the GPL, along with a copy of the GPL text (here is my local copy). The problem is not what Microsoft is actually doing; as far as I can tell, they’re following both the letter and the spirit of the law in this product. The problem is that Microsoft says no one should use the GPL, and that no one can make money using the GPL, while simultaneously making money using the GPL. Bradley Kuhn (of the FSF) bluntly said, “It’s hypocritical for them to benefit from GPL software and criticize it at the same time.” Microsoft is certainly aware of this use of the GPL; even Microsoft Senior Vice President Craig Mundie acknowledged this use of GPL software. Kelly McNeill reported this on June 22, 2001, and when I re-checked on April 23, 2002 Microsoft was still selling GPL’ed software. A more detailed description about this use of the GPL by Microsoft is given in The Standard on June 27, 2001. Perhaps in the future Microsoft will try to remove many of these GPL’ed components so that this embarrassing state of affairs won’t continue. But even if these components are removed in the future, this doesn’t change the fact that Microsoft has managed to sell products that include GPL-covered code without losing any of its own intellectual property rights.

    That being said, there are certainly many people who are encouraging specific OSS/FS products (such as Linux) so that there will be a viable competition to Microsoft, or who are using the existence of a competitor to obtain the best deal from Microsoft for their organization. This is nothing unusual - customers want to have competition for their business, and they usually have it in most other areas of business. Certainly there is a thriving competing market for computer hardware, which has resulted in many advantages for customers. The New York Times’ position is that “More than two dozen countries - including Germany and China - have begun to encourage governmental agencies to use such “open source” software ... Government units abroad and in the United States and individual computer users should look for ways to support Linux and Linux-based products. The competition it offers helps everyone.”

  11. I’ve always assumed there’s no free lunch; isn’t there some catch? If there is an OSS/FS product that meets your needs, there really isn’t a catch. Perhaps the only catch is misunderstanding the term “free”; the word in this context is derived from the word freedom, and so OSS/FS is not necessarily cost-free. In practice, it’s still often a bargain.

    Naturally, if you want services besides the software itself (such as guaranteed support, training, and so on), you’ll need to pay for those things just like you would for proprietary software. If you want to affect the future direction of the software - particularly if you need to have the software changed in some way to make it fit your needs better - then you will need to invest to create those specific modifications. Typically these investments involve hiring someone to make those changes, possibly sharing the cost with others who also need the change. Note that you only need to pay to make a change to the software - you don’t need to pay to use the software, or a per-copy fee, only the actual cost of the changes.

    For example, when IBM wanted to join the Apache group, IBM discovered there really wasn’t a mechanism to pay in money. IBM soon realized that the primary “currency” in OSS/FS is software code, so IBM turned the money into code and all turned out very well.

    This also leads to interesting effects that explains why many OSS/FS projects start small for years, then suddenly leap into a mode where they have a rapidly increasing functionality and user size. For any particular application, there is a minimum level of acceptable functionality; below this, there will be very few users. If that minimum level is large enough, this creates an effect similar to an “energy barrier” in physics; the barrier can be large enough that most users are not willing to pay for the initial development of the project. However, at some point, someone may decide to begin the “hopeless” project anyway. The initial work may take a while, because the initial work is large and there are few who will help. However, once a minimum level of functionality is reached, a few users will start to use it, and a few of them may be willing to help (e.g., because they want the project to succeed or because they have specialized needs). At some point in this growth, it is like passing an energy barrier; the process begins to become self-sustaining and exponentially increasing. As the functionality increases, the number of potential users begins to increase rapidly, until suddenly the project is sufficiently usable for many users. A percentage of the userbase will decide to add new features, and as the userbase grows, so do the number of developers. As this repeats, there is an explosion in the program’s capabilities.

10. Usage Reports

There are many reports from various users who have switched to OSS/FS; here are a sample that you may find useful. This is not an exhaustive list, nor can it be.

As discussed earlier, the City of Largo, Florida supports 900 city employees using GNU/Linux, saving about $1 million a year. A BusinessWeek online article notes that Mindbridge shifted their 300-employee intranet software company from Microsoft server products and Sun Solaris to GNU/Linux; after experiencing a few minor glitches, their Chief Operating Officer and founder Scott Testa says they now couldn’t be happier, and summarizes that “...we’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars between support contracts, upgrade contracts, and hardware.” saved millions of dollars by switching to GNU/Linux. Oracle’s Chairman and CEO, Larry Ellison, said that Oracle will switch to GNU/Linux to run the bulk of its business applications no later than summer 2002, replacing three Unix servers. A travel application service provider saved $170,000 in software costs during the first six months of using GNU/Linux (for both servers and the desktop); it also saved on hardware and reported that administration is cheaper too. CRN’s Test Center found that a GNU/Linux-based network (with a server and 5 workstations) cost 93% less in software than a Windows-based network, and found it to be quite capable. The article Linux as a Replacement for Windows 2000 determined that “Red Hat Linux 7.1 can be used as an alternative to Windows 2000... You will be stunned by the bang for the buck that Linux bundled free ‘open source’ software offers.”

Educational organizations have found OSS/FS software useful. The K12 Linux Terminal Server Project has set up many computer labs in the U.S. Northwest in elementary, middle, and high schools. For example, St. Mary’s School is a 450-student Pre-K through 8th grade school in Rockledge, Florida that applying GNU/Linux using their approach. Their examples show that kids don’t find GNU/Linux that hard to use and quite able to support educational goals. For example, third graders put together simple web pages about their favorite Saints using a variety of OSS/FS programs: they logged into GNU/Linux systems, typed the initial content using Mozilla Composer (an OSS/FS web page editor), drew pictures of the Saints using The Gimp (an OSS/FS drawing program), and shared the results with Windows users using Samba. The page Why should open source software be used in schools? gives various examples of educational organizations who have used OSS/FS programs, as well as linking to various general documents on why educational organizations should use OSS/FS.

Many financial organizations use OSS/FS. Online brokerage E*Trade is moving its computer systems to IBM servers running GNU/Linux, citing cost savings and performance as reasons for switching to GNU/Linux (the same article also notes that clothing retailer L.L. Bean and financial services giant Salomon Smith Barney are switching to GNU/Linux as well). Merrill Lynch is switching to GNU/Linux company-wide, and are hoping to save tens of millions of dollars annually within three to five years. Adam Wiggins reports on TrustCommerce’s successful transition to Linux on the desktop. An April 22, 2002 report on ZDNet, titled “More foreign banks switching to Linux”, stated that New Zealand’s TSB bank “has become the latest institution to adopt the open-source Linux operating system. According to reports, the bank is to move all its branches to the Linux platform... in Europe, BP and Banca Commerciale Italiana feature among the big companies that have moved to Linux. According to IBM, as many as 15 banks in central London are running Linux clusters.” They also mentioned that “Korean Air, which now does all its ticketing on Linux, and motorhome manufacturer Winnebago, are high-profile examples.” The Federal Aviation Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Herndon, Virginia is currently installing a system to support 2,000 concurrent users on Red Hat Linux. The system, known as the National Log, will act as a central clearinghouse database for users in air traffic centers across the country.

Some organizations are deploying GNU/Linux widely at the point of sale. Many retailer cash registers are switching to GNU/Linux, according to Information Week (”Cash Registers are Ringing up Sales with Linux” by Dan Orzech, December 4, 2000, Issue 815); on September 26, 2002, The Economist noted that “Linux is fast catching on among retailers.” According to Bob Young (founder of Red Hat), BP (the petroleum company) is putting 3,000 Linux servers at gas stations. Zumiez is installing open-source software on the PCs at all its retail locations, and expects that this will cut its technology budget between $250,000 and $500,000 a year; note that this includes using Evolution for email, Mozilla for web browsing (to eliminate the need for printed brochures and training manuals), and an open source spreadsheet program. Sherwin-Williams, the number one U.S. paint maker, plans to convert its computers and cash registers (not including back office support systems) in more than 2,500 stores to GNU/Linux and has hired IBM to do the job; this effort involves 9,700 NetVista desktop personal computers,

OSS/FS is also prominent in Hollywood. Back in 1996, when GNU/Linux was considered by some to be a risk, Digital Domain used GNU/Linux to generate many images in Titanic. After that, it burst into prominence as many others began using it, so much so that a February 2002 article in IEEE Computer stated that “it is making rapid progress toward becoming the dominant operating system in ... motion pictures.” “Shrek” and “Lord of the Rings” used GNU/Linux to power their server farms, and now DreamWorks SKG has switched to using GNU/Linux exclusively on both the front and back ends for rendering its movies. Industrial Light & Magic converted its workstations and renderfarm to Linux in 2001 while it was working on Star Wars Episode II. They stated that “We thought converting to Linux would be a lot harder than it was” (from their SGI IRIX machines). They also found that the Linux systems are 5 times faster than their old machines, enabling them to produce much higher quality results. They also use Python extensively (an OSS/FS language), as well as a number of in-house and proprietary tools. Disney is also shifting to GNU/Linux for film animation.

Many remote imaging systems use GNU/Linux; one in particular got some press because Linux’s mascot is a Penguin. Thus, when a remote imaging system was placed at the North Pole, it was announced that Penguins invade the North Pole.

The U.S. government has been using OSS and many have suggested more use. The (U.S.) President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC)’s report, the Recommendations of the Panel on Open Source Software For High End Computing, recommends that the U.S. “Federal government should encourage the development of open source software as an alternate path for software development for high end computing.” See the separate discussion on MITRE’s business case study of OSS (which emphasized use by the U.S. government, particularly the U.S. military). The U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) National Technical Alliance, through the National Center for Applied Technology (NCAT) consortium, funded the Open Source Prototype Research (OSPR) project. Under the OSPR project ImageLinks Inc., Tybrin Inc., Kodak Inc., and Florida Institute of Technology (Florida Tech) performed evaluations of open source software development practices and demonstrated the technological advantages of Open Source Software. The OSPR final report includes those evaluations, a survey, and various related documents; these are actually rather extensive. The final report concludes:

Open Source Software development is a paradigm shift and has enormous potential for addressing government needs. Substantial technology leverage and cost savings can be achieved with this approach. The primary challenge will be in establishing an organizational structure that is able to employ OSS methodology...
The paper Open Source and These United States by C. Justin Seiferth summarizes that:
The Department of Defense can realize significant gains by the formal adoption, support and use of open licensed systems. We can lower costs and improve the quality of our systems and the speed at which they are developed. Open Licensing can improve the morale and retention of Airmen and improve our ability to defend the nation. These benefits are accessible at any point in the acquisition cycle and even benefit deployed and operational systems. Open Licensing can reduce acquisition, development, maintenance and support costs and increased interoperability among our own systems and those of our Allies.
NetAction has proposed more OSS/FS use and encouragement by the government; see The Origins and Future of Open Source Software by Nathan Newman and The Case for Government Promotion of Open Source Software by Mitch Stoltz for their arguments.

Such benefits have not escaped the eyes of other governments. Germany intends to increase its use. The Korean government announced that it plans to buy 120,000 copies of Hancom Linux Deluxe this year, enough to switch 23% of its installed base of Microsoft users to open source equivalents; by standardizing on GNU/Linux and HancomOffice, the Korean government expects savings of 80% compared with buying Microsoft products (HancomOffice isn’t OSS/FS, but GNU/Linux is). Taiwan is starting a national plan to jump-start the development and use of OSS/FS. A Linux Journal article notes many interesting international experiments and approaches, for example, Pakistan plans to install 50,000 low cost computers in schools and colleges all over Pakistan using GNU/Linux. Finnish MPs are encouraging the use of GNU/Linux in government systems. A June 14, 2002 article in PC World also lists actions various governments are taking.

In 2002 an independent study was published by the European Commission. Titled ”Pooling Open Source Software”, and financed by the Commission’s Interchange of Data between Administrations (IDA) programme, it recommends creating a clearinghouse to which administrations could “donate” software for re-use. This facility would concentrate on applications specific to the needs of the public sector. More specifically, the study suggests that software developed for and owned by public administrations should be issued under an open source license, and states that sharing software developed for administrations could lead to across-the-board improvements in efficiency of the European public sector.

Peru is even contemplating passing a law requiring the use of OSS/FS for public administration (government); rationale for doing so, besides saving money, include supporting “Free access to public information by the citizen, Permanence of public data, and the Security of the State and citizens.” Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez (a Peruvian Congressman) has written an interesting letter supporting this law. Marc Hedlund written has a brief description of the letter; an English translation is available (from GNU in Peru, UK’s “The Register”, and Linux Today); there is a longer discussion of this available at Slashdot. Whether or not this law passes, it is an interesting development.

There have been many discussions about the advantages of OSS/FS in less developed countries. Heinz and Heinz argue in their paper Proprietary Software and Less-Developed Countries - The Argentine Case that the way proprietary software is brought to market has deep and perverse negative consequences regarding the chances of growth for less developed countries. Danny Yee’s Free Software as Appropriate Technology argues that Free Software is an appropriate technology for developing countries, using simple but clear analogies.

Librarians have also found many advantages to OSS/FS.

One interesting usage story is the story of James Burgett’s Alameda County Computer Resource Center, one of the largest non-profit computer recycling centers in the United States. Its plant processes 200 tons of equipment a month in its 38,000-square-foot warehouse. It has given thousands of refurbished computers to disadvantaged people all over the world, including as human rights organizations in Guatemala, the hard-up Russian space program, schools, and orphanages. All of the machines have GNU/Linux installed on them.

Summaries of government use in various countries are available from Infoworld and IDG.

Several organizations collect reports of OSS/FS use, and these might be useful sources for more information. Linux International has a set of Linux case studies/success stories. Mandrakesoft maintains a site recording the experiences of business users of the Mandrake distribution. Red Hat provides some similar information. includes some case studies.

11. Other Information

Here are some other related information sources:

  1. There are several general information sites about OSS/FS or Unix that might be of interest, such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the Open Source Initiative website, and the site. An older paper is John Kirch’s paper, Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 versus UNIX. ( also archived at the Internet Archives). The paper Our Open Source / Free Software Future: It’s Just a Matter of Time argues that within the next few years, the standard de-facto operating system that nearly everyone uses, as well as much of the commodity software in widespread use, will be OSS/FS. The book The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond examines OSS/FS development processes and issues. A useful collection of many OSS/FS writings, including the essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, is in the Open Source Reader. Ganesh C. Prasad has published The Practical Manager’s Guide to Linux. Dan Kegel’s “The Case for Linux in Universities” discusses why students need exposure to GNU/Linux at universities (and thus why universities should support and encourage this). You can see a collection of general information about OSS/FS at my web page listing OSS/FS references.
  2. MITRE has examined the application of OSS/FS to military systems. Their July 2001 report, A Business Case Study of Open Source Software, concludes that “open source methods and products are well worth considering seriously in a wide range of government applications, particularly if they are applied with care and a solid understanding of the risks they entail. OSS encourages significant software development and code re-use, can provide important economic benefits, and has the potential for especially large direct and indirect cost savings for military systems that require large deployments of costly software products.” They also recommend following the following steps to determine whether to use OSS or proprietary products: assess the supporting OSS developer community, examine the market, conduct a specific analysis of benefits and risks, compare the long-term costs, and choose your strategy. MITRE has received a Leadership Award from the non-profit Potomac Forum for showing that OSS can provide substantial advantages over proprietary software, particularly when reliability and long-term support are key requirements.

    More recently, according to the Washington Post article Open-source Fight Flares at Pentagon, “Microsoft Corp. is aggressively lobbying the Pentagon to squelch its growing use of freely distributed computer software and switch to proprietary systems such as those sold by the software giant, according to officials familiar with the campaign... But the effort may have backfired; a MITRE report prepared for the Department of Defense (DoD) dated May 10, 2002, concluded that open source “often results in more secure, less expensive applications and that, if anything, its use should be expanded. ‘Banning open source would have immediate, broad, and strongly negative impacts on the ability of many sensitive and security-focused DOD groups to protect themselves against cyberattacks,’ said the report...” MITRE also noted that OSS “plays a more critical role in the DOD than has been generally recognized,” and it identified “249 uses of open-source systems and tools, including running a Web portal for the Defense Intelligence Agency, running network security for the Army command in Europe and support for numerous Air Force Computer Network Defense tools.” The Post article also notes that “at the Census Bureau, programmers used open-source software to launch a Web site for obtaining federal statistics for $47,000, bureau officials said. It would have cost $358,000 if proprietary software were used.”

  3. The European Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS): Survey and Study is a large multi-part report examining OSS/FS from a number of different vantage points. The report is divided into the following (besides its summary and raw data):
  4. Microsoft has been trying to claim that open source is somehow dangerous, and indeed is its leading critic, yet the Wall Street Journal’s Lee Gomes found that “Microsoft Uses Open-Source Code Despite Denying Use of such Software.” Here are some interesting quotes from his article:
    ... But Microsoft’s statements Friday suggest the company has itself been taking advantage of the very technology it has insisted would bring dire consequences to others. “I am appalled at the way Microsoft bashes open source on the one hand, while depending on it for its business on the other,” said Marshall Kirk McKusick, a leader of the FreeBSD development team.
    More recently Microsoft has particularly targeted the GPL license rather than all open source licenses, claiming that the GPL is somehow anti-commercial. But this claim lacks evidence, given the large number of commercial companies (e.g., IBM, Sun, and Red Hat) who are using the GPL. Also, see this paper’s earlier note that Microsoft itself makes money by selling a product with GPL’ed components. The same article closes with this statement:
    In its campaign against open-source, Microsoft has been unable to come up with examples of companies being harmed by it. One reason, said Eric von Hippel, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who heads up a research effort in the field, is that virtually all the available evidence suggests that open source is “a huge advantage” to companies. “They are able to build on a common standard that is not owned by anyone,” he said. “With Windows, Microsoft owns them.”
    Other related articles include Bruce Peren’s comments, Ganesh Prasad’s How Does the Capitalist View Open Source?, and the open letter Free Software Leaders Stand Together.
  5. Microsoft inadvertently advocated OSS/FS in its leaked internal documents, called the ”Halloween” documents.
  6. Several documents were written to counter Microsoft’s statements such as those in Microsoft’s “Linux Myths”. This includes LWN’s response and Jamin Philip Gray’s response, and the FUD-counter site. The shared source page argues that Microsoft’s “shared source” idea is inferior to open source. Richard Stallman’s The GNU GPL and the American Way counters the amusing claim by Microsoft that the GPL was “un-American.” The letter Free Software Leaders Stand Together argues against a number of statements by Craig Mundie. You can find many general sites about Microsoft, including Cloweth’s site.
  7. In a story full of ironies, Microsoft and Unisys teamed up in a well-funded marketing campaign against Unix, in part to try to revive Unisys’ sagging sales of Windows-based products. The 18-month, $25 million campaign, dubbed “We have the Way Out,” specifically attacked the Unix offerings of Sun, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard, but since the major OSS/FS operating systems are Unix or Unix-like, it attacks them as well. In a delicious irony, it was revealed that the anti-Unix campaign website is powered by Unix software - in this case, FreeBSD (an OSS/FS version of Unix) and the OSS/FS Web server Apache. Once this was publicly revealed, Microsoft and Unisys quickly switched to a Windows-based system.. and then the website failed to operate at all for several days. If that wasn’t enough, Andrew Orlowski reported in The Register a further analysis of this website, noting that port 3306 was open on their website - a port primarily used by MySQL and Postgres. In other words, it appears that their anti-Unix site was still using OSS/FS software (not Microsoft’s own database) that is primarily deployed on Unix-like systems. Even their original imagery turns out to have had serious problems; the campaign’s original graphic showed a floor almost entirely covered in mauve paint (Sun Microsystem’s color), and the alternative offered was to jump through a window. Many literate readers will recognize this symbol (the act of throwing out through, or of being thrown out of, a window) as defenestration, a way of killing rulers and also a popular way of inviting kings to commit suicide in 17th century Europe. In other words, this imagery suggests that you should use the window[s] to commit suicide (!). Leon Brooks then analyzed the site further - and found that the “way out” site used JSP (a technology fathered Sun, Unix specialists). He also found that the site violated many standards; the site’s content failed the W3C validation suites (Microsoft is a member of the W3C), and uses a Windows-only character set that is not only non-standard, but actively conflicts with an important international standard (and ironically one which Microsoft is actively promoting). If using only Windows is so wonderful, how come the advocacy site can’t conform to international standards? The real problem here, of course, is that trying to convince people that Unix is to be avoided at all costs - while using Unix and then having serious problems when trying to use an alternative - is both ironic and somewhat hypocritical.
  8. “How Big Blue Fell For Linux” is an article on how IBM transitioned to becoming a major backer. IBM announced that it planned to invest $1 Billion in GNU/Linux in 2001 all by itself (see the IBM annual report). In 2002 IBM reported that they had already made almost all of the money back; I and others are a little skeptical of these claims, but it’s clear that IBM has significantly invested in GNU/Linux and seem to be pleased with the results (for an example, see their Linux-only mainframe). This is not just a friendly gesture, of course; companies like IBM view OSS/FS software as a competitive advantage, because OSS/FS frees them from control by another organization, and it also enables customers to switch to IBM products and services (who were formerly locked into competitor’s products). Thankfully, this is a good deal for consumers too. In 2002, IBM had 250 employees working full time to make Linux better.
  9. For a scientifically unworthy but really funny look at what people who use the various operating systems say, take a look at the Operating System Sucks-Rules-O-Meter. It counts how many web pages make statements like “Linux rocks”. It’s really just an opinion poll, but if nothing else it’s great for a laugh.
  10. There have been several academic studies of OSS/FS. For example, “A Framework for Open Source Projects” (a Master Thesis in Computer Science by Gregor J. Rothfuss) describes a framework for describing Open Source projects, introducing notions of actors, roles, areas, processes and tools, and depicts their interrelationships. The goal was to provide a conceptual foundation and a help for organizing and managing Open Source projects.
  11. Several studies examine developers (instead of the programs they write), including “A Quantitative Profile of a Community of Open Source Linux Developers”, Herman, Hertel and Niedner’s study (based on questionnaires), and the Who Is Doing It (WIDI) study. The European Free/Libre and Open Source Software Survey (FLOSS) has a large amount of information on developers. The paper Two Case Studies of Open Source Software Development: Apache and Mozilla examines two major open source projects, the Apache web server and the Mozilla browser, and using archives (such as source code change history and problem reports) they quantify aspects of developer participation, core team size, code ownership, productivity, defect density, and problem resolution intervals for these projects. The Boston Consulting Group/OSDN Hacker Survey (January 31, 2002) made some interesting observations by randomly sampling SourceForge users for a survey. For example, it gives evidence that open source developers can be divided into four groups (based on their motivations for writing OSS/FS software):
    1. the believers, who do it because they believe source code should be open (33%),
    2. the skill enhancers, who do it for skill improvement (25%),
    3. the fun seekers, who do it for a non-work need and intellectual stimulation (21%), and
    4. the professionals, who do it for work needs and professional status (21%).
    Journalists sometimes like to romanticize OSS/FS developers as being mostly teenage boys with little experience, but the survey didn’t support that view at all. The study found that the open source developers surveyed are mostly experienced professionals, having an average of 11 years of programming experience; the average age was 28.
  12. Other evaluations include the Gartner Group and GNet evaluations.

For general information on OSS/FS, see my list of Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) references at

12. Conclusions

OSS/FS has significant market share in many markets, is often the most reliable software, and in many cases has the best performance. OSS/FS scales, both in problem size and project size. OSS/FS software often has far better security, perhaps due to the possibility of worldwide review. Total cost of ownership for OSS/FS is often far less than proprietary software, particularly as the number of platforms increases. These statements are not merely opinions; these effects can be shown quantitatively, using a wide variety of measures. This doesn’t even consider other issues that are hard to measure, such as freedom from control by a single source, freedom from licensing management (with its accompanying risk of audit and litigation), and increased flexibility.

Realizing these potential OSS/FS benefits may require approaching problems in a different way. This might include using thin clients, deploying a solution by adding a feature to an OSS/FS product, and understanding the differences between the proprietary and OSS/FS models. Acquisition processes may need to change to include specifically identifying OSS/FS alternatives, since simply putting out a “request for proposal” may not yield all the viable candidates. OSS/FS products are not the best technical choice in absolutely all cases, of course; even organizations which strongly prefer OSS/FS generally have some sort of waiver process for proprietary programs. However, it’s clear that considering OSS/FS alternatives can be beneficial.

I believe OSS/FS options should be carefully considered any time software or computer hardware is needed. Organizations should ensure that their policies encourage, and not discourage, examining OSS/FS approaches when they need software.

About the Author

David A. Wheeler is an expert in computer security and has a long history of working with large and high-risk software systems. His books include Software Inspection: An Industry Best Practice (published by IEEE CS Press), Ada 95: The Lovelace Tutorial (published by Springer-Verlag), and the Secure Programming for Linux and Unix HOWTO. Articles he’s written include More than a Gigabuck: Estimating GNU/Linux’s Size and The Most Important Software Innovations. Mr. Wheeler’s web site is at; you may contact him at, but you may not send him spam (he reserves the right to charge fees to those who send him spam).
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