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The cheap seats

Is Linux really cheaper than proprietary systems? Linux advocates say yes, but Microsoft is trying to convince everyone it is not. In some ways, they are both right.

Fostered by a legion of worldwide developers, Linux is still being tweaked and modified even as you read this sentence. But the operating system is finally at a level where it’s not still sitting on the launching pad. Rather, it’s being employed by governments, schools, businesses, and individuals in a quest to get more stable, secure computing at a much lower price.

But is Linux really cheaper than proprietary systems? Linux advocates, not surprisingly, say yes. Also not too shocking is the fact that Microsoft is crying foul, and saying that Linux is much more expensive than most people think. In some ways, they’re both right.

Cheap skate

One of the main reasons Linux can be cheaper than proprietary systems like Windows is because of licensing. Although Microsoft has been tweaking its license costs due to customer grumbling, making sure each seat is legit can be an expensive endeavor, especially when there’s a no-cost alternative available.

“We just got fed up with the licensing issue,” says Peter Berghammer, CEO of California-based consulting firm Copernio. He notes that his company made the switch to Linux because they wanted a simple, low-cost system that didn’t come with complicated licenses. “We found that our customers were happy, and we were happy because we didn’t have to go through some licensing rigmarole every time we got them set up with new technology.”

More benefits to Linux are security and stability. Although the question of whether Linux is actually more secure than Windows is still being debated in tech forums around the world, the fact remains that several popular applications seem to be more stable and safer than their proprietary kin. For example, Microsoft is constantly issuing patches for its very buggy Internet Explorer, but the open-source based Firefox browser is, at this writing, much less leaky than IE even on its best day.

Fewer security problems and more stability often add up to a greater amount of uptime at a company. If an IT department finds itself having to scurry around less to do patching and fixing, it represents a cost savings over time.

Berghammer notes that he’s found Linux to have strong security, when compared to Windows XP. Although the company does security updates on its Linux-run machines, it’s a much less laborious process than getting Windows locked down.

The price tag

Although Linux offers a compelling amount of features for the price, users often find that there are, indeed, some less publicized costs that may crop up. The most prevalent of these is services and support.

“IBM is opening a slew of Linux centers,” says Yankee Group analyst Laura DiDio, “but they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re doing it to make money, and the way you make money on Linux is through services.”

Many companies, including IBM and Novell, have been touting Linux’s virtues for the past few years, and boosting corporate adoption through the strategy. And, once companies are hooked on using Linux, it’s easier to sell them consulting services, relevant software, training, and other products.

“You don’t have to use these services to make Linux work for you,” DiDio notes. “But they help a company use Linux more effectively.” They also come at a price, which has to be factored into a company’s TCO.

Migration costs, too, often get overlooked when making the switch to an open source system. Sometimes transferring files and data requires downtime, which can be costly, or perhaps different types of equipment are needed to make the new systems run as efficiently as possible. Either way, that’s more money out of the budget that might not have been predicted.

A notable migration concern that’s being heard more often surrounds custom-built software that might have been crafted in-house. This can include entirely homegrown applications, or just tweaks to a larger program like SAP. If these applications can port to Linux, then IT departments won’t really have to worry. But if the code can’t be migrated without doing some extra work, then it becomes another line item in the TCO report.

Finally, there’s the staffing question. If a company has expertise available for the same price it was already paying for IT services, then a move to Linux won’t need to factor in staffing changes to the TCO. However, if staff have to be extensively trained in administration, support, and maintenance, then it’s possible that a company will be looking at a slew of unanticipated costs.

Future battle

As the debate rages about whether Linux fits in well with companies from TCO perspective, there are some parts of the world that have already made the decision. China, Japan, Russia, and India, as well as several other Asian countries, have made significant moves in the past year toward boosting Linux adoption. Governmental agencies in particular have been stressing how cost-effective open source can be, and trying to get Linux into the hands of its citizens. So far, Windows remains a dominant force, but it could topple before long.

This movement toward using the penguin in Asia follows a similar route taken by much of Europe, where several government agencies are migrating to Linux from Windows-based systems. But even in areas that seem gung-ho, there is still confusion over whether Linux works for long-term strategies, or if services and support costs will make migrations into futile efforts.

“After the city of Munich, Germany, decided to migrate to Linux, it balked for a little while, because they realized they had to go through the numbers a second time,” says Gartner analyst Andrea Di Maio, who works in the research firm’s Italian office. He believes that as other agencies and companies jump on the Linux bandwagon, they’ll also experience a moment when implementation doesn’t look as cheap as they thought it would.

“There will definitely be more of a focus on TCO in Europe, and I think in the rest of the world, too,” says Di Maio. “As Linux matures, people will begin to examine the costs more closely.”

Whether those costs are as high as proprietary systems depends on the needs of each company, and how much they integrate Linux into their current set-ups. Migration costs will also factor into each company’s TCO. So, ultimately, the question of whether Linux costs more or less will depend not on the industry, but on each situation.

“As long as you figure out TCO properly and don’t have grand visions of saving a bunch of money just by switching to Linux, you’ll do fine,” says DiDio. “It’s like everything else in life: if it costs too much, don’t get it. And if it’s cheaper, then go for it.”

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