There is much debate currently among IT professionals as to whether Linux’s total Cost of ownership (TCO) is lower than that of Windows or any other operating system. The debate is complicated by the wide variety of factors on which a comparison can be made. First, there are many flavors of Linux. Which distribution is being compared to what version of Windows can lead to widely varied answers. There is no simple preset formula for making the comparison.
For the home environment it would be simple to say that since Linux is available free, it must be cheaper that Windows. However, virtually every computer today comes equipped with a Windows operating system. Therefore one has to replace it with a Linux operating system. As described previously some machines are now available with just a Linux operating system. These will certainly be cheaper than a similarly equipped Windows based machine.
A second comparison can be made for someone considering upgrading their operating system from an older version of Windows such as Windows 95 or 98 to Windows XP.
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In this case a Windows XP upgrade costs about $100 where as a box version of Red Hat Linux 8.0 cost only $70 dollars. Many existing software programs that work under earlier versions of Windows will no longer function under Windows XP so the user is faced with buying new versions of this software. In this circumstance switching to Linux would be cost effective because there are certainly open source versions of virtually every program made for Windows. If the user switches to Linux and installs a program such as Wine, it is likely their existing Windows programs will continue to function.
For the home user, the decision to switch from Windows to Linux is a relatively minor cost consideration. However, for a small to medium size company with hundreds of desktop workstations, the cost consideration is a major issue. Again there is no simple comparison method and the calculation of a TCO is not trivial. For a commercial network comparison the calculation of TCO is very much affected by the functions Linux is performing, the number and type of servers, and the size of the network.
Most analysts do agree that the cost of acquiring the software is a minor element in the life cycle TCO of a Linux installation versus a Windows installation.
Many analysts would agree that the following list represents most of the factors that should be evaluated:
- Cost of acquisition of software or licensing fees – this cost can vary over time if there is an annual license fee or if upgrades must be purchased (such as from Windows NT to Windows 2000 or XP)
- Cost of trained and qualified administrators – it’s probably easier to fine a Windows MCSE’s than to fine an equivalently trained Linux administrator. Labor costs are a major component of life-cycle costs in TCO. This factor is used in other calculations as seen below.
- Processing Units required – This is a complex factor to evaluate. This is heavily dependent on the type of network and traffic. One such study of web servers using Intel architecture concluded that a system running Red Hat Linux needed 7.4 servers per 100,000 hits as compared to Windows needing 7.6 servers per 100,000 hits5.
- Processing Units per Administrator – the ability of the operating system to support administration is an important element. Some evaluations have argued that the number of workstations and/or servers that can be handled by one administrator under Linux is much greater than under Windows5. Related to this factor are the mean expected system failures per hour of operation. Some have argued that Linux is more stable thus requiring less intervention per hour that an equivalent Window system.
In one such evaluation of the economic impact of a decision to replace a Local Area Network designed to serve a 500 student system at a University6, it was concluded that switching to Unix based workstations and servers would save over $1.6 million in initial start-up costs and an additional $1.4 million in maintenance and replacement cost over a five year period.
Companies are warming up to Linux for a good reason: Linux offers them an alternative to the licensing fees and other drawbacks of proprietary software. However, many professionals caution against open-source’s "hidden" costs of implementation arising from lack of qualified personnel to maintain and repair Linux installations. The ultimate cost of either choice, they say, may depend on the needs and resources of an individual business.
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