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DQW Bureau
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Is Linux really cheap? The cost could be much higher than you thought

Every time an attempt is made to explain the use of Linux, the simp-listic

generalization everyone makes is that there is no cost involved. Central to the

phil-osophy behind open source is the idea that software can be grown

organically through a community process, as opp-osed to it being built by a

dedi-cated team of programmers. As the community at large shapes Linux software,

no single person owns it, and therefore no licenses on software-the software

bec-omes free for all to use.

A Forrester survey of 140 companies, conducted in North America and released

in April last year, revealed that the single-largest driver of open source

adoption is cost reduction. Says SR Balasubra-manian, VP, IS, Hero Honda,

"Most IT heads are under pre-ssure to cut down on the total cost of

ownership and opti-mize the returns on invest-ment." Given these concerns,

companies would do well to work out the viability of adopting Linux in advance.


The Linux momentum is clearly undeniable. Open sou-rce OS threatens to

dethrone Windows and Unix as low-cost alternatives. But, does Linux really live

up to the hype, and deliver significantly better total cost of ownership (TCO)

and faster return on invest-ment (RoI)?

The heart of any TCO analysis begins with licensing costs, which represent

the first and, sometimes, the largest line item in the company's capital

expenditure budget. The open source characteristic of Linux makes licenses free

as opposed to proprietary soft-ware. The licenses are free, but everything else

costs. Says Jyothi Satyanathan, Country Manager, p-Series and open power, IBM:

"There are no misconceptions about cost as far as enterprises are

concer-ned. Enterprises don't choose Linux because it is free but because of

the advantages that the open source brings in." Satyanathan reiterates,

"Free" is "the freedom of choice".

When Linux makes perfect sense

Any migration to Linux would be, undoubtedly, at the cost of Windows or

Unix. Say Company A is in the engineer-ing domain, where most of the

professionals have Unix skills, and wants to migrate from its existing OS, that

is Unix, to Linux. The company engineers build their own PCs and custom

applications. Technical support and maintenance is done in-house, or the company

does not need indemnification or warranties. The TCO of A could be up to four

times lower with Linux. The cost of hardware that supports a Unix platform is

steep vis-à-vis Linux. Says Abijit Das, Mana-ger, Platform Strategies,

Microsoft India, "Hardware savings are significant for Unix customers

moving to Linux."


The other near-perfect situation is that of a Linux-only deployment. In case

of a new, greenfield deployment-when a company has to build its IT

infrastructure from scratch for a startup division of its organization-there

is no legacy environment to mig-rate from and no requirements for multiple

operating systems to support, the cost of a Linux-deployment could be up to 20

percent lower as compared to Windows.

Cost of support

TCO for large enterprises clearly goes beyond plain cost of software and

hardware. Licenses come free of cost, but support-after technical support and

service, third-party tools and utilities, management packages, training-comes

for a price, and in some instances may carry hefty premiums.

For example, if an enter-prise is running Oracle prod-ucts on the Red Hat

Advance Server, Oracle pledges its support on any issue that pre-vents the

smooth operation of their Oracle implementation on Linux. The Oracle website

says, "Oracle will diagnose the issue and work with Red Hat for those cases

where the operating system is suspected of causing the issue. For those issues

of a critical nature (P1) Oracle will provide a fix to the customer regardless

of the source of the issue-Oracle product or Red Hat product. For additional

support issues Oracle will work with Red Hat so the customers can get the

operating system fixed directly from Red Hat. The customer should maintain

Standard or Premium support contracts with Red Hat in order to obtain additional

enterprise level support as well and updates and upgrades of the Red Hat Linux

Advanced Server." It is here that the situation could become far more

complicated and the cost of your Linux deployment could shoot up significantly.


The cost of support would depend on the complexity of the environment, which

would vary from vendor to vendor. Says Microsoft's Das, "The cost of

hardware and software may come down but the cost of services will continue to

rise." It is here that your negotiation skills could become a big weapon.

Says Dr Deepak B Phatak, Chair Professor, School of IT, IIT Bombay, "Vendor

support charges are negot-iable. The better you negot-iate, the lesser you


As far as vendor support is concerned, Linux is typically sold on a support

contract basis. This differs from the proprietary model where customers pay for

the software and get support "for free". Either way the customer pays

the vendors. Says Martin Gilliland, principal analyst, Gartner, "The big

difference is that the Linux support model allows for more flexibility in the

contracts allowing custo-mers to buy only what they need." This may often

come out much cheaper than just paying for everything up front. Adds Gilliland,

"A support model like this becomes much more scalable than a Microsoft


Beyond licenses and support

Reliability is a critical com-ponent of your TCO. Reliability is defined as

the number of unnecessary or unplanned re-boots. Most user experiences suggest

that Unix and Windows server workloads are far higher as compared to Linux

server loads. Says Hero Honda's Balasubramanian, "We have deployed Linux

for Mail Gateway. We have not had any breakdown for more than four years. That

speaks highly about the robustness of Linux." Like Hero Honda, most of the

medium or large enterprises have deployed Linux as the Web server, a Web hosting

application or an Internet or mail gateway. Industry reports suggest that while

the earlier versions may lag behind Linux on the reliability scale, Windows

Server 2003 is at par with Linux in terms of unnecessary reboots.


Currently, Linux is consi-dered to be a highly secure environment. Security,

how-ever, could also become an issue with Linux in the future. In February 2004,

London-based security research organi-zation mi2G Intelligence published a study

on the world's safest operating system. The data indicated that 67 percent of

the attacks were on Linux. Linux hacks are clearly on the rise. Of course, a

Windows bug could be far more damaging than the nastiest Linux bug. Never-theless,

users connected to a network are vulnerable to malicious code no matter what OS

is running. Incidentally, Red Hat has withdrawn support for the Red Hat Linux

7.1, 7.2, 8.0 in 2003 and Red Hat Linux 9 in April 2004. This has left a

question of how these Linux machines will be updated with security updates and

bug fixes. Sources from the Linux vendor community say that Linux can be

completely secure if custo-mers are willing to pay a price!

The emerging market aspect

Emerging markets like India have shown more interest in adopting Linux. Says

IBM's Satyanathan, "The Linux market is growing faster in India as

opposed to the US as there is not too much legacy."

Surveys conducted in mature markets suggest that it is difficult to find

skilled Linux administrators; they command significant salary premiums of at

least 20% more than the equivalent Unix and Windows support people. However, the

cost of your Linux administrator varies wildly from one country to another

depending entirely on the cost of labor. A software engineer may earn $60-100k

in the US but the same person may only earn $6-10k in India. Says Martin

Gilliland of Gartner, "We believe that the TCO of Linux is considerably

lower in an emerging market than in a mature market."


The Linux community is also playing an active role in ensuring that there are

enough trained and certified Linux professionals. Says Novell's Panjwani,

"We are committed to building the entire Linux eco-system."

Exploding Linux myths

Linux is free, but commer-cial Linux comes for a price. Open source's most

touted benefit is its price. Download the software, install it-and don't pay

a penny. That's the theory. However, this theory does not hold true for com-mercial


Linux could be an extremely cheap alternative to proprie-tary OS if you have

your own team of support professionals; if there is presence of a strong Linux

support community (an advantage India enjoys with its huge and cheap IT talent

pool); or if you are migrating from Unix or setting up your IT infrastructure

from scratch. Linux, in all likelihood, is cheaper to your proprietary OS and

there's no concrete study, as far as the Indian market is concerned, that says

Windows will show a better total cost of ownership. Most industry analysts agree

that TCO of Linux will vary wildly from one end-user to another. Organizat-ions

would see a payback, measured by the reduced TCO of Linux vis-à-vis the

migration costs, over a reasonable period of three years.


Linux is a cheaper alterna-tive to Windows or Unix and there is little to

suggest anything on the contrary. But the real question is, how cheap is

"cheap"? Company insiders from the Linux vendor community who spoke to

Dataquest reveal that commercial Linux in all probability would be far more

expensive. Reason, you pay for everything except the licence. We recommend,

adopt Linux to champion open source and not because it's free. Commercial

Linux, we repeat, is not free and may be far more expensive that you imagined.

Bhaswati Chakravorty

Your Ideal Linux Strategy

Standard Enterprise Server: Cost

Windows 2003 Standard: Rs 25,000 (app)

Red Hat Linux ES Standard: Rs 39,950 in the first year, and 40% of the

subscription fee from second year onwards

Suse Enterprise Server: Rs 17,000-19,000 for 1 year Rs 32,000 for 2 years

Prices listed above represent the cost of standard server from vendors. An

average medium and enterprise business would need a combination of the standard

as well as the enterprise version of Linux servers. Depending on the

requirements and the criticality of applications deployed, your cost would vary.

In addition, the total cost of ownership is a combination of: Initial capital

expenditure, Support costs, Licensing, Licensing indemnification and product

warranties, Reliability (unplanned downtime), Security, and Operability.

There are several other factors which would be more relevant, depending on

the geography that you belong too. For example, while there might be a dearth of

Linux professionals in the US and experienced professionals may be dearer, the

situation is the reverse in the context of India. We suggest:

  • Have an open source strategy
  • Try to do a TCO analysis based on your requirements
  • Limit development. Make sure you have adequate and competent support for

    your customized environment
  • Negotiate with commercial Linux distribution vendors for the best deal

How They Compare

Free Linux (For example, Debian)

Cost of licenses: Not Applicable

Support: In-house Linux administrators, Linux user groups-Free, Author of

software-Free but unreliable, Independent consultants

Application deployment: You can deploy both mission-critical as well as

non-mission critical applications on Linux. The Linux Documentation Project

provides documents that are available only under a free license. Most Linux

distributions include LDP documents, so there is a high chance that they are

already available for you if you've installed Linux. The latest versions are

available at the LDP Web site

Most perimeter enterprise applications do not require specialized support.

However, complex enterprise application may need special support.

Commercial Linux

Cost of licenses Not Applicable

Support Vendors to provide support for the operating system for a fee, which

is charged on an annual basis. Support will vary depending on the server that is

installed, details of which will be furnished by the distribution vendor

Application deployment Both mission-critical applications can be deployed

with sup-port from the vendor. How-ever, organizations would require external

support for third-party or custom deve-loped applications.