Linux vs. Unix (Cost)

Linux vs. Unix (Cost)

Summary: Linux is what it set out to be - a free Unix for the 386 - so the people who say Linux is magically cheaper than Unix are really comparing what they remember from Unix server aquisition processes from years ago to the latest Wintel ad in drug store flyer that came with their morning paper.

TOPICS: Linux, Open Source

The MacOS X server discussion here two weeks ago included a comment from someone pushing the Linux/Unix distinction, my response pointing out that Linux is Unix and that people changing from something like HP-UX to Linux are changing Unix suppliers rather than OS architectures, and this response from Anton Philidor:

They're also changing costs.

Exchanging ( ;-) ) Unix servers for less expensive devices is a way to save money. And the differences between the operating systems can affect the staffing requirements. That can have an impact on employment, current and prospective.

The "nonsense" is arguably a significant change in the way IT operates.

What Anton relies on to make his point here is first the assumption that Linux is somehow not Unix and, more importantly his expectation that people will unthinkingly accept the implied comparison between today's costs for x86 servers and those from ten or more years ago for proprietary RISC servers.

It's true that today's Sun UltraSPARC T2 based 5220 running Linux easily outperforms Solaris on an UltraSPARC 4500 from 1997 and does so for less than ten cents on the original dollar - but this has nothing to do with any imagined Linux/Unix distinction and everything to do with the operation of Moore's law and the market.

Compare the cost of Linux or Solaris on a 200Mhz Pentium Pro in mid 1996 and there's no significant difference - just as the differences on its Xeon and Opteron successors now marginally favor Solaris but are fundamentally insignificant - particularly relative to the real gains both offer over Windows.

Look at operating costs and functionality, furthermore, and you can see that Linux and Solaris, on similar hardware, do similar things at similar costs - largely because most of the more widely used applications or application toolsets are freely available on both. Again, it's those applications, not the OS, that matter to users and it's the applications, not the OS, that offer the biggest cost and productivity gains relative to Microsoft's proprietary product set.

Notice that I'm not saying that Solaris and Linux don't have differences - Solaris includes numerous technical and administrative tools and capabilities like ZFS, DTrace, and SMF that are simply not there yet on Linux, while the typical Linux distribution includes lots of hobbyist tools, like multiple mp3 players, that aren't usually included with Solaris. What I am saying is that Linux and Solaris are divergent members of the same family, and when deployed for similar purposes on similar gear offer comparable cost advantages over Microsoft's product set.

What's going on is that moving between Unix variants like Solaris and Linux is fairly easy, but comments like Anton's reflect Microsoft's success in piggy-backing a general anti-Unix message on Red Hat's anti-Sun sales strategy - and that's the bottom line: for Anton this whole Unix/Linux distinction is probably just a mistake, for Microsoft it's a deliberate and dishonest marketing ploy, and for you it's a mind trap to avoid.

Topics: Linux, Open Source

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  • Unix/Linux distinction a mistake?

    Linux is cheaper than Unix. Whether an observation or a perception, buyers believe that in making choices. That's the reason Linux server sales have been primarily Unix replacements.

    Calling that a change within the same family is reasonable. There's a Microsoft realm and a Unix realm, like animals and plants, and a Unix to Linux movement does not change realms.

    I considered business, sales and also buyer/user assumptions. Technical issues not included. It's not about the software.
    Anton Philidor
    • Buyers may believe it - but it's not true

      Linux and Solaris are both available at various support levels. Take them as free and the free= free; pay for support and Solaris is consistently cheaper for comparable support levels. See Jim Laurent's blog on for numbers.
      • What about employees?

        Linux in a way is the new Windows. A big problem with Unix used to be that a home user had to be pretty serious about wanting a Unix box to get a Unix box.

        Now anyone who can afford a PC can afford a Unix box, because all you need to do is install a free Unix on it. Consequently lots of hobbyists can claim to know about Unix. This is good, because a few of them will become true professionals.

        But a hobbyist is almost always going to go for Linux, because Linux is kind of like Windows 3.1. Not in a technical sense, but in the sense that it takes a little work to make it do some common tasks that home users often want to do the way they want to do it. Like making 3d acceleration work properly, getting MP3 or WMA/WMV support, making wireless and WPA work, stuff like that.

        Stuff that a hobbyist is likely to actually do, so he can be proud to have a Linux box that does all those things, and they are actually things he wants to do.

        Today's growing hobbyist ecosystem for Linux will provide tomorrow's semi-professional support staff for Linux, like what is available today for Windows.

        That makes Linux cheaper, at least until the hobbyist-turned-pro creates too big of a mess. But of course you can get that with "real" Unix professionals as well, so the Linux guy wins because he is cheaper.
        Erik Engbrecht
        • Free = free - for everybody ++some history

          Beginners may be more familiar with Linux as a name than BSD or Solaris, but free is free: put them on a PC and there's no cost difference.

          history: did you know that MS sold Unix before MS-DOS? (actually Xenix, contracted from a Toronto company as a Unix clone). More to the point did you know that first home PC to have a GUI ran Unix (from Motorola!)?
          • What's your point?

            Perhaps I wasn't clear.

            Employees cost money. Employees with rare skills cost more than employees with common skills.

            Linux has significant appeal to hobbyists. Solaris and BSD do not. Therefore hobbyists are likely to learn Linux. Much as they were likely to learn DOS and Windows 3.1.

            So there are a lot of hobbyists who will, with a measure of truth, claim to know Linux. The number of these people will grow significantly.

            Linux distributions pander to these individuals. Solaris can't because doing so might make it look foolish. It's too established and respected. BSD won't because it would find it degrading.

            There is appeal in Linux for the semi-professional, and consequently we will have a lot of of semi-professional Linux admins. Just like we have lots of semi-professional Windows admins.

            Having lots of Linux admins makes them less expensive, and therefore to the untrained manager more desirable.

            NOTE: I'm not saying that there aren't very professional Linux or Windows admins. I'm saying that it is possible to learn enough to get by just doing tasks like setting up some poorly supported hardware or making an application written on a different distribution work. Individuals who do this may or may not go on to learn a full set professional skills.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Well, people do tend to gravitate to what they have used, but, learning

            Unix when you know Linux is not that hard. Also, Ian Murdock is working to make Solaris more Linux like in order to ease transition.

            Linux package management is a big deal.

            Go to and search for "How package management changed everything".
          • Why pay someone to learn?

            Employers want employees to learn on their own time. They want to pay for skills that exist, not skills that may or may not be acquired.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Well, if employees learned Linux on their own, they can quickly work with

            Solaris, HPUX, AIX. And, it is not exactly free for the employers, they have to pay higher salaries for employees with better skills. Of course the fact that many have picked it up on their own, means there is a bigger available pool . . . .

            And, in general, employees that pick up things on their own, and actively look for new things to learn, are the best employees.
          • Apples and Oranges

            You're talking about reasonably intelligent hiring practices.

            I'm talking about reasonably expectable hiring practices.
            Erik Engbrecht
          • Well, the law of supply and demand is pretty powerful so employees with

            better skills will eventually get paid more if we are talking companies that need to make money.
  • You should think about how package management has given Linux an advantage.

    Go to and search for "How package management changed everything"
  • Comparing dinosaurs

    Whether it's free or paid for, it's still a dead parrot.
    • it's still a dead parrot

      Or in Microsoft's case, a microcosm of
      Ole Man