Battle continues over true cost of Linux

An analyst firm claims that Windows offers equal or better TCO than Linux, but open source companies say the survey has ignored some of the advantages of Linux
Written by Ingrid Marson, Contributor

The majority of enterprises deploying Microsoft Windows Server 2003 believe it is as good, if not better, than Linux in terms of quality, performance and reliability, according to a survey published this week.

But various open source companies disagree, and claim there are various areas where Linux is superior to Windows.

Laura DiDio, an analyst at the Yankee Group who carried out the survey, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday that it is a myth that the total cost of ownership (TCO) for Linux is lower than that for Windows. "Over the past three years people have said 'Linux is so much cheaper than Windows'," said DiDio. "In some instances this will be true, but as a general blanket statement you cannot say that."

She said there is a significant cost associated with maintaining and supporting Linux, and for migrating third party applications to Linux.

The Linux-Windows 2005 TCO Comparison Survey, found that network administrators can restore a Windows server 30 percent faster than a Linux server. But DiDio said that in the "overwhelming majority of cases" this was not caused by the core Linux operating system, but by insufficient documentation.

It tends to be easier to find security information on Windows than on Linux, she said, as this information can be found in the same place.

"There is a fractured community around Linux," said DiDio. "One of the problems you have with [security] attacks is that there are very few aggregate sites where all the known vulnerabilities are listed across different platforms and applications. Microsoft has a better infrastructure for that."

The survey asked respondents to evaluate both Linux and Windows against a number of criteria, on a scale of one to ten. Overall, Linux servers scored higher for security than Windows servers, according to the survey, with Linux scoring 8.3 out of 10 and Windows Server 2003 scoring 7.6. This is a significant improvement on last year's score, said DiDio.

"Last year we gave Microsoft a big, big black eye in security," said DiDio. "Last year they scored three or four out of 10, this year they scored 7.6."

But she said the assumption that Linux is more secure than Windows can lead to problems. "The biggest security threat facing the Linux environment is complacency — the community has focused too much attention on being more secure than Windows," said DiDio.

But Eddie Bleasdale, the director of open source consultancy Netproject, said the report does not sufficiently consider the importance of desktop security.

"The main concern is the lack of security if Microsoft is on the desktop," said Bleasdale. "These security problems have resulted in the growth of e-business and e-government halting."

"There are a growing number of initiatives on secure messaging. Secure messaging requires secure end to end computing — including having a trusted desktop."

DiDio admitted that Windows desktops are less secure than Linux, but claimed that Windows offers better patching. "Certainly Windows desktops are more porous and more vulnerable," said DiDio. "We found that Windows desktops had an average rating of 6.9 compared with a rating of well over eight for Linux. But what happens if there is an attack and no patch available [for Linux]?"

Michael Meskes, the managing director of open source services company Credativ, said the report does not sufficiently consider the problems associated in migrating from one version of Windows to another.

"In calculating TCO, the protection of investment is often not sufficiently considered," said Meskes. "To use new technologies with Windows, you sometimes need to swap the complete system. That leads to the need to set up a server from scratch, migrate data, and individual applications may no longer work."

"For example, if you want to attach USB devices to a Windows NT server, as USB is not supported on a Windows NT server the whole operating system must be swapped. With Linux you only have to update the kernel, which would take an expert about 15 minutes."

DiDio agreed that some components of a Windows migration may take longer, but that there are other disadvantages to Linux, such as the limited number of third party applications that have been certified on Linux, which means that during a Linux migration a customer may need to spend extra time working out interoperability issues.

Mandrakesoft cofounder Gael Duval agreed that Linux has a lower minimal cost than Windows, but the overall TCO depends on what applications and services you are paying for.

"Well-informed IT services are aware of the fact that they can have Linux run for a cost near zero, including software acquisition, deployment and maintenance," said Duval. "On the other hand, starting from this zero, you have a large range of offerings that can make Linux' TCO higher. On the other hand, the Windows TCO can't be lowered below the cost of the software, unless you enter into some piracy."

The total cost of Linux or Windows is dependent on the environment, agreed DiDio. She said that during this survey she came across a software vendor that saved $3.5m in licensing fees by moving from Microsoft SQL Server running on Windows to an open source database running on Linux. But, they were only able to make these cost savings as they were not adding third party tools, said DiDio.

In contrast, a law firm involved in the survey did a TCO analysis to decide whether to migrate from a predominantly Windows environment to Linux and found that as certain legal applications were not available on Linux, the costs of migration would be prohibitive.

DiDio has been nicknamed DiDiot by some in the Linux community who claim that she unfairly favours Microsoft. She hit back against this claim on Wednesday, slamming the "extremist fringe of Linux loonies" who she claimed were disrespectful and insulting to those they disagreed with.

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