Windows is cheaper than Linux

Oliver Rist has bad news for open-source die-hards: Not only is Windows 2000 Server a better bargain over Linux, but security for Linux boxes is about to get expensive.

Recently, a study conducted by IDC and funded by Microsoft found that (gasp!), over a five-year period, Windows had a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Linux. Another shameless marketing ploy by the folks from Redmond? Probably, but that doesn't mean it's all hooey.

The study broke down different back-end network costs and asked slightly more than 100 U.S. IT pros what they spend in each area. In four out of five categories, Windows scored between 11 and 22 percent better than Linux for total bucks spent. These areas included file sharing, print serving, network infrastructure, and security. The fifth category was Web serving, where Linux scored more than 5 percent better than Windows--Apache rules.

Whether or not Redmond funded this scholarly exercise, it still rings true. Let's face it: Windows 2000 Server is a far cry from what Windows NT 4 was only a couple of years ago. For basic network tasks, including file and print serving, Windows is plug-and-play for most businesses. True, that's because most businesses are running Windows-based clients, but that fact doesn't discount TCO.

I'd be willing to bet that most businesses aren't just running Windows clients, they're now running Windows 2000 or XP Professional clients. File and print sharing in this scenario is not only easy--it's fast. That means fewer man-hours spent tweaking configurations, and less money thrown down the TCO well. Connecting and managing network infrastructure is a similar scenario--I can't think of a single network equipment manufacturer, off the top of my head, who doesn't make a Windows-compatible network management product or a management module to be embedded in Microsoft's MMC console.

Certainly there are configuration issues, but having worked with both Linux and Windows, my experience over the last two years has clearly shown that Linux takes longer to configure and troubleshoot than Windows. Many of you will quickly counter that Linux servers, once they're configured, generally require significantly less troubleshooting than Windows machines. True. In fact, very true, provided you're running standard Linux installations--but who does that? The whole attraction of Linux is that we can modify its source to suit our needs.

Unfortunately, experience also shows that this is its biggest weakness; the quality of these modifications differ from company to company--and not just the quality of the coding, but especially the quality of documentation, if it even exists. This can make fixing an ailing Linux box time-consuming--and time costs money, especially when you're paying a Linux guru who charges twice as much as an MCSE pro.

The security question
The finding that security costs less on a Windows 2000 machine than on a Linux box can only be attributed to man-hours. Only someone smart--and therefore expensive--can manage Linux security. Anybody, on the other hand, can oversee automatic security updates to a Windows 2000 box. I'm willing to bet, however, that the IDC study didn't include server cleanup costs stemming from either security vulnerabilities or a security patch that caused something else to drop dead. There's no way that is cheaper on Windows than it is on Linux--I've almost never seen it happen on a Linux box. Ongoing security costs for Windows can easily reach 15 to 25 percent of TCO. With Linux, it's probably less than 10 percent after initial configuration.

Sure, Linux is far cheaper than Windows out of the gate ($100 off the shelf versus a few thousand dollars in per-client licensing costs). But what really racks up server TCO are the man-hours spent to keep these machines happy and humming. It's no surprise that Windows 2000 has gained the upper hand in this category, given how much effort Microsoft has put into the product.

If Linux is to trump Windows, more attention needs to be paid not only to ease of deployment, but, ironically, to security as well. Securing Linux costs less because, for one, it's been a less popular target than Windows server. That's changing, for both malevolent hackers and virus writers.

Accordingly, Linux administrators need to be on security alert like never before, in part because Linux hasn't really concentrated on making security easy. Microsoft, on the other hand, has concentrated on little else for the last year. That means expensive Linux gurus can charge more hours than less expensive MCSE grads. Until Linux distributions improve automation for security administration and overall diagnostics and troubleshooting, Windows will keep its edge in terms of TCO. Unless, of course, Microsoft adopts an even greedier licensing approach.

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