IDC: Windows cheaper than Linux in some scenarios

A survey from research company International Data Corp. (IDC) finds that organizations running Windows 2000 spend less in the long run for some tasks, such as print and file serving, compared with organizations running Linux.

IDC’s findings, published Monday in a study commissioned by Microsoft Corp., suggest that the Windows 2000 Server operating system has a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Linux, mainly due to savings associated with staffing. The findings go against some claims in the industry that Linux is cheaper than Windows over time.

“Linux requires more care and feeding, basically. That’s what the results are really telling us,” said Al Gillen, research director for IDC’s System Software group. “The amount of manpower required to run a particular (Linux) environment is going to be higher.”

The TCO study dissected five specific workloads that it said are common to corporate IT departments, based on interviews with IT managers at 104 medium-sized and large organizations in North America.

The Framingham, Mass.-based research company found Windows 2000 systems to be more economical over a five-year span than Linux in four of the five IT scenarios researched. Those are network infrastructure, print serving, file serving and security applications, according to IDC.

Companies could spend 11 per cent to 22 per cent less with Windows 2000 for those scenarios, according to IDC. Microsoft’s server operating system was found to require less spending on employees, IT training and outsourced IT support. The survey suggests that it takes more time to configure, program and support Linux systems than Windows systems. The main reason is that developers have access to mature and easy-to-use management tools for Windows, according to IDC.

Staffing, ongoing labour and support accounted for about 62 per cent of the total costs of an IT system over a five-year span, IDC said.

The study counters claims from many open source proponents who contend that Linux is less costly in the long run due to lower costs for acquiring and upgrading hardware and software, as well as less money spent on security and maintenance.

IDC did agree that Linux can be acquired for free, or for a lower cost than that of Windows when purchased with support and maintenance services from commercial Linux vendors such as Red Hat Inc. and SuSE Linux AG. However, it said that software and hardware acquisition costs account for only about 10 per cent of the TCO.

The acquisition costs for hardware and software cited by IDC in its survey are suspect, according to Stacey Quandt, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. She said Windows systems would seem to account for more than 10 per cent of the TCO due to ongoing licensing fees. Giga doesn’t offer a comparable estimate, she said.

Some recent research also goes against claims that Linux has a better security record than Windows. Aberdeen Group Inc. reported last month that the open-source operating system collectively had more high-risk security advisories since the beginning of 2002 than did Windows, citing research from CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) at Carnegie Mellon University, which tracks such data.

One developer who has worked with open source and Windows software said IDC’s research does reflect some industry trends but shouldn’t be used as a barometer for planning IT budgets.

“Based on my experience, Linux could be more expensive if you don’t have employees that are properly trained. I also know that it’s a lot easier for someone to start administering Windows than Linux just because of the GUI (graphical user interface) tools,” said David Wheeler, who runs Kineticode Inc., a content management and open source development consulting firm in San Francisco.

He added that cost doesn’t have to be a deciding factor when comparing operating systems: “You have to use the best tool for the job.”

Linux was found to be more economical than Windows in the area of Web serving, IDC concluded. That was probably the result of the availability of the popular Apache Web server, which can often be acquired for free, Wheeler said. IDC has also published research in the past that shows some companies replacing Unix systems with Linux can save twice as much as those that move from Unix to Windows.

Giga’s Quandt noted that a “strong affinity between Linux and Unix skill sets” allows companies that make a Unix-to-Linux migration to spend less on staffing than they would migrating to Windows. “To me, TCO can vary based on implementation,” she said.

Despite the survey results, IDC stressed that TCO should not be the only consideration when evaluating an operating system.

“You have to remember that you’ve got some companies in the industry that use a particular operating system because of reasons other than TCO,” Gillen said. “Just by looking at this survey you cannot conclude that…your IT department would be better off running operating system A over operating system B. TCO is not the only factor to consider when determining which operating system to run.”