The Perfect Purchase Cycle: Server OS Software

Buying server operating system software is in some ways similar to buying a car. Maybe you feel pressured by the salesperson to buy an SUV when you want a smart car. Maybe you can’t really afford that Ferrari. Or maybe you buy a lemon and end up pouring tons of money into maintenance. But this doesn’t have to be an intimidating prospect – if you do your due diligence, you can find the right fit for your organization.

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When it comes to server OS software, 98 per cent of shops are running Windows. But 47 per cent are running Linux and 52 per cent are running Unix – and that means they’re running multiple operating systems. “Unlike the desktop, it’s not a zero-sum game,” said Darin Stahl, lead analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. In companies with less than 100 employees, 78 per cent are only running Microsoft – but they may be running multiple versions. The more servers, the more we start to see Linux and Unix.

“The server operating system has become a utility,” said Stahl. What it boils down to is servicing business applications. “The key is to get it down to those business fundamentals and get away from the dogmatic Windows or Linux – those days are gone.”
Clearly, Microsoft Corp. is a big player here, but so is commercially available Linux and cheap and cheerful open source, as well as the various flavours of Unix, such as those from Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM Corp. Two of the largest suppliers of commercially available Linux are Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc. Novell has built up a significant channel, while Red Hat prefers to sell direct.

Understanding the purchase cycle

The purchase cycle differs dramatically depending on the size and sector of the organization. In smaller businesses, often the person doing the purchasing is the same person managing the IT infrastructure, and they tend to be more reactive – that means the infrastructure grows organically rather than based on any kind of business strategy. In the public sector, the whole process can take a couple of years because of the layers of purchase justification, said Bruce Cowper, chief security advisor with Microsoft Canada.

The first step is to understand what you already have. Is it working for you? And where do you want to go? If you’re spending 70 per cent of your budget on what you have today, look to management tools to help you be more proactive. A lot of organizations are also extending the lifecycle and purchasing period through virtualization. Rather than taking two months to order a machine, image it and get it into your production environment, you can now deploy as and when you need to, said Cowper.

The same goes for open source, which doesn’t force you into a purchase cycle. “It’s intended to allow the customer to determine the purchase cycle, rather than someone saying Windows 7 is out, so now you’ve got to upgrade,” said Evan Leibovitch, executive director of the Canadian Association for Open Source. “Within the open source world you tend to have a philosophy of it’s ready when it’s ready. How that affects the cycle is it makes it more difficult to say I’m going to move everything over on this day.” However, when you’re ready to upgrade, you can move straight to the state-of-the-art.

What goes wrong

When you go to any outside vendor, all they have is a hammer, so everything looks like a nail, said Stahl. If a small VAR is deep into Microsoft integration and has never sold commercially available Linux, you know what they’re going to lead with.
“It’s buyer beware,” he said. “You’ve got to know what you’re asking. You’re looking to (vendors or resellers) to give you some advice on total cost or some guidance on what they’ve seen in terms of implementation timelines and deployments. That’s fair play, but in the end this decision has to be made internally.”

Mistakes are often born of familiarity. If 78 per cent of your servers are Windows, you might think you know Windows. But you only know the way you’ve done past deployments or how it’s working in your environment — it may or may not be best practice, and it may or may not be optimal. “Go at it with the facts and through a process methodology,” said Stahl, “and you’re going to end up in a better place with a better decision.”

Some IT departments just throw Windows at it. “You’ll get away with it – in the end it probably won’t shut down your enterprise. But it could incrementally cost you an extra dime here and there, and you run that over five years and 500 servers, that’s money you could be using somewhere else,” he said. “That’s the insidious part of these decisions; it looks like a no-brainer, but it’s all back-loaded with cost.”
In the open source world, compatibility with existing systems can be an issue, and certain versions of Linux may be better suited to your environment, said Leibovitch. If you want NetWare integration, then Novell is a no-brainer. In terms of due diligence, when you take the VAR out of the equation, the end-user is responsible for more of their own decisions, and that’s a double-edged sword – suddenly, the end-user is far more empowered, but along with that comes the necessity to actually make choices.

Be a better buyer

Before you buy anything, look at your long-term plan. If your infrastructure grows organically, it becomes much harder to manage, maintain and change, so understanding what you have, how it’s used and where you could be going with it is critical. And you can only do that if you step back and create a strategy rather than buying software and hardware to fill a particular need, said Cowper.

But how do you actually decide? Look at the role of the particular server; understand the application and how the OS will support the specific workloads. Look at the licensing features (if it’s Windows, consider that there are many flavours of Windows). And look at what sort of compatibility, integration and interoperability you need in order to support the environment. That’s going to tell you which operating system is suitable to a specific role, said Stahl.

From a business standpoint, what’s the total cost of ownership? What about support and maintenance? Is it cradle-to-grave? Do you need to look at third parties? What about vendor stability – is there a vendor behind this, and what is the vendor’s track record? How long has the product existed, and what’s the ecosystem around it?
In a virtualized environment, consider that you probably won’t have to license offline backup virtual machines. Microsoft and other vendors have changed their licensing models to be more virtualization-friendly, which is important to consider when understanding your longer-term buying plans.
If you’re dealing with open source, and you’re unfamiliar with the territory and require some hand-holding, commercially available Linux will offer the highest comfort level, because those vendors most resemble conventional vendors. But there’s also the option to take more control. And if you want to virtualize, go ahead – there are no user limits or licence counts, so it becomes a non-issue.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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