Linux is Free, But Is Linux Really Cheaper In The Long Run?

Let's face it: One of the attractions of Linux is that it's free. In fact, there is a whole variety of Open Source software available now, such as Apache, PHP and numerous other modules and applications that can be downloaded free of charge. After you've downloaded them, it's "just" a matter of adapting them to your own needs.

At one time, this was considered a bonanza for businesses of all sizes. No longer did a business have to pay Microsoft's exorbitant license fees. However, at the present, it has become obvious the savings are only in the short-term, especially for small businesses.

This is because your total cost of ownership (TCO) for Open Source software can include the fees for programming, customizing, and maintaining that software. Thus, you might find that converting from Microsoft to Open Source is not as free as it sounds.

In fact, cost-of-ownership studies by IDC and other researchers show that software licensing fees are only a fractionm of the cost of maintaining an open source network. The studies show that hardware and software, when taken together, typically make up less than 30 percent of a five-year cost structure. On the other hand, staff-related costs typically are between 50 and 70 percent of that five-year cost structure.

Also, many businesses and their employees are reluctant to install Linux because they fear the learning curve. One simplistic reason is that Linux looks different from Windows, and its command line looks complicated when compared to the graphic interface of Windows. (But actually each new version of Windows has looked different from its predecessor. For some reason, that doesn't bother many users.)

But there is also a support isssue here. When a problem occurs with a Windows application, users can go directly to Micrsoft to complain. (In fact my version of Windows XP has a pop-up that invites the user to send a copy of the error dump directly to MS.) But with Open Source, the support model is much different. The user or developer must sometimes spend the time searching general Open Source forums to find support or download a patch.

It should also be acknowledged that Open Source modules are often designed by numerous developers, each with a different development approach. For this reason, the different modules of application code don't always integrate with other application tiers. (The so-called "democratization" of coding is partially responsible for this.) Thus, a company that employs developers to integrate code can run into more expenses than it would have by just buying some proprietary software off the shelf.

Consequently, as open source grows, the need for support grows, and the solution many businesses opt for is third-party developers. This can certainly be less expensive than hiring full-time developers, and when they have finished, the IT budget can go back to normal again.

One of these companies is Progeny, a company that has begun providing patches for Debian, as well as providing Linux developers for corporations like HP.

Too Expensive for Small Businesses? 

For the reasons outlined above, there is evidence that Linux is currently losing ground in the small business market.

The Info-Tech reserach Group recently conducted a survey of 1422 IT decision makers in mid-sized companies in Canada, the U.S. and UK. A whopping 73% of these companies are avoiding Linux and open-source projects because they perceive that the software is "poorly supported, hard to maintain and unreliable for mission critical applications."

The same survey indicated that security is at the top of these companies' priority lists. Even though Linux has the image of being more secure, many CIOs would rather continue dealing with Microsoft, instead of taking on "new" employees or "unknown" third-party suppliers.

Should you be using Linux? Well, if you're prepared for the situations outlined above, crunch your numbers and see if the TCO is worth it. But you will need to look at Linux for the long term, not just its low off-the-shelf cost.

By: Roy Troxel

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