Pricing the Hidden Costs of Unix, Linux, and Windows
Analyst firms have been releasing total cost of ownership
calculations for leading operating systems, with Linux and Windows
neck-in-neck for the low end, and Unix numbers somewhere up in the
stratosphere. The question is, will standard TCO measurements still
be relevant as we move into an impending era of utility, on-demand,
and grid computing?
To corporate IT managers, Linux represents an interesting hybrid
between Unix and Windows environments. Linux runs on commodity
priced hardware (Intel, AMD-based boxes) just as Windows, but often
requires more sophisticated expertise from the Unix world to put
all the pieces together. Things get murky, then, when considering
total cost of ownership costs, and to some extent, return on
investment for these systems.
To get any new project through IT these days, one must pony up
either TCO or ROI numbers. Since it's almost impossible to
calculate potential ROI for an operating system implementation,
analyst firms have been concentrating on tracking TCO numbers for
Linux versus Unix versus Windows. What they're finding is Windows
and Linux cost the same in hardware, with support costs tipping the
equation one way or the other. However, analysts do not agree on
whether Windows or Linux support costs more over the long run.
Commercial Unix is another story, which analysts say just plain
costs more in both hardware and support. Linux - and some flavors
of Unix - win hands-down in upfront software acquisition costs, but
this typically only represents only 10% of TCO over a three to
A recent study by IDC finds that the TCO for a Unix system
running on a RISC processor was up to six times higher than that of
Linux running on Intel. In this study, funded by IBM and Red Hat
Software, TCO is based on up-front acquisition and support costs.
In a "collaborative" environment, the cost for Unix was $1,407 per
user, compared to $256 for Linux. In an Internet or Web-based
setting, the difference narrowed to $685 for Unix versus $377 or
Linux. IDC cited hardware costs, accounting for the fact that older
Intel-based processors could be recycled as Linux servers.
Administrative costs also were higher for Unix, due to greater
Linux did not compare favorably against Windows in a separate
IDC study. The study, underwritten by Microsoft, concludes that
Windows is cheaper for functions such as networking, file/print and
security, but Linux is cheaper for Web serving. At the high end,
IDC estimates that running a file server will cost a typical
Windows site $99,048 over a five-year period, versus $114,381 for
Linux user. A Web server costs only slightly less to run on Linux -
$30,000, versus $32,000 for Windows.
Another analyst firm, Robert Frances Group (RFG), brings Sun
Solaris into the mix, and draws a different set of conclusions
about Linux and Windows. In estimating the cost of a typical server
environment, RFG says that the cost of hardware for both Linux and
Windows server software averages about $39,000 over a three-year
period. By comparison, a commercial Unix server box from Sun
Microsystems will cost almost $400,000. Factoring in maintenance
and support, the long-term costs over three years equate to $74,500
for Linux, $190,700 for Windows, and $561,000 for Solaris.
To account for some of the high Solaris costs, Chad Robinson,
author of the RFG study, points out that "since we were considering
long-term, mission-critical Web deployments, on Sun hardware these
tended to be made on two to three redundant, vertically scaled
systems. This did affect the salary totals because the server/admin
number was affected."
Also, these studies looked at multi-user systems supporting
relatively basic IT functions, such as Web serving and file
serving. Unix proves itself in high-end applications over
multiprocessor platforms. The TCO numbers could also be drastically
changed by the fact that new releases of systems such as Solaris
are backward compatible to much older hardware, which is not the
case with Windows. As these TCO studies show, however, Linux is
capable of eventually bringing Unix power to commodity-priced
The real wild card in all the equations is the rise of utility,
on-demand, and grid computing, or what Sun Chairman Scott McNealy
often calls his concept of a "Big Freakin' Webtone Switch."
Essentially, end-users will not have to purchase systems outright,
but access resources across the network, be they off of a
Solaris-based cluster, a Linux server farm, or Windows. While the
concept still appears to be in its early stages, we're seeing early
implementations and productizations of such capabilities from IBM,
Oracle, and HP. Economies of scale may take hold, and the TCO
playing field between Linux, Unix, and Windows may begin to level
off. That's enough to make any corporate bean counter sit up and
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© 2011-05-02 Joe McKendrick