What Does Free Software Really Cost?

You’ve probably seen the many articles infesting computing publications that blather on about comparing TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) and ROI (Return on Investment) for Linux and Windows, and trying to figure out which one costs less to run. I’m no analyst, nor am I a Fellow at some Institute, nor am I a pundit who is paid to pontificate. I’m just an old country system and network administrator who has been running mixed Linux and Windows networks for lo these many years, and since everything works OK and my customers keep sending me checks that don’t bounce, I figure I’m entitled to a punditry or two of my own. The bottom line is Linux costs way less to run and works better. That’s why I prefer it.

Let’s set up a gnarly Linux vs. Windows DeathMatch Arena with two hypothetical admins – one for Linux, one for Windows – who are skilled and actually make things work right. Let’s give them each an identical server to run. $1,200 buys a nice tower with three SATA drives, dual Xeons, gigabit Ethernet, and a gigabyte of memory. Our hypothetical admins will tweak and tune these boxes however they see fit.

Now that we have our hardware, what shall we do with it? A common need is a file server, so let’s make one.

Which Linux is best for this? Any general-purpose distribution works fine, like Fedora, Debian, Ubuntu, Mandriva, Slackware, Gentoo, whatever you like. These all offer both free downloads or prefab installation discs for cheap.

Now let’s buy Windows. But which one? If we choose from current offerings, we have Windows XP Home, Windows XP Professional, and Windows Server 2003. (You can try Vista if you want; for now I’d rather stick with tried-and-true.) Let’s eliminate XP Home since it cannot join a domain, has no multi-processor support, does not have Remote Desktop, and it has very limited file access controls. In short, it’s not meant to run servers. Windows XP Professional is limited to ten concurrent connections and does not include Active Directory, but it can be a small LAN file server. Purchasing the full retail version of XP Pro runs around $300.00.

Windows Server 2003, full retail version, costs around $900.00 and includes 10 CALs (Client Access Licenses). Additional CALs are $199 per five-pack.

The CAL Con
Whoever originally conned customers into paying for client access licenses is some kind of evil genius. You’re already paying for the server license. CALs don’t give you anything extra, not even support. Just less money to call your own. Some Linux vendors charge CALs. I point the finger of shame at them.

Adding Up the Tab
What have we spent so far? Hardware: $1,200. Linux: zero, no matter how many users you have. Windows: $300 – $900 for 10 users or fewer. Microsoft spokespersons like to claim that license costs are insignificant in light of the total costs of running your IT infrastructure. Isn’t it kind of them to be so cavalier with other people’s money? While my customers and I would have a grand time lighting cigars with $300 bills, we really need it for other things.

Adding More Services
Web server, FTP server, DNS and DHCP are all included for free in Windows Server 2003 and Linux.

What if you want to run a nice Terminal Server and run diskless or thin clients? On Linux, free of cost. On Windows, you need a Server edition and must purchase CALs. A five-pack is a steal at $749.00.

Printer server? Free on Linux. On Windows 2003: “…if your device authenticates to the domain it will require a CAL. The most common scenario where your would need a CAL is when you have a multi-function device that uploads scanned images, such as a pdf, to a server share using authentication.”

POP3, IMAP, or Webmail server? Linux, free, robust, and very reliable. Windows, not free.

Groupware? MS Exchange: $800 with five CALs. OpenXchange, $389, 25 users. There are several low-cost and free-of-cost groupware projects in varying stages of usefulness and maturity for both platforms.

Databases? Linux, free. Windows: Oracle, SQL Server, Access, ouch. Various Open Source databases are available that run on Windows, like PostgreSQL and MySQL.

Cluster? Linux, free. Windows, $469 per node. Desktop Software? Linux, many sophisticated productivity applications and suites free of cost. Windows, $$$.

Windows and Linux are equal when it comes to free support – just cruise the Internet until you find answers. Commercial support varies considerably. If you want direct vendor support there are a number of competing Linux vendors to choose from: Xandros, Novell, Linspire, Red Hat, Mandriva. Red Hat will sell you a year of unlimited support for $2499. Microsoft sells a 5-pack for $1225.

What sets Red Hat apart is it does not sell software licenses, only support, nor does it play silly games with the numbers of CPUs or CPU cores. One machine is one machine.

Open-Source Windows
A growing number of excellent free Open Source applications are appearing for Windows, so you don’t always to fork over mass monies for good Windows software.

Malware Tax
Don’t forget the malware tax imposed on all users by easily-compromised Windows systems, and the direct costs of anti-malware software for your own network. Plus the costs of filtering, abuse desks, and extra capacity required by Internet service providers that are passed on to customers. Plus the costs of fraud and identity theft. Worldwide the costs of spam and malware are in the tens of billions. The vast majority of it is transmitted via Windows botnets.

Windows Tax
You cannot buy a Tier 1 desktop or laptop PC without also purchasing a Windows license. See Companies selling preinstalled Linux and no-OS to find vendors who won’t charge you the Windows tax.

Too Much Babysitting
Properly set up Linux machines Just Work. Windows admins spend way too much time babysitting their charges, and cannot carry the same workload as a Linux admin.

Adding It All Up
Not only is Windows more expensive, its tentacles invade non-Windows markets. It’s vexing to try to calculate your actual costs, especially when it comes to those killer CALs. Volume discounts and OEM versions cost less, but beware of tradeoffs like losing upgradeability, and don’t even try to move an installation to a new machine, or make too many changes to a PC, or sell your old software CDs on the second-hand market- the License Police will be all over you. Isn’t that lovely- with any other commercial product that you purchase you have a re-salable asset. But not proprietary software- that’s just money down the rathole.

So my official total for this article is “Aieeeeee”.

The pundits like to ramble on about how there are too many Linux distributions. All you need is one, and that one will adapt to any role in your organization- server, desktop, router, firewall; tiny single-board computers to mainframes, on just about any hardware platform in existence. You can install it on as many machines as you want. You can change your hardware and deploy it however you like without asking “Mother may I.” You don’t have to worry about Linux being artificially crippled or being forced into hardware upgrades.

Padded Studies
Migration and training costs are used to pad studies that “prove” Linux is more expensive. These are one-time costs- ahem, any migration to a different platform will cost something. If your data are trapped in closed, proprietary formats that are difficult to to migrate, send the bill to the nice vendor that tried to lock you in.

Profound Conclusion
Some things really are as obvious as they seem – as long as Linux has applications that do what you want, it will save you a heck of a lot of money. And it never ever treats you like a criminal.


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