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The True Value of Linux

A refutation of Kevin McIsaac's ravings.

This article is full of furphies and `damnings with faint praise.' I'd be unsurprised to see faux pas in the talkbacks, but in the article itself it's obvious that Kevin is a stranger to Linux and writing `at arm's length'.

This is based on the flawed assumption that because Linux is "free" it will reduce TCO.

That assumption is not flawed. Linux really can be had for $0 (try Mandrake or Debian) and this does indeed reduce the TCO.

On closer inspection, it appears the recommendation is more an emotionally driven reaction against Microsoft than a factual case for Linux.

Study after study based on real researched facts and not opinionated pontification or financial incentives draws the conclusion that it's typically a financially driven reaction against Microsoft and taken after much hang-wringing and planning.

The second-tier method of Linux introduction is technicians who've had it up to the eyebrows with fancy and pretty systems which - for a variety of reasons - fail constantly or can't reasonably be made to do the assigned task in the first place.

Astute IT organizations will recognize that Linux's true value is derived more from the price/performance of the commodity Intel hardware it enables than from its open source characteristics.

Astute IT organisations won't rely on opinion and unsupported projections, they'll either do their own research or look for original research which includes hard figures. Having done that, they'll notice a few crucial things which go totally unmentioned in your article, and presumably the Meta study.

One of those things is that a Linux sysadmin will typically shepherd at least four boxes for every one a Windows sysadmin shepherds, function for function. IDC missed that one, shows that RFG didn't. Needless to say, it makes a complete mockery of your figures if you don't factor it in.

nor have many clients embarked on major Linux projects outside of Web server farms, appliances (network-attached storage), or general infrastructure servers (e.g., DNS and DHCP).

Um, factor in email service and (a key and common task for Linux servers which you seem to have missed; rolling it into `general infrastructure' doesn't seem appropriate) and about the only major sectors you've really got left are databases, groupware or application servers.

Oracle is working on the first. `Less money on OS == more left for Oracle,' a fairly straightforward equation; plus `more reliability == Oracle looks better' gives you about all the motivation you'd need if you were Oracle.

Meanwhile, back that the fairly lengthy list of functions Kevin drew, the reason that Linux is being used in those areas is because you can just plug it in and forget it. As people try this out and see it for themselves, they'll also trust it for their databases and other traditionally `big iron' applications.

The Linux OS license is "free," but that does not ensure that total cost of ownership will be reduced.

Yes, it does. The point Kevin should be making is that this reduction is not the be-all and end-all of TCO. But at each component of TCO you examine, it gets better for Linux.

Even if all other Linux costs were the same,

But they're not. They're all lower.

It is only when other significant pieces of software can be licensed at little or no cost (e.g., office suite, e-mail, and DBMS) that TCO reduction is at a level significant enough to merit the additional complexity, risks, and potential cost overruns of Linux.

This one really gets under my skin. Why are you citing `complexity, risks, and potential cost overruns of Linux'? The potential for cost overruns exists with every OS, and in particular Windows is well known for doing the unexpected. Singling out Linux for mention in association with `cost overruns' is a cowardly way of talking it down.

Be a man, explain why Linux in particular should be especially susceptible, or print a prompt retraction!

Meanwhile, the office suites (plural), email and databases that you will find on your $0 copy of Linux (see above) are all $0 themselves. Linux may look complex to someone who sees a shell prompt and wets his pants, but the design is more orthogonal, more systematic and more predictable than Windows.

You can also overlay it with a GUI and WYSIWYG management tools that are far prettier and more consistent than Windows, thereby keeping your pants dry.

The key attractions to Linux are:
Royalty-free distribution

Again, Kevin significantly undersells the point. No more licence tracking, no more BSA nightmares, no more worrying about what employees take home and install (or upload) using work's activation keys.

Access to source code:
All versions include source code, making Linux compelling for technical staff.

And again, Kevin significant undersell by limiting the appeal to techies only. Users and management are often overjoyed that their techies can quickly tailor their $0 software to exactly suit their needs.

High levels of reliability:

Give with one hand...

Although this was compelling compared to NT 4, increased stability of Windows 2000 has narrowed this gap, making this less of an advantage.

...take back with the other. Linux is still an order of magnitude less flaky than either Windows 2000 or Windows XP, especially should you (ghasp) venture away from Hardware Compatibility List gear.

Linux is still missing native high-availability features such as journaling file systems or clustering

Now this, this is a flat lie!

Linux has four native journaling filesystems: ext3, XFS, JFS, ReiserFS and on top of that can use Windows' own journaling filesystem, NTFS.

Google for the term `Beowulf'. You'll learn a number things. The first is that you just used a huge Linux cluster to do your search, the other is that Linux clusters are bigger, better and badder than Windows clusters and have been for a long time. How many Windows-based supercomputers are there? None. Yet the 5th fastest (2nd fastest if you take peak values) computer in the entire world is a Linux cluster! Missing clustering?

Linux has its place in the data center, but it is not a silver bullet for Windows.

It's `place' is as a silver bullet, a bundle of oaken stakes and a whole coffin full of garlic, Kevin.

Where should I use Linux?
In an appliance where the OS is not exposed

The City of Largo has 450+ Linux desktops, Kevin, and a lower IT spend by 60% than their municipal neighbours. Is that exposed enough for you?

Intel servers are widely used for scientific computing [...] Although it is possible to use Windows in this application, many Unix-centric organizations will be more sympathetic to Linux and will find the skill transition much simpler.

Kevin, not only is Windows a dead loss in a compute farm, but you just contradicted your previous piece of advice! A scientific computing node is an appliance; the OS is not exposed to the operator!

As a general-purpose infrastructure server (e.g., DHCP, DNS, or POP), where solid reliability is required but high availability is not.

Ah, that would explain Linux's recent uptake by telcos, then. Sarcasm aside, Kevin, how many industries have tougher HA requirements than telcos? Military, medical and space. Linux is used by all of those, too.

On the other hand, Linux should generally be avoided whenever there is a requirement for single-image scalability above four CPUs (scale-up) or high availability based on OS-level clustering.

Remember that mention of faux pas?

SGI will sell you a single-image 64-CPU Itanium-2 system running Linux if you ask them. And we've already been over clustering.

Can I use Linux to replace Windows for file and print?
Although this is possible using Samba [...] it is not recommended.

Ditch Active Directory and the specters you raise flee into the night, along with a host of other problems. Samba has a number of ways of seamlessly integrating with Windows domains. And if you want to keep AD, Samba 3 works now.

A switch to Linux for file and print might lower purchase costs, but it would seriously affect the ease with which users can access the services as well as increase management complexity, thereby driving up the total cost of ownership.

Since in practice the use of Linux dramatically drops the requirements for administrator intervention, and contrary to recent rumour integrating it seamlessly is a straightforward process, it actually drives down the TCO significantly.

Business impact
Inappropriate use of Linux as a Windows or Unix replacement will weaken the IT infrastructure and reduce its business value.

Appropriate use of Linux, which means in just about everything, will on the other hand strengthen the IT infrastructure and free IT staff to concentrate on more important issues than managing servers which should be acting like appliances but aren't.

Inappropriate use of Windows is a rolling disaster.

Bottom line
Organizations that allow emotional reactions (e.g., against Microsoft) to drive decisions to replace Windows or Unix with Linux will fail to achieve anticipated savings, and will end up with an infrastructure that is limiting and difficult to manage.

True at face value, and I wouldn't complain except that Kevin added a short burst of Latin and two words in English. Specifically, `exempli gratia, against Microsoft'.

You see, Kevin, an emotional reaction against Linux, or more pointedly against anything but Microsoft, is the single most common cause of people continuing to use Windows inappropriately throughout their IT structure, in places where Linux would be ideal. Oddly enough, it also causes people to advocate Windows inappropriately as well.

The amount of wastage and damage that this causes worldwide could probably power several of the smaller African nations if you were able to recover it. Perhaps that's why Linux is taking off throughout Africa, as exemplified by SchoolNet Namibia.

Nevertheless, I almost agree with Kevin in one point: cost is a long way from the most important reason for adopting Linux and OSS applications in place of Windows and lock-in-ware. Kevin would discover this through imbibing some real-world experience instead of quizzing a bucketful of Windows admins and PHBs.

There are many better reasons for rolling out Linux, to do with things like stability, flexibility, control, localisation, security, auditability, standardisation, manageability, reliability, and a whole host of other abilities unique to OSS (some of them unique to Free Software).

Better luck next time.

Linux reseller Bryce Coad had audiences eating out of his hand as he demonstrated the operating system running [. . .] Igor Portugal, technical head at Linux reseller Asterisk, which made its first appearance at the show in 1999, says Orix, Linfox Logistics, the Health and Disability Commission and Vita New Zealand are among its customers. Portugal collected a wad of business cards from visitors to his stand, many of which he expected to turn into sales. — ComputerWorld Expo 2002

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