Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, cost is probably the No. 1 issue driving IT decisions today. Manageability and security of IT systems would appear to be top of mind, but reducing cost is critical to everyone.

That’s often where the conversation starts when an organization begins to

re-evaluate the value being delivered by its operating system.

In the beginning, Linux was all about being free. Now, it’s about more than that.

While there are no licence fees attached to it, questions about the cost of deployment and maintenance are many. And when it comes to the total cost of ownership (TCO), managing your OS day-to-day is where the real costs come into play.

It all depends on the tasks at hand, says Stamford-Conn.-based Gartner Inc. analyst Tom Bittman. “”Frankly, it wouldn’t be hard for somebody to put together a case study that proved, no doubt about it, that Linux has better cost of ownership, and another case study that proved that Windows has better cost of ownership. It depends on how they are used,”” said Bittman, a vice-president and research director.

“”It’s impossible to come up with a single tool that measures TCO for all possible roles.””

Bittman says certain operating systems return better cost of ownership depending on the task. For more general purpose requirements, a Windows platform will return better TCO. The more specific, or single-function the chore, the better the story Linux has to tell.

For example, 3,000 cloned Web servers are easier to manage with a couple of tools and a small staff if based on Linux rather than Windows. But if it’s database servers or application servers you’re talking about, anything more complex, the Linux tools are less mature.

But the arguments for Linux are becoming more convincing. The OS has gained traction in leading organizations including the larger financial houses on Wall Street. But in the large enterprise, choosing an operating system is more a matter of business strategy —almost the same number of companies that used to choose Linux for its cost now choose the open source OS for its reliability and performance. Security is another critical factor in the decision to choose Linux over competing operating systems.

In an IBM survey of 500 of its largest Linux customers, acquisition cost was the second most common reason for choosing Linux. Reliability ranked No. 1 and TCO was fourth on the list.

According to Hewlett-Packard’s Lorne Weiner, business development manager in Canada, choosing a platform comes down to the requirements of the business more than what the total cost will be.

“”The newsworthy thing is to say, ‘It’s free and it’s going to kill Microsoft and Unix.’ At the end of the day, each operating system has certain characteristics that make it ideal and required for certain types of workload, and getting a square peg and jamming it into a round hole, even if less expensive, is not really doing the business any favours,”” said Weiner.

When considering the difference in costs, Microsoft’s senior marketing manager, Kevin Hunter, points to a Gartner study that suggests software licence acquisition is only five per cent of project costs. There are more expensive components of a project — education, resources, training and hardware and associated components running the servers or the desktops.

Microsoft also argues the training and support it offers exceeds that available in the Linux world.

However, Linux evangelists such as Kara Pritchard, director of exam development with the Linux Professional Institute, point out that Linux training is offered through majors like HP and IBM, the various Linux distributors and independent companies and schools.

“”Ninety-nine per cent of all commercial Unix training transfers seamlessly into Linux platforms,”” said Pritchard, who is based in St. Louis, Ill.

“”When you need true support for a problem, you have a world of choices to support you. Your company, your software — any Linux developer will be able to dive into source code to solve problems or build a customized solution. For Microsoft, if there’s a problem with a product, you have to wait for Microsoft to release a fix. There is no one else you can call, period.””

Just having a choice of sources for fixes and customization lends more control over the value and investment in an IT department, Pritchard argues. Most administration jobs can be done remotely, so it isn’t necessary to have onsite technical staff. The administrator-to-server ratio is lower than that of Windows — one person can manage more machines — and Linux resource management allows servers to be built on more cost-effective equipment, she says.

HP’s Weiner says that IT managers who make an operating system decision based on the OS rather than the combination of the applications and OS are being short-sighted.

After all, a Linux solution that’s cheaper is pointless if the business needs what Windows brings with it, he says.

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