The hidden costs of open source

Savings greatly depend on current infrastructure and in-house expertise

A million-dollar question is circulating in the IT community, the answer to which could lead to significant savings in hardware and software expenditures: Can an organization lower its TCO (total cost of ownership) if it uses the Linux operating system and other open-source software in place of Windows or Unix?

The answer may appear easy to calculate. After all, most open-source software can be acquired for free. For some organizations, including Wall Street firms Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse First Boston, both of which have successfully ported large financial applications to Linux, replacing expensive Unix systems with open-source alternatives can save them money.

But for organizations that require a major shift in architecture -- sometimes coming from a Windows environment -- or those without the technical expertise to reap the benefits of open source, switching to Linux could end up costing more. "Before you can declare victory that one operating system is more expensive than the other, you are going to have to put some metrics around it," says Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Those measures of comparison would have to include everything from the price of hardware and software acquisitions, to the ongoing costs of securing and maintaining a system, to the resources necessary to port years of corporate data and applications to a new platform. Depending on an organization's current IT infrastructure, the cost of each of those aspects will vary.

A simple comparison of software acquisition costs won't do, Gillen says. Although Linux and other open-source software cost less to acquire than Microsoft's Windows operating systems because of the licensing fees that Microsoft charges, IDC says that software acquisitions only account for about 10 percent of the total costs spent over a five-year period on an IT system. It's in the other 90 percent where companies may find the biggest savings -- or hidden costs.

Advantages of open source

Alabanza, a Web-hosting company in Baltimore, Md., has benefited by using open-source products rather than proprietary software. The company runs a datacenter that hosts 200,000 small-business Web sites and built its entire IT infrastructure on Linux and other open-source software, says CEO Tom Cunningham.

In addition to customizing a version of Linux from Red Hat, the company has pieced together its datacenter with freely available software such as the Apache Web server; Sendmail, a popular e-mail server; SSH (Secure Shell) software, which allows a client computer to log on to a remote machine; and FTP software, used for moving files over the Internet.

"One of the main reasons for choosing open source is that we have access to the source code, and in our environment it's critical to have access to source code so we can customize and add security," Cunningham says.

Having the source code is key to Alabanza's ability to support its Red Hat installation, which is handled entirely by its own IT staff. After customizing the operating system for its specific needs, and poring over the operating system code, Alabanza said it has all the expertise it needs to maintain and debug its system.

Thanks to the loose band of developers scattered around the globe who contribute to open-source software projects, the company said it also has a host of online resources to turn to when it needs to find new software or security fixes. For example, security patches for buggy open-source software products typically are available within days of a vulnerability being discovered.

"In the Linux and open-source environment, these patches are coming out at lightning speed. You have a bunch of brains looking at the security hole from different angles," he says. "Hosting so many Web sites, if we were stuck in a situation that we had to do a work-around and wait 15 days for a patch from a vendor, it would cost us an exorbitant amount of resources."

The middle ground

For companies that don't have the technical prowess to build an open system from scratch, users still have an opportunity to save money with open-source software, according to Greg Olsen, chairman of Sendmail, an Emeryville, Calif., software vendor that sells a commercial version of the popular open-source e-mail server of the same name.

"Companies that are technically sophisticated can assemble their entire business with open-source technology, but for most companies that's not a real cost-effective thing to do. You have to have a tremendous amount of expertise," Olsen says.

Companies such as Sendmail have sprung up around various community development projects to sell enhanced versions of software and customer-support services. A company called Covalent Technologies, for example, has made its business delivering and supporting software based on the free Apache Web server. Linux has spawned one of the best-known open-source ecosystems, with vendors such as Red Hat and SuSe.

"Even the customers who choose commercially supported versions of open-source software come out ahead," Olsen says.

Linux has also proved to be less costly for companies that switch from expensive Unix systems to Intel-based Linux servers to run applications and database software from vendors such as Oracle, which recently announced support for Red Hat's Advanced Server. IDC last year released a study of the TCO that detailed a specific scenario in which customers moved from Unix on RISC servers to Linux on Intel servers and cut their spending roughly in half.

For one, the acquisition cost of hardware is much less in the Linux world, according to analysts. Dell Computer, which sells Intel servers running Linux, contends that a collection of Linux-based Intel servers can get performance comparable to that of a Unix system for about half the price.

"We see Linux as an opportunity for us to acquire customers as more and more companies migrate off of expensive proprietary systems like Unix," says Bruce Anderson, a Dell spokesman.

A Unix-to-Linux migration can also be cost-effective when it comes to developing and maintaining a system over a period of time. "There is a general understanding in the IT world that there is a knowledge base around the deployment of Unix-based systems that translates over to the Linux platform. That's what our customers are telling us," Anderson says.

Jim Gleason, president of the New York Linux User Group and a sales executive at VA Software, notes that the number of programmers with expertise that can be applied to open-source development in the enterprise is only going to grow. Not only are the skills transferable from Unix to Linux, but young developers have easier access to open-source learning environments than they do to Unix environments, such as Sun Microsystems' Solaris operating system.

"If you want to teach yourself Solaris skills you have to have the machine, which is going to be expensive. With Linux it's easier to get the software so people tend to teach themselves. People are already warmed up to it because there's no barrier to entry," Gleason explains.

The devil you know

But IDC's Gillen notes that vast differences between Windows and Linux might create a more costly migration for customers that make that switch. For a similar reason, some IT organizations still employ age-old systems such as OpenVMS, which was developed by now-defunct Digital Equipment, and IBM's OS/400. "Why do people still use these products when there are arguably better alternatives on the market? Because it's cheaper for them to stay put," Gillen says.

George Weiss, an analyst at Gartner in Stamford, Conn., also warns that although open source may appear free at first glance, customers should be aware of the hidden costs that can arise when they move to a Linux system. Most notable is the cost of porting legacy applications and corporate data to Linux from other operating systems.

"What some companies may not factor in or speak about is the length of time it took them to take the code off one system and put it on another," Weiss says. Although the code may be free, a certain amount of resources must be expended to test it with other applications and integrate it with other systems in the organization.

"I call it the cost of doing business in the open-source community," Weiss says.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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