Mac vs. PC: Which Is Really Cheaper?

An Enterprise Desktop Alliance survey shows Macs cost a lot less than PCs to manage, yet Macs come with special challenges for IT admins.

Macs in the enterprise aren't just cheaper to manage—they're a lot cheaper, according to a new survey released today by the Enterprise Desktop Alliance.

Enterprise Desktop Alliance, a group of software developers who've bandied together to deploy and manage Macs in the enterprise, surveyed 260 IT administrators in large companies with both Macs and PCs who are involved in some degree with IT cost calculations. Enterprise Desktop Alliance members include Centrify, Absolute Software, Group Logic, Web Help Desk, and most recently IBM.

[ Another Enterprise Desktop Alliance survey shows two out of three companies buying Macs this year, which will bring integration challenges for IT admins, CIO.com reports. ]

The survey found that Macs were cheaper in six of seven computer management categories: troubleshooting, help desk calls, system configuration, user training and supporting infrastructure (servers, networks and printer). Nearly half of the respondents cited software licensing fees as roughly the same for both platforms.

A whopping 65 percent of respondents said it cost less to troubleshoot Macs than PCs, 19 percent said they spent the same on both computers, and only 16 percent said they spent less on PCs. Even more impressive, a majority of the respondents citing the low cost of Macs in nearly all categories said Macs were more than 20 percent cheaper than PCs.

With Macs dominating in almost every cost category, why would 16 percent claim they spent less troubleshooting PCs? "It might be an [issue] of expertise of the IT staff," says Tom Cromlin, spokesperson for the Enterprise Desktop Alliance. "They're probably more comfortable troubleshooting PCs."

Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Jon Oltsik has another reason. "Of that 5 percent [Mac population], a large portion are C-level folks," Oltsik told CIO.com last year. "Because of the expectations of these executives, the PC support people say that providing Mac support occupies about 20 percent of their time."

The cost of management appears to be a key driver for Macs in the enterprise. Nearly half of respondents said they brought in Macs mainly because of their low total cost of ownership and ease of technical support. In fact, many small companies with limited IT resources said they moved to Macs after getting fed up with costly PC support issues.

One of the flaws of the survey is that it doesn't factor in the cost of the PC or Mac itself, rather only the costs associated with managing the computers. Macs, of course, cost more than most PCs. However, many companies say that the low cost of managing Macs more than makes up the cost difference between the computers.

Many, but not all. "You can buy a PC for $400, while the cheapest Mac is over a thousand," Jon Graff, director of IT operations at A&E, told CIO.com last year. "In the real world, you're spending a lot more on a Mac."

While managing Macs may be cheaper than managing PCs, Macs pose their own special challenges as companies get up to speed supporting a Mac-PC environment.

According to another recent Enterprise Desktop Alliance survey, chief among them are: security and file sharing between operating systems, client management, backup and data recovery of Mac files, Active Directory integration, application compatibility, configuration consistency, cross-platform help desk and knowledge base support, and standard management utilities for both Macs and PCs.

Ben Hanes, senior systems administrator at Children's Hospital of Oakland Research Institute, has been working through these issues for years. On the troubleshooting front, Hanes only recently adopted a help desk system that lets his team troubleshoot Macs remotely from a PC.

"We're pretty close at giving Mac users everything the PCs users have," Hanes says.

Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com in Silicon Valley. Send him an email at tkaneshige@cio.com. Or follow him on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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