It's not that you shouldn't use Windows, it just that it's not always the most economical choice for your company. Here are seven surefire reasons to consider Linux, Unix or Mac alternatives.
By Tina Gasperson
Windows is often the most intuitive choice from the CIO’s perspective. Just like in the old days, when “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM,” Microsoft is safe, at least from the stockholder’s perspective. “That’s what we’ve always used, and it works” is a phrase you’re likely to hear coming from above and below in the corporate hierarchy. Lately, however, more and more companies are discovering that they have alternatives when it comes to choosing an IT infrastructure, and that there really are some sound reasons not to go with Windows.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Everyone in the IT industry today knows that proprietary operating systems and the applications that run on them will cost you a lot of money on licensing fees. According to a recent Forrester study, U.S. companies overall are expected to spend $100 billion on software maintenance in 2007. For startups, licensing fees could make it difficult to bootstrap without large sums of capital, and for growing companies, per-seat fees are profit-eating monsters. Other operating systems charge fees, even open source, but at rates up to 85 percent cheaper than what you’ll pay for a Windows infrastructure. Scott Wilson, an IT consultant at Indigo Moon Systems in Seattle, says the biggest problem with proprietary licensing fees is that you can’t predict the financial hit you’ll take from year to year. “You don’t know what impact it is going to have over the life of the implementation, nor can you control what that lifespan will be.”
Microsoft itself admitted that a large percentage of its customers don’t understand what licensing rights they have purchased. A document titled Solving the Mystery of Windows Desktop Licensing says: “Microsoft’s Windows Desktop OS policies have been in effect for over 10 years and the policies are written in the Volume License Agreements [VLAs]. However, we have found that nearly 44 percent of volume license customers believe that volume license rights include the full OS, and 40 percent of volume license customers report they have acquired naked or unlicensed PCs, putting themselves at risk of noncompliance with their Volume License Agreement.”
That’s because in a volume license agreement, full operating systems for workstation PCs are not covered-only upgrades. In other words, you’ll have to purchase a separate, complete operating system for every workstation in your company, before the VLA comes into effect. Depending on the number of end users in your organization, using a Microsoft VLA could add significant unbudgeted expense.
“You need to throw lots of hardware at it,” says Central Desktop founder Arnulf Hsu about Windows. The minimum hardware requirements for Server 2003 call for a Pentium III 550MHz, 512MB of RAM, and at least a 3GB hard drive. Linux, on the other hand, can go on an old Pentium II with only 64MB of RAM and 1GB of hard drive space. The more servers you have, the more it adds up. Scalability is limited in Windows too. Wavell Watson, an IT consultant from Austin, Texas, calls it the Scale Out Strategy Option. “Google doesn’t even use RAID drives in their solution,” he says. The Web search giant has built its own server farm of almost half a million CPUs from commodity class PCs running Linux. Yet, Gartner analyst Martin Reynolds told The New York Times that Google’s computing costs are probably about half of what other competitors like Live Search are spending, and a mere tenth of what most traditional corporations shell out, despite his assertion that Google is now likely the fourth-largest server manufacturer, after Dell, HP and IBM.
Beyond scalability is modularity, says independent IT consultant Allan Reed. “What I love about [non-Windows operating systems] is that I can deploy only what I need to. I can take an old 486, put about a half gig of memory on it and install a minimal kernel with Firefox and a couple plug-ins, and have SugarCRM up and running in no time with exceptional performance. I can extend the ROI on my equipment that has been sitting around gathering dust. I may not be able to write it off, but I don’t have to buy another PC either.”
Inefficient Security Control
It’s going to take more labor to keep a Windows system secure. Virus makers and crackers target Windows systems because it is easier to break into. Because so many viruses and worms already exist, it is easier for black hats to modify them and come up with new ones. Vulnerability reports consistently show more security holes for Microsoft than for other operating systems, and it takes time to plug those holes and to prevent downline users from unwittingly introducing exploits that can take advantage of the weaknesses before you’ve had a chance to address them. Microsoft announces vulnerabilities only after a fix has been released, while other operating systems like Linux have more proactive communities surrounding them that make users aware of problems right away, then rush the fixes out, which, by the way, are usually minor bug patches and not big whopping security vulnerabilities that allow bad guys to gain complete control over your network.
Heavy Vendor Influence
Because so many corporations have a company policy that specifies “Microsoft-only,” it discourages independent thinking and technological savvy; many end up simply relying on the sales guy to tell them what applications they need. “Windows-centric people tend to value vendor advice more than others, in my experience. This leads to an unfocused problem-solving strategy,” says Johan Edström, infrastructure manager at SCA Americas in Philadelphia. “The IT organization often stops trying to define what really are the problems they face. [Nontechnical] management suddenly starts making strategic [IT] decisions. Essentially, you turn a technical function into a purchasing and internal marketing organization.”
Independent IT consultant Brett Bullington says that remaining free of vendor influence can give the CIO more options. “It constantly makes [you] rethink what is the best tool or service for the job. [It’s] part of the creative energy of decision making…hopefully [you] make better decisions.”
Inefficient Use of Manpower
Many CIOs assume that labor and training costs are where Windows has a definite edge over other platforms. While it is true that it is relatively easy to find Windows-skilled IT admins, it’s still not exactly cheap. Though many Unix-based admins are more expensive, it takes fewer of them to maintain more servers, which saves money in the long run. “I don’t care what anyone says. A good Linux admin can support a lot more systems than a good Windows admin,” says Steven Pritchard, vice president of K&S Pritchard Enterprise in St. Louis. Because Windows is less stable and “easier to break,” each machine simply requires more attention.
Proprietary systems like Windows are not easily customizable. Companies that need the flexibility to drop in or remove features on an as-needed basis find themselves either paying for unneeded feature bloat, starving for the features they do need because commercial vendors rarely are willing to drop everything to accommodate a one-off request, or paying a premium for coding of a feature that the vendor ends up owning and reselling to other customers.
Forced Upgrade Path
With Microsoft, you’re on a forced upgrade path. Once it drops support on your version of Windows, you’re out of luck when it comes to fixing those above mentioned security holes-if you can even continue to use that version. “At the beginning of next year, XP licensing will no longer be available,” Wilson says. “Because of the terms of the licenses and the enforcement mechanism in place, it won’t be possible to continue running it, with the gradual addition of new systems and homogenous environment for any substantial amount of time, in the way that one could continue running Windows 2000 almost indefinitely.” To sweeten the pot (for Microsoft), it’ll charge you an upgrade license fee for the privilege of continuing to be at their mercy. “It’s chilling to realize that such a major expense is being driven by a software vendor,” Wilson says. “You should look for vendors and systems that serve your needs, not the other way around.”
Another factor to keep in mind is that upgrades are really just migrations in disguise. Every time you’re forced to upgrade, it’s like taking your company through a migration that can cause downtime, keep staff working extra hours and befuddle end users who may not like change, causing a loss of productivity. “You have migration costs whether it is upgrading to Vista or converting to Linux,” says Robert Whetsel, the CEO and founder of FlightLinux. “Upgrading Windows is a migration pure and simple and should be treated as such. The assumption that you will have a lower TCO if you don’t change your ecosystem is false. In reality, you could still have hardware and software incompatibility upgrade requirements, and additional training of end users and technical staff. And, anyone living through a Vista upgrade will attest to the additional hours of lost time due to these issues.”
Reed agrees. “I can’t find anyone who really has a solid feature/benefit bullet point they can share with us why we need to go here. I guess if your business really must have that Aero interface….” Reed adds that companies are stuck in a useless desktop upgrade cycle that is making Linux look better and better.
The Truth Is Out There…
The evidence is pretty compelling. Whether it’s security, your workforce or capital outlays in hardware, if you’re hoping to make the most of a limited budget, you can do better without Windows.
Tina Gasperson is a longtime freelance writer whose byline shows up on some of the most prestigious technology and business publications in the world.