PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant Neal Irwin seems an unlikely advocate of Linux. After all, the New Zealand-based consultant specializes in Windows-based proprietary accounting systems. Yet he began encouraging clients to move from Novell or NT to Linux three years ago, when the OS was still a “geek secret.” He knew that Linux would be a perfect fit for his small-business clients who were concerned with cost, reliability, and support.

“If one of my clients can save money by implementing a Linux server, then it’s better for them and better for me,” Irwin said. “They will come back to me for further work—and they can afford to, due to the savings in license costs.”

A recent TechRepublic survey shows that many consultants’ clients are asking about Linux.

While clients may not care about the ongoing warfare between Linux and Microsoft, they will care about cost and reliability. Let’s examine why these key issues might make Linux a good choice for your clients and then review a few situations that should make you pause before recommending Linux as a solution.

The cost advantage of Linux
The most oft-cited selling point for Linux is its low cost. For consultants, the low cost is appealing not just because it makes for an easy sale to clients, but because selling a Linux solution can also offer them an edge over competitors. Even a boxed Linux solution can mean big savings over other solutions because it does not require additional license purchases. Star Office, Linux’s equivalent of Microsoft Office, sells for a mere $40, compared to around $200-300 per license for an Office XP solution.

And for small businesses building e-commerce sites, a Linux solution can be a particularly cost-conscious alternative to Oracle’s $5,000 to $10,000 licenses, said John Gowin, an IT consultant who writes for and Element K Journals. Gowin is also the vice president and partner of Third Level Strategies, a consultancy based in Kentucky. “That’s like swatting a fly with a bazooka if you’re only building a small Web business,” Gowin said.

The cost incentive is becoming even more important in the current economic climate, according to Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt. Companies attempting to cut costs by consolidating Solaris and Windows servers and workloads are taking a closer look at Linux, according to Quandt. This is particularly popular in the financial and insurance industries, she said.

Quandt has found in her research that Solaris can cost up to three times as much as a Linux solution, and a Windows solution is likely to cost at least twice as much as a Linux-based option. This puts Linux in a unique position to compete in both the high-end and the low-end space.

“You’ll see people look at Linux and say, ‘I’m getting all the advantages of a UNIX system and at a fraction of the cost,’” said Arun Kumar, practice director of Open Source Consulting and Enterprise System Management at Red Hat.

The OS does, however, come with its own cost issues that clients should be made aware of—the biggest of which is training, an important concern for clients who rely on an internal IT staff for support. “Windows users must consider the costs of cross-training NT administrators or obtaining Linux support staff who have the necessary skills and who can deal effectively with the open-source community,” Gartner contended in its report, “The pros and cons of open source software and Linux.”

There is also, according to Gowin, a flip side to the low-cost Linux coin: Gowin has found that in his market, clients tend to believe they get what they pay for. When Linux allows a huge cost savings over other solutions or competitors, it raises eyebrows.

Linux’s reliability advantage
Another selling point for Linux is its incredible reliability record, which reduces maintenance costs and concerns for consultants and clients. “Linux is reaching levels of reliability and stability once found only in high-end computing environments,” Gartner stated.

Set up the rules, do the development work, and a Linux server will run literally for months on end, Gowin said. He hasn’t reset his Linux-based e-commerce server for six months, despite the fact that it serves 12 URLs and hosts a user database. “That’s one of the wonderful things about Linux. You do the work up front, and you set that thing running and you don’t have to do anything,” he said, making it an ideal solution for clients without an extensive IT staff.

“The businesses we deal with do rely on us for support and solutions,” Irwin said. “They want their systems to just go, without constant intervention.”

But Linux’s reliability remains untested by the more complex applications running on higher-end solutions, according to Gartner. For instance, there are only a few enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) solutions offered on Linux at this time. It remains to be seen how Linux’s reliability will hold up in the face of more robust and complex applications.

Is Linux ready for the desktop?

Do you think Linux is ready for the desktop? Under what conditions have you or would you recommend that a client use Linux as a desktop solution? Join our discussion by posting below.