Fighting FUD with FUD

The total cost of the unending Linux-Windows argument is a great big headache--this latest attempt leaves us none the wiser.

OPINION: The total cost of the unending Linux-Windows argument is a great big headache--this latest attempt leaves us none the wiser. Mehlman

A few weeks ago an Australian company called Cybersource released a study which claimed to compare the total cost of ownership of running a 250-person organisation's IT resources on commercial (mostly Microsoft) versus open-source/free software.

At Technology & Business magazine we're constantly reminded how important the issue of TCO is to IT managers, and that just looking at the upfront cost never gives you the complete picture.

This story was reported in local IT media such as the AustralianIT site, and even further afield, like The Register in the UK. For some reason, Slashdot ignored it.

Most people upon reading a report like this would--or should--wonder what sort of organisation Cybersource is.

According to the company's Web site, Cybersource is "Australia's leading provider of IT services in the areas focusing on Linux, Unix, TCP/IP, and Windows". Ahem. If that's not enough of a giveaway, Cybersource's CEO Con Zymaris has in the past offered to write a Linux column for ZDNet Australia--for free. Impartial? Hardly.

Most people would also want to look at the assumptions made in the study to see if they were realistic.

The study claims that, all other things being equal, the savings on software client licenses minus the additional cost of Linux-savvy staff would come to US$251,393.55 over three years. All other things being equal. Right.

Let's say every bit of commercial software in an organisation can be replaced with free-software alternatives. Leave aside that the study doesn't even consider support contracts, and claims Linux is not vulnerable to viruses. Ignore that it quotes off-the-shelf prices for all the applications, when a company buying 250 copies would pay considerably less. Why quibble over details?

The 245 desktop systems in this organisation would have Linux OS installed, OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office, GIMP instead of Photoshop, and so on.

Sure, the savings on licences would be enormous, but what of the productivity losses in retraining all the staff to use an unfamiliar interface and applications? Does the study assume everyone in the organisation could make the transition with no training, without ever having to call helpdesk or read a help file?

Then there are the ongoing productivity losses when staff discover that even though OpenOffice is "compatible" with Microsoft Office, that doesn't mean "compatible all the time for all documents".

Likewise, all the commercial server software in this organisation is replaced with free-software alternatives: Windows 2000 Server with Linux, IIS with Apache, SQL Server with PostgreSQL, Exchange Server with Sendmail, and ISA Server with iptables. The savings on client licenses would be impressive, but there are hidden costs the study once again conveniently ignores.

It doesn't take into account, for example, how much more time IT staff would have to spend installing, configuring, maintaining, and integrating all this software using Linux.

Friends who work in IT have told me horror stories about having systems down for days while trying to work around library incompatibilities.

They've told me about finding an obscure reference in a French Linux discussion group about a configuration file in a totally illogical location without which the application won't do what it's supposed to.

Given there are only so many hours in a year, if the same number of staff are expected to maintain the same sized organisation, they'll either be working much longer hours, or the company will have to hire more staff. Staff who are overworked are more likely to leave, thus there's the enormous expense of recruiting replacements.

These are some of the more obvious holes in the methodology. I'm sure there are others.

Before you Linuxheads out there start bombarding me with hate mail, I'm not saying Linux has no place in the enterprise, just that there's a tradeoff--the software is free, time isn't.

I'm also well aware that Linux is fighting a propaganda war against an enemy with vast marketing resources and the social conscience of a uranium mining company executive on a dirty weekend. But fighting FUD with FUD leaves you with as much credibility as The Enemy.