Most IT professionals are aware that using Linux in the right situations has the potential to save money. Although Linux is not a money-saver in all circumstances, as some of the most devoted Linux enthusiasts would claim, I am going to show you one instance of an organization that has saved money and will continue to save into the future by moving its Web site infrastructure to Linux.

Note that this case study is based on the experiences of a real company; however, I have changed the name of the company to the generic name Acme, Inc., for the purpose of this article.

The past
Acme, Inc., is a not-for-profit organization involved in government activities. It had reached the point where a change had to be made to its Web hosting arrangement. Prior to making the change, Acme was using a managed hosting provider that provided it with a single Web server as well as licenses for Windows NT 4.0, Cold Fusion, and the supporting infrastructure. Acme was paying nearly $20,000 per year for this service. Acme’s clients make great use of its Web site, so this cost was deemed necessary.

The present
The new IT director at Acme realized that although the service was good and was fully managed, the time had come to find a different arrangement for two reasons:

  • Cost—$20,000 per year for a small Web site is pretty expensive.
  • Flexibility—Acme management decided that its Web site needed to be updated. After looking over the code for the old site, they realized that working with that code was pointless. The prior Webmaster for Acme had left the company and had not documented what he had done or how he had organized things. The code was a mess. As a result, Acme decided to take the plunge and start from scratch, replacing Windows NT with Linux, Microsoft SQL Server 7 with PostgreSQL, and Cold Fusion with PHP.

At the same time, Acme looked at moving the site to a different hosting provider. In the end, it chose a co-located service from a smaller local provider with an excellent reputation. The provider was charging less than $9,000 per year, which would mean a significant cost savings for Acme, even before taking the licensing issues into account.

The Web site
For its new Web site, Acme installed the following software:

All of these packages are open source and freely available from the Web, so the licensing fees for the new Web site cost nothing. In its new hosting arrangement, had Acme chosen to continue with the Microsoft/Macromedia solution, the costs would have broken down as shown in Table A. (Acme qualifies for government pricing.)

Table A
Microsoft Windows 2000 Server $700.00
Macromedia Cold Fusion Server $1,500.00
Microsoft SQL Server 2000 $700.00

Even before considering other factors, Acme was able to save almost $3,000 immediately by choosing the open source solution. In addition, Acme will not be vulnerable to the multiple IIS exploits, worms, and viruses that pop up from time to time and that take so much energy for administrators to protect against. This will result in some moderate cost savings in terms of staff time (although we won’t include it in our cost savings equation). Of course, Acme still will need to keep its Red Hat Linux server properly patched and updated, which can be accomplished with a Red Hat Network subscription.

For the development of its Web site, Acme has been able to make use of the plethora of excellent open source modules that developers have written in PHP and made available on the Internet.

A future project
Other projects in Acme’s plans include adding a listserv server later this year. The plan is to roll it out on a new server under Red Hat Linux and to use the Mailman open source listserv package instead of using a commercial service or purchasing software based on Windows. Again, this will save significant money, since a commercial service was going to cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 per year.

The drawbacks
Obviously, Acme will be able to save money with its new arrangement. However, there are other factors to consider as well. Administering a Linux server is not as easy as administering a Windows server—at least, not at first. Even when using GUIs such as GNOME or KDE, Linux administration still involves working with text-based configuration files at some point, and that can get confusing and pose some administrative challenges.

When doing a cost analysis or return on investment assessment for deploying Linux, the potential for additional time administering the system needs to be taken into account. Some folks will comment that this time is balanced out by the constant need to patch a Windows server, but Linux also needs to be patched. Others will argue that Linux has better uptime than Windows and that while it takes more time to set it up on the front end, it takes less time to monitor and manage down the road. There is probably some truth to that, although a good administrator can make Windows pretty bulletproof as well.

For some organizations, the fact that Linux software is not backed by a contract may be a deal breaker, since there is often no specific organization to fall back on in the event of a problem. However, keep in mind that service contracts on software can be extremely expensive. In fact, Microsoft offers very limited support unless you buy an expensive support contract.

For the software that Acme chose, plentiful support is available via listservs and discussion forums on the Web, which are generally more than adequate for most needs—and they’re free.

If you need a higher level of support, companies such as Red Hat and Linuxcare are beginning to offer support contracts for a number of Linux options. Plus, some of the software packages themselves, such as PostgreSQL, can be placed under a maintenance agreement just like a piece of commercial software, but the price is generally much less—anywhere from $199 to $19,995, depending on the level of support desired. On the surface, $19,995 may sound like a lot. But keep in mind that there are no recurring licensing fees as there are with other database platforms, such as Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server 2000.

Acme’s move to Linux for its Web infrastructure has saved a tidy sum and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Given the state of the economy, many organizations may find that, when possible, a move to Linux is an attractive and effective option. Of course, such a move may not be advisable for companies that have a significant vested interest in another platform. But Acme was in a perfect position to take advantage of this opportunity because it needed to rebuild its site from the ground up, no matter what platform it chose.