IDC's findings, published yesterday in a study commissioned by Microsoft, suggested that the Windows 2000 Server operating system had a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) than Linux, mainly because of savings associated with staffing. The findings go against some industry claims that Linux is cheaper than Windows over time.
"Linux requires more care and feeding. That's what the results are really telling us," said IDC System Software research director Al Gillen. "The amount of manpower required to run a particular [Linux] environment is going to be higher."
The TCO study dissected five specific workloads claimed to be common to corporate IT departments, based on interviews with IT managers at 104 medium-sized and large organisations in North America.
IDC found Windows 2000 systems to be more economical over a five-year span than Linux in four of the five IT scenarios researched. Those are network infrastructure, print serving, file serving and security applications.
Companies could spend 11% to 22% less with Windows 2000 for those scenarios, according to IDC. Microsoft's server operating system was found to require less spending on employees, IT training and outsourced IT support.
The survey suggested that it took more time to configure, program and support Linux systems than Windows systems. The main reason given by IDC was that developers have access to mature and easy-to-use management tools for Windows.
Staffing, labour and support accounted for about 62% of the total costs of an IT system over a five-year span.
The study countered claims from many open-source proponents who contend that Linux is cheaper in the long run because of lower costs for acquiring and upgrading hardware and software, as well as less money spent on security and maintenance.
IDC did agree that Linux could be acquired for free, or for a lower cost than for Windows when purchased with support and maintenance services from commercial Linux vendors such as Red Hat and SuSE Linux. However, it added that software and hardware acquisition costs accounted for only about 10% of the TCO.
Giga Information Group analyst Stacey Quandt queried the acquisition costs for hardware and software cited by IDC. She said Windows systems would seem to account for more than 10% of the TCO because of licensing fees. However, she admitted that Giga did not offer a comparable estimate.
Some recent research also went against claims that Linux had a better security record than Windows. Aberdeen Group reported last month that the open-source operating system collectively had more high-risk security advisories since the beginning of 2002 than did Windows, citing research from CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) at Carnegie Mellon University, which tracks such data.
One developer who has worked with open source and Windows software said IDC's research did reflect some industry trends but should not be used as a barometer for planning IT budgets.
"Linux could be more expensive if you don't have employees that are properly trained. It's a lot easier for someone to start administering Windows than Linux just because of the GUI [graphical user interface] tools," said David Wheeler, who runs Kineticode, a content management and open-source development consulting firm.
He added that cost did have to be a deciding factor when comparing operating systems: "You have to use the best tool for the job."
Linux was found to be more economical in the area of Web serving, IDC concluded. That was probably because the Apache Web server can often be acquired for free, Wheeler said.
IDC has also published research in the past that shows some companies replacing Unix systems with Linux can save twice as much as those moving from Unix to Windows.
Giga's Quandt noted that a "strong affinity between Linux and Unix skill sets" allowed companies making a Unix-to-Linux migration to spend less on staffing than they would migrating to Windows.
Despite the survey results, IDC stressed that TCO should not be the only consideration when evaluating an operating system.