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Hidden Costs Said to Stymie Linux Growth

Commercial Linux distributors can hold their own against rival Microsoft , but won't displace Windows' server deployment lead over open source operating systems for the next few years, a new study says.

The report, on the cost of switching to Linux, which the Yankee Group released Monday, shows the open-source operating system also won't put a "perceptible" dent in the 94 percent market share enjoyed by Windows on the the desktop, the research firm said.

One finding confirmed other data about where Linux is making gains at the expense of other enterprise operating systems. The total cost of ownership (TCO) study of 1,000 administrators and C-level executives shows that most of the defections to Linux are coming at the expense of mid-range Unix shops, not Windows.

But Laura DiDio, Yankee Group's senior analyst, anticipating skeptism over the results, said no outside agency or company funded the survey.

DiDio said although a switch to a Linux OS might be financially attractive for smaller firms, bigger companies find the back-office costs associated with a switch from Unix or Windows to an open source environment to be cost-prohibitive.

"There's a clear bifurcation in the market between the low end and the high end," she told internetnews.com. "I was surprised. Over 90 percent [of the respondants] said, 'if we did a significant or total switch from Windows to Linux, it would be prohibitively expensive, extremely complex and time-consuming and at the end of the day it won't provide any tangible business gains for the organization.'"

DiDio said the results help underscore the continuing "commoditization" trend in the operating system sector, whereby all operating systems -- Windows, Linux, Macintosh, FreeBSD, Unix or otherwise -- deliver "pretty damn good performance and reliability; this is not the same buggy atmosphere we had a few years ago."

Those who replied to the survey said Linux gets top marks for performance, reliability, ease of use and security, but is not necessarily superior to any other operating system. Linux, however, is finding its way into many organizations, mainly to provide specific, network edge functions such as Web servers or Internet gateways.

Of those polled, 25 percent of Windows shops said they would migrate a portion of their networks for specialized tasks in the future, while another 54 percent said they would leave their server platform intact. On the desktop, 21 percent said they would move some of their desktops to Linux, but a majority -- 57 percent -- said they had no plans to switch. Less than five percent of the organizations polled said they would replace Windows desktops with Linux, and only four percent of Unix shops and 11 percent of Windows environments plan to replace their entire server line.

Microsoft has long worried about the commoditization of the OS, where the differences between one platform and another wouldn't fill a thimble. The approach helps explain part of its reasoning for bundling and integrating other applications.

But that same commoditization might also be the software giant's savior, given the survey results: the OS cost isn't holding back companies from leaping to another platform. Instad, the attendant application migration and other "hidden" costs are giving companies pause.

DiDio pointed out the case of an international law firm in New York, which was mulling a move from Windows to Linux. The CIO wrote back to her: "Up front, the cost of integration and maintenance of a custom Linux application would far outweigh the initial savings we might gain from free licenses." Everything, from the accounting to patent and trademark litigation support applications, the CIO wrote, is currently not available on Linux.

And it's not just a case of missing applications: As any Linux enthusiast will tell you, the open source community is incredibly motivated to write new software to accommodate Linux environments. But the cost associated with finding new drivers for hardware, getting updates for software and other customer support issues requires 25 to 40 percent more Full Time Equivalent (FTE) work than in a Windows environment. Skilled Linux administrators in large urban areas, additionally, command 20 to 30 percent bigger paychecks than their Unix or Windows peers, the report noted.

The report shows that despite some of Microsoft's problems, notably in security and patch management, 72 percent of those polled rated Windows "reliably equal" to Linux.

The biggest growing concern for Linux in the business world, however, comes from the failure of vendors to indemnify their products. DiDio is quick to point out that doesn't just mean indemnification over legal disputes, such as the highly-publicized lawsuit filed by the SCO Group against IBM .

Indemnification covers much more than protection from litigation, DiDio said. It also shields companies from events, whether it's a national disaster or outage. For large organizations, lack of a product warranty is a non-starter, she said. What limited indemnification commercial Linux vendors like Red Hat , Novell's SuSE, Hewlett-Packard provide is contingent on customers "not making any modifications to the Linux code they distributed to you," she said.

"That's where it gets expensive; sure, you're paying for the Microsoft license [but] with Linux you don't get what you don't pay for," she added.

The analyst has come under repeated fire from Linux advocates who maintain legal indemnification is unnecessary, largely because they see SCO Group's claims that parts of Linux derive from its Unix copyrights is hopeless.

But companies are becoming increasingly worried about their software's protection clauses, she stressed. In last year's survey, only eight percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees were concerned about legal indemnification and product warranties. This year, it has jumped to 45 percent.