The Limitations Of Linux
Lisa DiCarlo, 06.16.03
There have been so many glowing stories on the use of Linux that one might come away with
the impression that Linux is an elixir that solves myriad business problems, and that it
is always cheaper than alternatives. But like a lot of technologies before it, Linux has,
to some degree, been overhyped.
There is no question that companies can sometimes cut costs and increase productivity by
using Linux systems instead of Unix or Microsoft (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) Windows.
But there are costs and technical limitations associated with Linux that don't
typically make headlines.
Customers say these include a lack of mature development tools, too many Linux variants,
acquisition costs for more sophisticated versions of the software and lack of applications
for small and medium-sized businesses.
Master Nursery Garden Center, a $500 million gardening cooperative, has been using Linux
for several years and is satisfied with its cost and performance. Yet Michael Baeta,
director of technology communications, concedes that there is "not a lot of
depth" in some areas. "Figuring out stuff...like production, low-end desktop
publishing or using a consumer-oriented database will take some outside consulting,"
he says. "You run into problems when you try to do something that it's not
designed to do."
That's partly because, at this point, Linux lags Windows in terms of integration with
hardware and software. That's changing--Oracle (nasdaq: ORCL - news - people ), Dell
Computer (nasdaq: DELL - news - people ), IBM (nyse: IBM - news - people ), Veritas
Software (nasdaq: VRTS - news - people ) and others are making inroads--but it takes time
to test for every permutation and make sure everything works well together.
What about cost?
Ask anyone to name the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word
"Linux," and most likely what he'll say is "free." While less
complex versions of Linux are often free, enterprise-class variants are more costly.
Tom Fisher, assistant vice president at Guide One Insurance, was stung by the $10,000
price tag of the mainframe version of Linux, distributed by SuSe. "IBM was preaching
that Linux was free," says Fisher. "But it's not free on the mainframe. That
was a big surprise." Still, he says he avoids support fees, which can run in the tens
of thousands of dollars annually, by leveraging the worldwide network of Linux developers
on the Web.
Most companies measure cost not by the initial one-time purchase of hardware or software,
but by what it costs over a period of years, or the total cost of ownership.
"Linux is not free when you count maintenance and support," says Aaron Barnham,
vice president of operations at TMP Technologies, a unit of Monster Worldwide (nasdaq:
MNST - news - people ), which runs career Web site Monster.com
. "Every company,
product and Web site is different. With tech budgets tight, everybody needs to look at
their true cost of ownership and determine what is the right fit."
Barnham explained that the cost of swapping out Windows or Unix servers, retraining and
maintenance might wipe out whatever initial cost savings Linux provides. That said,
"If Microsoft keeps raising software prices, it will change our total
cost-of-ownership numbers and that would force us to reconsider."
Last year, Microsoft sponsored a study by International Data Corp. that found Windows
systems to be cheaper than Linux over a five-year period. The study looked at five common
business uses and concluded that Windows is less expensive in four of five instances. IDC
pointed out, however, that Linux developers and supporters are quickly closing the price
gap. Packaged Linux software will increasingly be built into server hardware, reducing the
need for extra development. Further, the report said, "system management tools are
emerging and can be expected to expand rapidly," thus reducing the total cost of
For smaller customers, Linux might not be cost effective. That's because there
aren't as many Linux applications available for small businesses as for larger ones,
and also because small customers generally don't have the resources to do much custom
"I'm not a fan of Linux at all [because] there wasn't a lot of off-the-shelf
software," says Jalem Getz, president of Buyseasons, a $10 million costume e-tailer
that dumped its open-source Web servers for Windows in 2000. "We had to build
everything from scratch and we didn't have the budget for that."
Getz says there were technical problems with Microsoft's Commerce Server products but
that the company made good by giving Buyseasons four free weeks of development time with
John Groenveld, associate research engineer at Pennsylvania State Applied Research Lab,
says he is "no fan of Microsoft" but is distressed by the fact that there
isn't a single standard for Linux. There are many companies, including Red Hat
(nasdaq: RHAT - news - people ) and SuSe, producing their own versions. "Each has
[its] own peculiarities," Groenveld says. "What if you choose one that
doesn't succeed" in the marketplace?
Most experts agree that there will be a shakeout amongst Linux distributors simply because
the market, however large, will not sustain all the players.
So, in the end, this is what we know: Linux is here to stay; it will get better; and
sometimes it's cheaper than alternatives, but it's not right for every
application. We know the very same about Windows.