Is Linux vs. Windows a Religious Decision?

Friday Sep 22nd 2006 by James Maguire

A veteran IT manager talks about how very personal the debate between platforms has become – and why he strongly prefers one over the other.

Dick Federle is a highly experienced IT systems manager and architect, having designed and supervised many custom development jobs. Currently working for OTB Solutions, a consultancy based in Seattle, he previously managed Ernst & Young’s Business Architecture practice.

Along the way, Federle has noticed an odd phenomenon in the world of IT. He’s seen many managers make one of their most critical decisions – whether to opt for Windows or for Linux – on strictly personal grounds.

It’s as if they’re choosing between Windows and Linux based on a gut feeling. Almost as if it’s an abstract, philosophical decision, based on one’s innermost intuition, instead of a straight-ahead business decision.

“There are any number of [IT] shops – probably the majority, quite frankly – that have a religious opinion about whether they should be on one platform or another,” Federle tells Datamation. “It really has little or nothing to do with the reality of the virtues of any of the platforms.”

On the surface, managers carefully consider the Holy Grail of the platform debate: total cost of ownership, or TCO as it’s known in the reams of reports that very rationally detail Linux vs. Windows. Then they weigh issues like security, reliability, and flexibility.

But after all that, the gut kicks in. These managers, “read all the analyses, and all the articles, and they always boil it down to dollars and cents and everything else. But I wouldn’t be surprised if fewer than 50 percent of the people out there are actually making an architectural decision based on business reasons,” Federle says.

Instead, the Windows-Linux decision is driven by factors like whether “the CIO loves Windows, or hates Gates.”

Next page: One Man’s Choice

One Man’s Choice

As for Federle himself, he attempts – as much as anyone can – to remove the religious elements from the Windows-Linux debate. Based on his assessment of several key factors, he places himself in the Windows camp.

Especially if the decision between platforms takes into account initial development costs and ongoing maintenance effort. In this case Windows is surely less expensive, in his view.

“If you look at the Linux platform, it’s running on the Intel box, so your infrastructure cost isn’t going to be that much different,” than Windows, he says.

However, Windows allows custom development to be significantly cheaper, he opines, because of the way Microsoft is commoditizing development.

“They’re doing the same thing in the development world that they did in the desktop world,” he says. “On the development side, the level of technical expertise that it takes to build a meaningful line of business applications is being reduced significantly.”

The result: fewer highly paid programmers are needed to design a company’s IT infrastructure.

For instance, his consultancy recently built a Windows-based application that handles a blizzard of data flow for a large insurance company. Using complex ranking criteria, the app presents paid claims for the company to perform post-payment audits on. It processes about a million claims per month.

As advanced as this application is, “we did not write a line of C# – or anything – above the database level,” Federle says.

Furthermore, the Windows development platform enables companies to update applications themselves – they won’t need to hire an outside consultant. “You go in there, and you check the box saying ‘I want to display field X, and I want to sort on field Y, and I want to group and total by this, and that’s all just configuration buttons.”

In contrast to the Linux OS, the Windows platform’s easy configurability “reduces [the client’s] future burden on the IT resources,” he says.

Trillions of Transactions

Some industry observers, pointing to the countless bugs that bedevil Windows, claim the Microsoft platform is less secure than its Linux counterpart.

But Federle disagrees. “The idea that a platform is more secure by having the code actually visible to someone who’s a hacker is an interesting concept.”

He points out that virus writers can only create malicious code for machines they have access to. So less common platforms appear safer only by virtue of their rarity. “The Linux and Unix platforms and the IBM mainframe are no more secure than the Windows platform, but someone who’s writing a virus doesn’t have access to an IBM mainframe.”

Virus writers try to disrupt as many people as possible to get as much attention as they can. They’re not targeting the biggest communities when they target Linux, Unix or Mac users. Hence, Federle points out, these users are attacked less – but that doesn’t mean their OSes are safer than Windows.

“There are people who say, ‘I’m not going to put my mission critical on the Microsoft platform because it’s not stable enough.’ Well, Verizon runs all of its billings systems on it – and who knows how many trillions of transactions that handles.”

Next Page: Cost at High Volumes

Cost at High Volumes

In some cases, IT managers opt for Linux because they feel the open source model allows them to build out their systems without being limited by a proprietary model. Open source means lower license fees and fewer restrictions, or so the thinking goes.

But this is belief is a fallacy, in Federle’s view. There are, he estimates, some 25,000 ISVs for the Microsoft platform, including the ones who also develop Linux software. Such an immense pool of developers provides great flexibility for a Windows-based enterprise.

Moreover, “Saying the cost of [Linux] software is ‘free,’ it’s ‘freeware,’ well, no – if you’re going to run it in production you have to go buy the MySQL licenses, you have to buy the Oracle licenses.” And while Red Hat software is “dirt cheap,” it isn’t free, he notes.

Windows server software is quite modestly priced, he says. One of the server software licensees is $3,000, a low sum, and if companies buy in bulk this can be lowered to approximately $1,500. An enterprise the size of, say, Boeing, might spend no more than $300,000 to $500,000, a minor cost given its corporate girth. “They’re not going to save much money by going over to Linux.”

Heterogeneous Environments

Today’s IT infrastructures, Federle notes, are highly heterogeneous. Windows sits next to Linux, which sometimes lives on a network with Unix or an IBM mainframe.

“If you’re talking about a large organization, the likelihood that they’re going to be able to run a homogenous environment is pretty slim,” he says.

Yet this heterogeneity comes at a cost. Certain resources aren’t as easily leveraged when multiple OSes are cobbled together. Consequently, “you want to keep it as simple as you can, and you want to stick to your rules as much as you can.”

And you want to (and this is where it gets tricky) make your decisions based on sound business principles rather than emotional preferences. It’s best to avoid religion when choosing your operating system – if possible.

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