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Is Linux Cheaper on the Desktop Than Windows?

By Kenneth Hess (Send Email)
Posted Feb 11, 2009


No, this isn't another rant about how you should convert to Linux because it's free, although it is free. Free is a four-letter word among those who scoff at the mere mention of Linux. Yes, Linux is free, but that doesn't give it an unfair advantage on the desktop because most computers arrive preloaded with Windows — so to the buyer it appears Windows is also free.

Cover Your Assets: It might surprise you to know how much that Windows desktop computer is really costing you.

How much did your computer cost? $500? $1,000? $2,000? How much has it cost you since you bought it? The price of a computer is not a one-time expense — it is rather, an ongoing one. How much you pay for your computer over a year's time, or the entire lifetime of the computer, depends greatly on your choice of operating system. Hard to believe? Do the calculations for yourself.

Let's look at the costs beyond the purchase price of the computer. The following list outlines additional ownership costs.

  • Desktop-level Tech Support
  • Hardware Upgrades
  • Software Upgrades
  • Hardware Failure
  • Viruses, Spyware, and Other Malware
  • Training

You use desktop support, through either an outside tech support company or an in-house person or group. These are the people whom you call to show up at your desk, wave you out of your chair so they can "drive" and commence to fix whatever problem it is that you caused yourself. Their services aren't cheap, and in-house support technicians cost a bundle as well. For their cost, calculate the amount of money you spend on support divided by the number of computers, printers and major peripherals you own.

How much will you save on Desktop support by using Linux? You won't save much because it isn't necessarily the operating system as much as it is "user error" that costs you so much in support. It's true, user error accounts for a majority of desktop support calls. The answer to this dilemma is training — more on that later.

When you converted to Vista from Windows XP, how much did you spend? Assuming again that the operating system is free, how much did you spend on hardware upgrades so your current systems would support Vista? Add in the cost of complete replacement computers that you bought because your current ones wouldn't support Vista.

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The Linux factor is significant here. Your current hardware (before the Vista upgrade) is sufficient to run any desktop Linux distribution. The shock and awe you'd experience breathing new life into these systems with Linux is worth every penny you didn't spend.

Do you ever tire of software upgrade madness? Every two years or so, you have to upgrade your major applications because — well, just because. Software upgrades are often accompanied by hardware upgrades (see previous section) when you find out that the latest version of an application needs twice the amount of memory that your current computer has. Software costs can send your budget into cardiac arrest, but there's hope in using free applications; even on Windows, you can enjoy the freedom of free software. That dirty word, free, is a factor when tallying up the price tag for a new version of Microsoft Office for everyone in your company. OpenOffice.org starts to look pretty good compared to at least $200 a pop for a Microsoft Office upgrade.

Hardware failures occur because you're using hardware. The operating system doesn't matter. Unless you use thin-client hardware with no moving parts (and those fail too), you'll have to factor in hardware failures to your overall budget. It happens. Get over it.

And now we tread into the financial minefield of viruses, spyware and assorted malware that awaits the click of your mouse or the typo into the URL address bar of your browser. Windows and Internet Explorer are the most popular targets among purveyors of fine Internet garbage that serves them well in costing you hours of downtime, repair and productivity loss. No, Linux is not immune, but it does have built-in safeguards against most malware intrusions. FireFox is a safer browser than Internet Explorer and has built-in malware detection and prevention algorithms. The costs and loss associated with such maladies is greatly diminished with a Linux-based desktop.

Finally, the issue of training or retraining users on Linux rears its ugly head whenever someone speaks of Linux conversion. Linux graphical interfaces (KDE, GNOME and XFCE) resemble their Windows counterpart closely enough that almost any user could regain productivity within a few hours of sitting down in front of a Linux-powered desktop. Most users use three main applications during their workday: A word processor, an e-mail client and an Internet browser. Teaching your users the new application names and locations is your greatest challenge. Desktop shortcuts alleviate the need for your users to hunt them down on their own.

Is a Linux desktop cheaper to maintain than a Windows one? Do your own calculations and tell me yourself. Use the comment form and let's discuss it.

Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.

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