Virtualization tips total-cost scales for Linux

Linux can be had for free, but the real cost savings to enterprises stem from its greater propensity to be virtualized.

Virtualization may offer a significant advantage to Linux in the decade-old debate over Linux vs. Windows total cost of ownership (TCO). A new Gabriel Consulting Group survey (PDF) of mostly mixed-environment (that is, Windows and Linux) enterprises reveals significantly higher adoption of virtualization technology, with all the cost savings that go with it: less money spent on hardware and licensing fees.

It's an interesting conclusion, but leads to an even more interesting question: why don't Windows administrators take advantage of virtualization to the same extent as Linux administrators? The answer--licensing cost and complexity--is something that Microsoft has the ability, but not the interest, to change.

According to the survey, enterprises that predominantly use Linux virtualize roughly 30 percent more than those that prefer Windows, and heavier virtualization users do so much more aggressively on Linux systems than on Windows:

Linux vs. Windows: Virtualization Trends Gabriel Consulting Group

The survey's author reports that "Linux users have clearly both adopted virtualization at a greater rate and embraced it to a greater extent than customers who have standardized on Microsoft operating systems," but why?

Perhaps the primary reason is that Microsoft didn't really start to promote virtualization until long after the Linux crowd. This isn't surprising: Microsoft has much to lose from virtualization. The fewer Windows server licenses an enterprise has to buy, the worse it is for Microsoft.

Microsoft has now jumped into the virtualization market with both feet, giving its Hyper-V product away for free...but not really. Indeed, it is the pricing strategy Microsoft has for its servers that may go furthest in explaining its lack of appeal to Windows users, as noted in Gabriel Consulting Group's report:

There are also licensing differences that bear directly on comparative costs. With Microsoft, users who don't have volume agreements or who haven't purchased the more expensive Enterprise or Datacenter editions will have to purchase licenses for every system and each of the virtual machines running on those systems. Linux, on the other hand, can be essentially free, meaning that companies can deploy it on multiple systems or in virtual machines at no cost.

While the survey also lists the benefits of source code access to Linux administrators, I suspect that this is of minimal value to the big majority of Linux adopters. Very few will care to "get intimate with the code," to use the report's language, preferring instead to stick to the more tangible (and easily accessed) cost savings from Linux virtualization.

There are other benefits to those who primarily adopt, or standardize on, Linux, as the report suggests:

  • 77 percent of survey respondents reported greater hardware utilization rates through Linux virtualization, versus 56 percent of Windows users.
  • Those who standardize on Linux find Linux virtualization much more manageable (62 percent) than Windows administrators who standardize on Windows virtualization (48 percent). More telling, four times as many Windows standardizers (23 percent) find Windows virtualization hard to manage than the Linux standardizers, only 6 percent of whom find Linux virtualization hard to manage.
  • Linux translates into higher server utilization and, hence, less power consumption and more physical space: 59 percent of Linux administrators disagreed with the "We are rapidly running out of data center electrical capacity" statement, compared to 38 percent of Windows administrators. When presented with the statement "We are rapidly running out of data center floor space", 60 percent of Linux administrators disagreed versus 45 percent of Windows administrators.

While enterprises could realize even bigger cost savings by simply using free Linux versus paid Windows, most enterprises will buy commercial support for Linux through Red Hat, Novell, or Canonical. Even factoring in this cost, however, Linux seems to lend itself more readily to virtualization and, hence, to cost savings that result therefrom.

Microsoft has it in its power to turn the tide relative to Linux's superior virtualization TCO, and it probably has little to do with the cost of Windows Server, and certainly not with the cost of its Hyper-V virtualization technology, which is now $0.00.

Rather, it's likely a matter of simplifying its famously Byzantine pricing, and making Windows Server licensing friendlier to virtualization. For example, Microsoft doesn't allow migration of its products to a new physical server more than once every 90 days. This may ensure customers buy licenses with fewer restrictions, but it also appears to mean they simply buy fewer Microsoft licenses, period.

Given that commercial Linux isn't free, Microsoft doesn't need to make Windows free to make its Hyper-V virtualization more competitive with Linux virtualization. Simplification, it seems, would go quite far toward the goal of making Windows virtualization more palatable.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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