Linux Is Not So Free

The cost of Red Hat Linux can be very high indeed.

Without a doubt, Linux has become fully accepted as a powerful, scalable and stable platform for enterprise deployments. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the cost of deploying Linux is getting pretty close to the cost of deploying some other enterprise platforms.

Whats that, you say? The high cost of Linux? Linux is free, you fool. And dont give me any of that high TCO garbage, either.

No, thats not what I mean. In fact, Blaster and SoBig should serve as a reality check for any analyst who thinks that Linux has a high total cost of ownership. (While worm-weary IT managers at Windows shops have been putting in overtime the past few weeks, their Linux shop brethren havent spent a red cent fighting Blaster and SoBig.)


When I speak about the high cost of deploying Linux, Im talking about changes in licensing and support costs that major Linux system and application vendors are springing on customers. For many of these customers, especially those with large numbers of enterprise-class Linux systems, the cost of deploying "free" Linux can be very high indeed.

One of the main culprits here is the company that is probably closest to being the Microsoft of Linux: Red Hat. Red Hat as a company is really nothing like Microsoft at all, but it is the dominant Linux provider and has increasingly become the main Linux vendor for which third-party enterprise application vendors certify their products (often exclusively).

The main issue is that Red Hat and other Linux vendors need to make money somehow. And the main way they can do it is through support, patches and updates. This has led Red Hat to charge its customers a yearly fee to receive support and, most important, regular patches and updates for each of their Red Hat Linux-based enterprise systems.

And for some Red Hat Linux customers, this has become too much to swallow. You can find customers on many Linux newsgroups and user boards complaining about the six-figure fees they owe Red Hat and vowing to move to another Linux distribution. The story by Anne Chen, "Linux for the Long Haul," part of our big Linux package this week, profiles just such a dissatisfied customer: the city of Steamboat Springs, Colo., which is considering a move from Red Hat Linux.


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There are options for these customers, but there are also possibly insurmountable hurdles. One of the biggest is enterprise application support.

The Oracle database, for example, is certified for Red Hats Linux distribution and United Linux distributions. Of course, Linux is Linux, so a company could probably convert Oracle to run on another Linux distribution, such as Debian, but it would then lose support from Oracle.

Another problem arises from the confusing nature of Red Hats license. Since Linux is open source, Red Hat cant make you stop running it. So, basically, its license boils down to an agreement that you will pay for support and updates for your Red Hat enterprise Linux systems.

You could pay for just a few systems and then update others based on their images. But when you purchased Red Hat Linux, you specifically agreed not to do this.

Probably the best option is to use Red Hat Linux on systems that need high levels of support—namely, critical servers. The rest of your systems could then be moved to another Linux distribution.

Even with these support and licensing costs, deploying Red Hat Linux systems will still cost much less than deploying a similar number of Solaris systems. And if its a deployment where client licenses are required, it will probably cost much less than a similar deployment of Windows servers, although a Windows-server-only configuration would be comparable in price.

Linux vendors such as Red Hat should be able to get paid for the services and support they provide. But dont expect an enterprise deployment of Linux to be completely free unless you have the expertise and capability to patch and support your Linux systems yourself.

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Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at