Open Source Technology: The Cost At The Enterprise Level




Open source software has generated much interest, especially in the wake of a slow economy.  This has forced many Information Technology (IT) departments to cut back on spending.  One of the main reasons open source technology is being considered by more IT departments is because open source technology is perceived as being free of charge.  While that perception is not all together true, this article will discuss an example of the real cost savings of open source technology as an enterprise system solution.  All costs related to the implementation of an open source server operating system including the hardware costs to run the operating system software, training costs to setup the operating system software, support cost to maintain the operating system software, and staff salary to administer the operating system software will be recognized in this article. 













Open Source Technology – The Cost at the Enterprise Level


     Open source refers to any program whose source code is made available for use or modification as users or other developers see fit. (Historically, the makers of proprietary software have generally not made source code available.)  Open source software is usually developed as a public collaboration and made freely available (Open Source, 2008).  When companies are deciding on whether to use open source products versus commercial products the benefits of both choices are apparent.  Commercial products typically favor visible features (giving marketing advantage) over hard to measure qualities such as stability, security and similar less glamorous attributes. Some experts describe this phenomenon as quality versus features (Benefits of Using Open Source, n.d.).  This paper examines the enterprise level cost of an open source technology system.  Different factors discussed in this paper include the cost of open source software, the cost of open source hardware, the cost of open source training to support this platform, and the salary requirements for open source administrators.  For the purpose of this paper, the total cost of ownership of an open source production database server will be discussed in detail.

     There are many different distribution options or ‘flavors’ a technology manager can choose from that are considering an open source operating system.  Linux is about freedom and choice, so one has plenty of freedom to choose the flavor of Linux that best fits the business needs (Linux Distributions, n.d.).  Common flavors of Linux include:

Red Hat Enterprise Linux Mandrake Linux The Fedora Project The Debian Project Knoppix SUSE Linux Slackware Linux MEPIS Linux Ubuntu Linux Xandros PCLinux OS Linspire

     Jim Klein (2009) writes that Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) can be defined as all of the costs of acquiring and maintaining a network of computers. This includes the cost for Hardware and software technology – client computers, servers, software, printers, networking equipment, external service providers

Direct labor – those responsible for purchasing, training, implementation, management and support of the computer environment Indirect labor – time spent by users in training, dealing with computer and networking issues, and effect of computer or network down-time.

     Red Hat Linux is one of the most supported Linux operating systems on the market.  Red Hat provides operating systems for the individual users as well as the large enterprises.  When pricing operating systems it’s very important to know the hardware that this operating system will reside on.  For example, it makes a difference if this operating system is a dual processor or a quad processor.  For the purpose of this paper, the server we want to install Red Hat on is a quad Intel processor.  Because this server is a production server, 24/7 support is required.  According to Red Hat, the best license option for this configuration is the ‘Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Platform, Premium Subscription’ (Server Operating Systems, n.d.).  When you subscribe to a Red Hat subscription, you’re renting the use of that software.  With the Premium Subscription of Red Hat Enterprise Linux Advanced Platform you get the following:

Unlimited CPU processors Unlimited virtualized guests Red Hat global File System and Cluster Suite Web and phone-based comprehensive support 24×7 coverage 1 hour critical response (4 hour normal response time) Red Hat Network Update Product Updates Installation and documentation media Covered under the Open Source Assurance program Server applications to include ISV applications, Apache, Samba, nfs, ftp, Tomcat, MySQL, and PostgreSQL

     For the purpose of this paper the server this Red Hat software will run on will be a Dell PowerEdge Energy Smart Quad Core Intel Xeon L5410 server.  This server comes with 8 Gig of ram and 3 73 gig hard drives.  The cost of this server is $6250.00 (Dell, Select Components, n.d.).  This hardware is approved by Red Hat as a supported hardware platform. 

     The skill sets required to support an open source environment requires a person who completely understands how each component in an environment works.  In most environments this person’s title would be a Linux administrator.  A capable Linux administrator will have a variety of skills.  Jay Beal (2004) provides skill sets a Linux Administrator should have would include security, operating system hardening, software installation, hardware installation, system assessment, troubleshooting, and intelligence gathering (Essential Linux Skills, 2004).

     Security in any environment is essential.  A Linux administrator must understand that any port on any server is venerable to an attack.  Every port must be accounted for and the Linux administrator needs to know what log files are tracking all port traffic.  Those log files need to be monitored daily for malicious attacks.  In case an attack occurs, a Linux administrator should know how to recover from a server that has crashed.

     Most default server installations install more services that are generally needed.  A Linux administrator needs to be aware of the purpose of the server and understand specifically what services need to be running and just as important, what services do not need to be running.  Those services that do not need to be running should be shut down and the Linux administrator needs to recognize these services and shut those services down along with the ports they use.

     At some point, the server may need software and/or hardware upgrades.  A Linux administrator needs to be prepared to apply upgrades or patches for software upgrades.  Those software patches may require more hardware in order to run optimally.  In this case a Linux administrator needs to be comfortable upgrading the hardware if there is a need to do so. 

     Finally, the Linux administrator needs to be able to assess the system and if there is concern, research the problem and find the solution.  Because open source software is mostly supported by the ‘community’, it can be tedious to find solutions to complex problems.  If the Linux administrator is fortunate, support is paid for when the subscription is obtained.  If support is not paid for, the Linux administrator has to rely on good research skills to solve the problem.

     Finding a good Linux administrator to administer the open source environment is hard to do.  When you do find them, it is obvious that they are in great demand by the salary requirements they are demanding.  A seasoned Linux administrator that is industry certified will demand as much as $90k – 120k per year if he/she is considered a full-time employee (Salary Search, n.d.). 
nux contractors range from $60.00 – $120.00 per hour. 

     One of the benefits of having an open source environment is training courses are usually reasonably priced.  The only difficulty is finding a training center that specializes in open source technology training.  Most 3-day classes will range anywhere from $1200 to $1400 dollars per class.  Most 5-day classes will range from $1800 – $2200 dollars per class.  If your Linux administrator is a good self-learner there are many options online that he/she can take advantage of.  Many websites offer free online training videos and free training manuals for anyone interested in taking advantage of them.

     As it is evident, the notion of open source technology being free is far from true.  However, many experts agree that the total cost of ownership is less than it would be if commercial software was being used.  Dan Orzech (2002) writes that the cost of Linux is roughly 40% that of Windows, and only 14% that of Sun Microsystem’s Solaris based on a study of various operating systems over a 3 year period.  Below is a table that summarizes the total cost of ownership for a typical open source database environment.

Total Cost of Ownership



Description of Service


Linux OS Software including Premium Support

$1299.00 per year

Linux Administrator

$100,000 per year

Ongoing Training

$1500.00 per year

Total Cost

$102,799.00 per year


Total Cost of Ownership

(One-Time Cost)

Server Hardware

$6250.00 purchase price

Total One-Time Cost



     As one can see from the table above, open source technology is not free.  Open source proponents and proprietary companies disagree on the total cost of ownership. Proponents claim that even if open source requires more expertise, the TCO is ultimately lower.  Companies claim that the required expertise is daunting and the other costs of proprietary solutions are exaggerated (Open Options, 2005).  Yes, there are some ways that prices could be cut.  The Linux administrator could be contracted out on an ‘as needed’ basis.  It is also possible to purchase a server with fewer features and less processors if cost was a factor when purchasing hardware.  Training could be kept to a minimum or even limited to online training only.  Even with all this being said, the myth that open source technology is free just is not a true statement, especially in a production environment.  However, open source technology is the preferred technology in many IT shops for reliability reasons.