Operating System Selection

Open Source and Proprietary – The Decision Criteria

The selection of operating systems was once one of the major decisions IT managers had to face when considering their options for service delivery, be it for servers or desktop systems. Until a decade or so ago, such choices were limited to choosing one from a range of proprietary operating systems supplied by vendors. But the last ten years have witnessed a new option take hold in the form of open source operating systems. What drives the selection process when choosing between open source software and operating systems supplied by a vendor?

When deliberating whether to use open source operating systems software or that supplied by a commercial ISV the factors influencing the decision-making process are, essentially, the same as they have always been. Some eight or nine characteristics form the major items to be taken into account, including license models and costs, application support, skills availability, operational support options, performance requirements and risk analysis. Of these, three or four tend to dominate the selection processes. When looking at PC solutions it is also important to remember that the user’s experience of the solutions and their comfort can be major selection factors.

At the top of the selection process when picking between operating systems, there is one factor which has absolute importance. Does the application run on the OS or will someone have to port it over to a new platform? After all, no one runs an operating system because they want to run the OS for its own sake. It is there to anchor an application, database or some other service and make it available to users.

When open source operating systems first came to prominence, few commercial business applications were supported on the platforms available, thereby severely limiting some choices. Today, this has changed with many commercial ISVs now more than happy to support operation of their software on major open source platforms, frequently in addition to Windows, Unix or another of the major server operating systems. Unless the application does not support a particular OS this factor alone may not be a major selection bifurcation point between an open source and commercial operating system.

If the application under consideration is compatible with both open source and proprietary operating systems, other factors come into play. Amongst these, though our research indicates them rarely to be the most conclusive elements, are the matters of licensing model and costs. For commercial ISVs, everyone understands that there are license fees to be paid, potentially with associated support and maintenance / software upgrade charges to be accounted for.

The same cannot be said of open source operating systems, where in some minds the perception exists that “open source” equates to “free of charge”. In point of fact, many of the major distributors of open source software in general, and of operating systems in particular, struggle to explain the terms of the use of the solutions they make available to customers. The confusion becomes particularly acute when the Linux distributors, such as Red Hat, SuSE etc., supply the base software for no fee but offer support subscription services to help organisations keep the operating system functioning effectively and to provide assistance when problems are encountered.

Given that open source software is, by its very nature, readily available to inspection and modification (from the perspective of a source coder), with active communities working to develop, enhance and resolve problems when they arise, it is theoretically possible for IT staff within the business to fix any problems they encounter without paid services from the supplier. But few organisations have the skilled staff available in house to resolve problems, at least to do so within the very short time frames on which service problems must now routinely be resolved, never mind having the capabilities to test them. Furthermore, support and maintenance of platform software per se is generally considered to be a distraction in a mainstream IT environment where resources are already stretched.

This is where the vendors of open source operating systems offer support contracts. In truth, simply from a risk perspective, few organisations would consider using software to deliver mainstream business services without having some form of external support contract in place unless they are extremely confident in their own capabilities to resolve, rapidly, any problems encountered. And here’s the rub, because once you sign such a contract, for open source software, you will often find yourself as constrained as you are with commercial solutions. In some cases, for example, you may be required to pay a subscription for all instances of the software used in your organisation, whether you want support for them or not.

On the matter of “cost”, it should also be recognised that whilst the acquisition and support costs, when all terms and conditions are understood, may be straightforward to calculate, over the lifetime of such systems, it is likely that it will be the management overheads that account for the majority of the Total Cost of Ownership. With this in mind, it is therefore important to understand just how well the management and administration tools the organisation has available can handle the operating systems under consideration. Whilst many management frameworks are now able to integrate, at least to some degree, with open source operating systems, the exact capabilities must be examined to ensure that additional costs for acquiring administration facilities do not arise unexpectedly.

As with commercial operating systems, the contracts for open source operating systems must therefore be read with care and diligence, potentially backed up by engaging professional advice to ensure the terms and conditions of support and business usage are understood. The subject of license costs differentiating between open source and commercial software may not be quite as simple as can be assumed.

Of even greater importance is to ensure that the skills the IT management team has available match the needs of the chosen platform, and/or any cross training or recruitment requirements are taken into account. In many organisations, the familiarity with open source software, especially Linux, is now reaching similar levels to that for the longer established commercial operating systems, but this is not the case everywhere, especially amongst smaller organisations. Also, skills to handle advanced capability such as fault tolerance and clustering should not be overlooked where relevant.

In the end, all of this may be academic, though, as open source software is so often chosen on the basis of unqualified perception or even personal interest and/or preference. Assuming you are making an objective decision, however, we hope our discussion has been of use to highlight that choosing between the options is seldom straightforward, and requires careful consideration.


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Tony is an IT operations guru. As an ex-IT manager with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, his extensive vendor briefing agenda makes him one of the most well informed analysts in the industry, particularly on the diversity of solutions and approaches available to tackle key operational requirements. If you are a vendor talking about a new offering, be very careful about describing it to Tony as ‘unique’, because if it isn’t, he’ll probably know.