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Real World Open Source: The TCO Question

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How much is this going to cost me? The question may be the lifeblood of business, but the answer is all too often an alchemy of knowns and unknowns, hard figures, and soft projections. Occupying the gap is a cottage industry of studies, surveys, analysts, and pundits weighing in on the big, bad, broad comparison of total cost of ownership (TCO) between commercial and open source software.

Some suggest that less than 30 percent of an organization's software TCO is in upfront costs (e.g., sale price or licenses), while the rest is in support and know-how. One study has argued that the typical Linux TCO may be half that of Microsoft Windows, while one Microsoft-sponsored study suggested Windows offered an 11 percent to 22 percent savings compared to a similar Linux-based deployment. These and the myriad studies like them, nearly all rooted in one agenda or another, reveal virtually nothing about your organization's needs.

In the real world, these seemingly comprehensive studies wind up either so broad or so scenario-specific that they are more useless than the analogous dietary allowances printed on food labels. A hypothetical average American might require 300 grams of carbs per day, but how much do you need? Like making dietary decisions, the TCO question must be evaluated in the context of an organization's own specific metabolism.

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