Determining the true value of a server operating system

One of the most critical decisions a network manager can make is which server operating system to deploy. Making that choice is fraught with budget limitations, corporate politics and a numerous other factors. Here, an expert discusses how to determine the true ROI and TCO of a server OS.

This is the second tip in a series on determining data center ROI. Check out the first tip on how to calculate

the ROI and TCO of your energy-efficient power and cooling investments.

While administrators will intuitively focus on the technical aspects of a server OS, there are many other factors that should drive the decision process.

Picking the best server operating system (more commonly referred to as a NOS, or network operating system) is probably the most important decision an administrator can make. The selection process takes time, research and testing, and getting others to agree and fund the purchase may pose an even bigger challenge. While administrators will intuitively focus on the technical aspects of a server OS, there are many other factors that should drive the decision process, not the least being long-term costs that affect the total cost of ownership (TCO) and the short-term costs that affect the return on investment (ROI).

Ignoring those financial factors seems to be the biggest mistake made by many network managers seeking to promote one server OS over another to the organization's bean counters. TCO and ROI can provide powerful arguments to select a particular product for deployment and get the needed funding to make it happen.

Judging the financial benefits of one server operating system over another proves to be a complex and involved process; luckily there are some clear-cut categories to focus on that lend themselves well to ROI and TCO calculations.

  • Purchase cost: This is probably one of the simplest metrics to determine. Calculating the initial cost of the server OS involves determining the price of the software, the cost of licenses and the cost of support contracts. In most cases, Linux has a distinct advantage here.

  • Hardware cost: A state-of-the-art server OS usually requires state-of-the-art hardware. Here, it is important to include server hardware as well as supporting hardware, such as storage, memory and peripherals required. For larger deployments, economies of scale have an impact, with racks of equipment usually coming in at lower price per unit than separately purchased components.

  • Training costs: Installation and management of a new server OS usually requires training and, sometimes, certification, which can add significant costs to the project. For example, a Windows shop moving to Linux may incur significant training fees to educate administrators on the facets of the new OS.

  • Implementation costs: Installing a server OS and the related equipment takes time, which translates to money. The costs of the physical installation need to be accounted for, as well as any VAR/contractor costs and costs associated with downtime. In most cases, these costs will be affected by the complexity of the installation as well as the OS selected.

  • Support costs: A new server OS will have associated support costs, ranging from technical support contracts to VAR services to in-house personnel costs. It is critical to identify those costs to accurately represent the TCO of the project.

Although lower costs across the above categories can demonstrate savings from selecting one server operating system over another, it is only one part of the equation. Administrators will still need to follow through with due diligence to complete the equation, and that means calculating the savings one server OS can offer over another. Savings help to define the ROI on a project and can demonstrate the benefits of one technology over another, helping to justify higher up-front costs with the promises of long-term savings. However, defining tangible as well as intangible benefits can be a complex process and requires some estimation to create workable numbers.

  • Supporting applications. For many, the drive to select a new server OS comes from the need to support a new line-of-business application or business process. Here, those driving factors can be used to demonstrate how savings can be derived. For example, if a new application can support either an open source database (mySQL, PostgreSQL) or a commercial database (MSSQL, Oracle), choosing the open source offering may reduce costs across the board and improve ROI.

  • Efficiency. A server OS can offer certain savings in particular environments. An example is an OS that works well with virtualization, allowing administrators to reduce the number of physical servers. Additional savings can be calculated based upon a smaller energy footprint and reduced cooling needs.

  • Performance. Increased performance has many tangible benefits and intangible benefits. From a raw processing power perspective, one server OS may be able to support more users, transactions and storage options than another. Those add up to tangible benefits when it comes to calculating physical loads. However, added performance can also improve the end-user experience, netting an increase in productivity -- while that may be an intangible benefit, a number that predicts savings can still be associated with it.

  • Future proofing. Over time, networks grow, and so does the demands on the server operating system. While predicting growth can be a tricky process, it is still relatively easy to determine scalability of an server OS. Some products require that different versions must be deployed as an upgrade to handle growth, while others scale out very effectively. Nevertheless, it is important to judge how difficult it will be to grow the network over time and what the costs associated with that growth will be. It is acceptable to use predicted company growth as dictated by a business plan to calculate anticipated growth of the network. Here, a server OS can demonstrate future savings when compared with another server OS.

  • Stability. A server operating system that helps to solve problems while reducing downtime can offer significant savings to a large organization. Demonstrating the savings offered by reduced downtime, especially due to increased server resiliency, can add up to a significant amount. Here, looking at support for failover, clustering, and hot swapping as well as integrated business continuity features can be translated into savings by calculating the cost of downtime and how total downtime will be reduced by a server OS.

Determining overall value of a server OS is no simple trick, but when equipped with the right information, the raw data, and the tools to calculate costs and savings, value becomes a demonstrable element that should help to build the case of selecting one server operating system over another. What's more, when equipped with those calculations, administrators and managers will be able to make a concise financial argument that will back the preferred technology.

What did you think of this feature? Write to's Matt Stansberry about your data center concerns at

This was first published in July 2010

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