Comparing Costs for a SOHO Setup: Red Hat Linux 5.0 vs. Windows NT Workstation 4.0

Several months ago, I received a free, fully licensed copy of Windows NT Workstation 4.0. This was just weeks after I had upgraded to Red Hat 5.0 on my business box. My experience with setting up a dual-booting system is a poignant illustration of the costs of running a business on Linux versus a commercial OS.

The initial Red Hat installation went smoothly, though I spent two hours downloading a dozen or so updated RPMs from Red Hat's Errata web site. Then, it took me probably five hours or so to properly configure the new setup. After that, another two hours of installing/configuring got me to the point where I could actually get some work done.

Here's how it went with NT. First, I installed Windows NT 4.0, and actually had very few problems with the initial install. But NT wouldn't properly mount my internal zip drive—unlike Red Hat, which performed beautifully out of the box. After an hour of searching in vain for a fix, I finally used the first of my two free tech support calls. The engineer, who spent half an hour searching, finally directed me to a 100KB “hotfix” patch from the Microsoft FTP server. I installed it, and the zip drive worked.

One of my clients needed a large document created and formatted in Adobe PageMaker, which was why I installed NT in the first place. Once I had NT working satisfactorily, I installed my licensed copy of PageMaker and spent several hours writing and formatting the document.

That went fine, until the next “feature” presented itself. I had copied several hundred documents and data files from the zip drive onto the NTFS partition. After logging out that night and back in the next morning, NT had deleted the files I had copied to it from the zip drive—along with all new files created in those directories, including the PageMaker document! So NT basically blew away approximately five hours worth of billable work.

I figured it was my own fault and spent another several hours figuring out what I was doing wrong and trying to recover my document. Was it permissions? Some conflict between the FAT16 formatted disks and the NTFS partition? Whatever the cause, I couldn't fix it. To make matters worse, the client was upset with me for failing to deliver their work and canceled their order.

Furious over this turn of events, I used my final free tech support call. Fortunately, the Microsoft tech support line is a local call for me, as I was on the phone for over an hour. The engineer had no idea what the problem was. He instructed me to install a 1.3MB “hotfix” patch from the Microsoft FTP site. Trusting him, I spent an hour doing just that.

Well, the “hotfix” basically destroyed the NT installation. It would boot, but no application, not even “My Computer” or the “Windows Explorer”, would open. All the files were inaccessible. My only recourse was to either reinstall or attempt a repair from the emergency disk. The emergency disk repair allowed me to back up a few files onto my zip drive, but the installation was beyond salvage, and I abandoned it.

Based on this experience, let's take a comparative look at what the two operating systems have really cost me.

Software: RH=$40, NT=$0.

My only expense was $40 for the Red Hat distribution, since NT was a gift. (NT would normally cost around $275 to $300 for a retail license and media.) I already owned all the commercial Windows and Linux software applications I needed, as well as several books on Linux. I was able to return for a full refund the $60 book on Windows NT I had purchased.

Tech Support: RH=.25 hours, NT=2+ hours.

As for tech support, the two times I had to contact Red Hat were for minor problems that were handled in about 15 minutes of total effort on my part. With NT, the effort was huge—I spent at least 2 hours on the phone with the tech support engineers. To their credit, the MS tech support staff were very conscientious. They took pride in their work and made a genuine effort on my behalf. Neither tech support effort cost actual money, since Red Hat is by e-mail, and I am local to the MS tech support phone number.

Configuration & Software Installation=10 hours (or so) for each O/S.

Downloading and installing updated RPM and configuring the system took around ten hours for Linux, while dealing with the NT fiasco was about the same. The difference between fixing the Linux bugs and fixing the NT problems was that the Linux fixes actually helped.

Work Lost: RH=0 hours and $0, NT=5 hours and at least $500.

I have never lost billable work or vital data in Linux. NT managed to blow away a perfectly fine piece of effort before I could deliver it to the client. Yes, I willingly accept some blame for failing to copy the file to floppy immediately. Nevertheless, the client didn't get their work, so they didn't pay me.

If you add up all the time and costs, you see that neither OS was free, although the initial monetary prices paid were nominal. Of course, NT would have cost $300 or so had I paid for it myself. Linux cost me at least one full day's worth of work that I could have spent doing billable work for clients, as did the NT setup.

But NT cost me dearly. I lost the full fee for a project which was completed, but destroyed. On top of that, my esteem in the eyes of that client went down, and who knows if they'll call me again for future work.

The lessons to be learned from this experience?

  1. The initial OS costs for the SOHO user are not as divergent as they may appear. Even though Linux is free or can be had for $40, it still costs you. If you must spend a full day installing and hand configuring your workstation, the opportunity costs far outweigh the initial price paid for the OS software, whether it is MS Windows NT Workstation or Red Hat Linux. (This does not hold true when you must purchase multiple workstation licenses and server software, but that is beyond the realm of the very small business owner or home worker.)
  2. The stability of Linux versus MS Windows NT means that your investment of time learning to use Linux will more than pay for itself in the mid-to-long run. NT and Linux took about the same amount of time to set up and load with productivity software. Using NT was a bit easier and more intuitive right off the bat. But NT bombed out on me, destroying $500 worth of work. I've never been to Wall Street, but I'd call that a bad investment.
  3. Make daily backups, no matter what. This would have saved my work done in Windows NT, but it would not have made NT work for me. Nor would it have allowed me to deliver the client's project on schedule. I still would have had to either reinstall NT or open the file on another MS Windows workstation. This was impossible, because the client was adamant about the deadline.

Linux saves me time and money. This experience was all the convincing I needed. So from now on, all my work is done in Linux (with very few exceptions), and I make daily backups without fail.