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Linux vs Windows – a cost comparison

May 16, 2018 |

The Linux vs Windows debate typically circles around cost and functionality. Although Linux is often considered inexpensive and Windows costly. A number of factors can alter the equation not the least of which is the advent of cloud computing.

Perhaps no organization has done more to spur Linux adoption than Amazon’s AWS, which relies on Linux to deliver its cloud services. Linux has continued to make steady inroads in computing, as evidenced by the fact that some 40% of the VMs in Microsoft’s Azure are running Linux.

By any measure Linux is a technical tour de force. Plus cost is certainly another driving factor. However, as Enterprises further embrace and rely on Linux the “free” moniker is quickly evaporating in favor of paid subscriptions. In addition, Microsoft’s change to core based pricing for Windows Server alters the equation as well.

Let’s take a closer look at the cost considerations for both platforms.

Infrastructure Costs:

The main consideration whether it be on-premises or cloud – what kind of hardware resources are needed to provision applications? All things being equal, if we look strictly at the operating systems themselves Linux is lighter weight and more tunable and can handle more of a given workload. How much? That will depend on the attributes of the application, but in general you can expect 20% or so more throughput on Linux. A Wintel centric organization in all likelihood won’t find the increased efficiencies all that compelling, however a greenfield deployment may feel differently.


License Costs:


Linux for all intents and purposes can be had for no license fee at all (i.e. Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora). Enterprises that require Linux support and vendor accountability will opt for platforms like Red Hat and SUSE. The Red Hat and SUSE license costs are embedded in the subscription services.


Commercial organizations know all too well that the Windows operating system incurs a licensing cost. Windows Server 2016 Datacenter starts at $6,155 – keep in mind that this is list price and that Microsoft Partner pricing varies. Also, if you don’t have an Enterprise Agreement (EA) or Software Assurance and your Windows OS reaches end of life, you’ll need to pay to upgrade to next version

You will also likely need additional Client Access Licenses (CALs) to supplement on-premises Windows Server licenses.  Windows Server 2019 will likely cost more because of an increase in the CAL license cost.

Licensing Windows in cloud configurations is different.  First, as a subscription you’ll likely be paying for the Windows licenses year in and year out.  However, there is no CAL cost associated with a public cloud deployment. The move by Microsoft to increase CAL cost for Windows Server 2019 could be construed as a way to further incentivize cloud adoption.

Keep in mind EA pricing can vary depending on your organization’s size and negotiating skills.


Software Support Costs:


Things get real interesting when looking at support costs, especially as it applies to “free” Linux. Sure one could argue that if your environment consists of 100’s or 1000’s of Linux virtual machines free distros like Ubuntu, CentOS, or Debian are compelling. However, your organization had better ensure it has the core competency to deal with most any Linux issue foisted upon it. Consulting message boards and news groups in order to solve problems may not be enough when the situation is dire. Competent in-house Linux expertise can be expensive unless it is amortized over a large number of servers.

If you’re an organization that would rather focus on applications and development and let someone else worry about the Linux OS then subscriptions from the likes of Red Hat and SUSE are a perfect fit.


Windows Server Software Assurance (SA) pricing varies depending on the deal worked out with your Microsoft Partner. For the sake of simplicity and clarity we can assume the SA has a cost of ~25% of list price per year. SA provides a number of benefits among them are new versions as well as support and problem resolution.

5 Year Cost Comparison  – On-Premises Linux vs Windows Hosts


Figure 1 calculates the total cost of license and support of an on-premises deployment for a single host with an unlimited number of VMs. The pricing is based on an assumption of a 2 socket / 16 core CPU configuration. The matrix also assumes that Microsoft Software Assurance was purchased and renewed over the 5 years.

Note: Unlike Microsoft with Window Server, Red Hat does not not distinguish Linux pricing based on core count, therefore as the core count increases so does the disparity between two.

Note also that the purchase of CALs certainly alters the equation. How much?  It will depend on how the servers are being used and the type and quantity of CALs. In the licensing example below:

Windows =  (Datacenter license at $6,155) + (50 user CALs at $38 each) = $8,055


Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Total Delta


Red Hat $2,499 $2,499 $2,499 $2,499 $2,499 $12,495
Windows $8,055 $1,525 $1,525 $1,525 $1,525 $1,525 $15,680


Figure 1. On-Premises License and Support over 5 Years


1 Year Comparison of General Purpose Linux vs Windows VMs 2 vCPUs


Figure 2 calculates the annual subscription cost of general purpose public cloud Reserved Instances with 2 vCPUs and 8 Gig RAM.

We can see the premium ranges somewhere between 16% and 27%. Also we don’t have to worry at all about licensing CALs for the Windows instances.

The math can changes when considering layered applications. For example, if we add a database and incrementally include Microsoft SQL Server for Windows or MySQL for Linux to the equation, things tip further in the favor of Linux.




Reserved Instance

1 Year
Red Hat Linux

1 Year

AWS m5.large  $1,060 $1,340 26%
Google n1-standard-2  $1,108 $1,283 16%
Microsoft D2 v3  $1,034 $1,313 27%

Figure 2. Annual Cloud subscription with 2 vCPU


1 Year Comparison General Purpose Linux vs Windows VMs 4 vCPUs


Figure 3 calculates the annual subscription cost of general purpose public cloud Reserved Instances with 4 vCPUs and 16 Gig RAM.

We can see that by doubling up the vCPUs the Windows premium sky rockets to between 52% and 71% for Windows.





Reserved Instance

1 Year
Red Hat Linux

1 Year

AWS m5.xlarge  $1,603 $2,689 68%
Google n1-standard-4  $1,691 $2,567 52%
Microsoft D4 v3  $1,529 $2,615 71%

Figure 3. Annual Cloud subscription with 4 vCPU


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IT Staffing Costs:

The cost differential between Linux and Windows isn’t simply licensing and support, we need to factor in system administration and migration costs as well. Choosing between either or both platforms will depend largely on the makeup of your current IT organization, the state of the labor market, and the amount of disruption your organization can tolerate to affect change.


The increased demands of public cloud and the ecosystem surrounding it has put a premium on Linux professionals. As of the writing of this post the average annual salary is some 33% higher for Linux System Administrators over Windows Systems Administrators.

Linux requires a different skill set over Windows to administer. Whereas Windows is known for its configuration simplicity with a user interface, Linux is known for its flexibility and scripting capability.

Keep in mind that the administrator to server density also tends to be higher with Linux deployments over the Windows counterpart and this can often balance out the staffing premium.



Microsoft has build a tremendous ecosystem around Windows. For the majority of IT departments, the Windows platform is the de facto standard. The sunk cost in Windows training along with simplicity of administration often makes the Wintel platform the path of least resistance.

Because the majority of IT administrators have grown up with Windows and are quite fluent with the platform already, careful consideration has to be given as to whether additional Linux training costs or the need to import costly external expertise would negate any Linux license and support savings. In addition, applications can’t simply be lifted and shifted from one platform to the other. Ultimately, you’ve got to ask… is it worth the migration costs and possible disruptions to the organization to introduce a second platform?

A more pragmatic approach may be to stay the course if an organization is already Windows centric.  However greenfield deployments may well pursue a different strategy. Although some would argue that Linux has a steep learning curve, the new crop of system administrators that have been indoctrinated in Linux from the start may beg to differ.



There are a number of factors that come into play when comparing the costs of Windows over Linux. While it is easy to make a gross generalization that Linux is less expensive or even “free” as compared to Windows, this is an overly simplistic view.

  1. Most everything in business has a cost. Linux, no matter the platform, comes with accompanying administrative costs as quality expertise is either maintained in-house or paid for via a subscription.
  2. Linux subscriptions are more attractive (especially when on-premises) because there is no upfront costs as compared to Windows. However an aggressively negotiated Enterprise Agreement along with the sunk costs of Windows training can narrow the cost differential.
  3. For larger CPU configurations the cost differential for cloud deployments of Windows and Linux increases dramatically because Microsoft forces Windows Servers licenses to follow (partly) per core pricing.  Organizations need to pay special attention as to the type of workload their applications generate and the type of CPU resources that will be required when making a determination of one platform over the other.
  4. Keep in mind the supply and demand of IT personnel with desired skill sets can change the calculus as to which platform(s) will best suit the needs of an organization. Ultimately it may come down to corporate preference and the direction they want to take IT staff.


Want to Learn more?

Download our Red Hat Linux vs Windows price matrix. The matrix compares Reserved Instance Pricing for for Standard, Compute, and High Memory machine instance classes.

In addition the matrix examines pricing for the multiple vCPU configurations within an instance class.