Linux valued at $10.9 billion

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By Henry Kingman
Oct. 22, 2008

Have you got some loose change in your pocket, and dreams of building a better operating system? It would take about 25 years, nearly 60,000 developer-years, and $10.8B to re-create a distribution like Fedora 9, according to a new report from the Linux Foundation.

One implication of the study seems to be that companies wishing to economize, in these tough economic times, would do well to leverage all of the value in free and open source software. That value, the Linux Foundation report discloses, is considerable. For example, the Linux kernel alone would take $1.4B to build, and an estimated 16 years to complete. No wonder the Free Software Foundation never got anywhere with Hurd.

The Foundation chose Fedora 9, even though it is smaller than some other Linux distributions, because Fedora uses open source software exclusively, with the aim of creating a completely redistributable operating system. Thus, using Fedora 9 is a good way to limit the scope of the study to "open source only" software.

Method, or madness?

How, you might wonder, is it possible to put a price tag or a timeline on the massive amounts of work behind open source software, given that development burdens are shouldered by so many different companies, organizations, and individuals? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Foundation turned to open source software tools. They used David Wheeler's SLOC tools, aka "sloccount." Sloccount regresses a source code tree, tallying up lines of code. It then uses Barry Boehm's "CoCoMo" (constructive cost model) algorithm to estimate various metrics. Just for fun, here's sloccount's output for the source code tree that powers this website:<blockquote>
Total Physical Source Lines of Code (SLOC) = 19,894
Development Effort Estimate, Person-Years (Person-Months) = 4.62 (55.45)
(Basic COCOMO model, Person-Months = 2.4 * (KSLOC**1.05))
Schedule Estimate, Years (Months) = 0.96 (11.50)
(Basic COCOMO model, Months = 2.5 * (person-months**0.38))
Estimated Average Number of Developers (Effort/Schedule) = 4.82
Total Estimated Cost to Develop = $ 624,166
(average salary = $56,286/year, overhead = 2.40).
SLOCCount, Copyright (C) 2001-2004 David A. Wheeler</blockquote>

Who'd have thunk? I'm certainly glad it didn't take us a year, and five developers, to launch the site. We might have come out a bit behind the curve on this whole Linux thing, back in 1999. Leveraging several open source packages helped get us to market on time.

The slocount 2.26 version we used to derive the figures above suggests an annual programmer salary of $56,286 per year. However, the Linux Foundation opted instead for a figure of $75,662, which it says was the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics "average salary for a U.S. programmer," as of July, 2008. Additionally, the LF report seems to include "overhead" or "wrap" costs, apparently reflecting an average employer cost of $97,604.08 -- including taxes, office space, benefits, and so on -- to employ a programmer at $75,662 per year.

Additionally, it appears the Linux Foundation used a higher "--effort" argument when sloccounting the kernel, since it is more complicated than the typical project.


By the report's own admission, there is more to writing software than just adding more lines of code. The group acknowledges, in the report, that "The biggest weakness is [the] focus on net additions to software projects. Anyone who is familiar with kernel development, for instance, realizes that the highest man-power cost in its development is when code is deleted and modified. The amount of effort that goes into deleting and changing code, not just adding to it, is not reflected in the values associated with this estimate."

And, there are other problems with the data, the Foundation acknowledges. For instance, CoCoMo was developed from studies of proprietary software development, so using it to value open source software may be a stretch.

Still, there's no denying that Linux and open source software have been and continue to be a tremendous boon to companies, organizations, governments, and economies all around the world. Speaking for myself, I became fascinated with Unix in the mid-1990s, but did not have $15K sitting around to spend on a copy of Irix. Then, Linux came along, and my cost dropped to $6 for a mail-order CD.

Is your company taking the best advantage of the value in free and open source software? Write to me and tell me what you think. Or, post your comments in our Talkback forum below. For further research, the complete Linux Foundation report can be found here.

-- Henry Kingman