What is the real development costs of Debian GNU / Linux – How much costs the development of a Free Software projects

Free Software (FS) is free as in freedom as well as free as in price. Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is developed by geek hobbyist which voluntarily put their time and effort in writting, testing and sharing with anyone for free million of lines of programming code. This doesn't mean however the price of free software costs is 0 (zero). Though the "end product" -  Free Software developed is FREE, "real" software costs as with any other product costs huge money.

I've recently read on Jeb's blog an estimation on how much is the cost of one of the major Free Software project efforts – Debian GNU / Linux
According to James E. Brombergerthe whole Debian project was estimated to be at the shocking price of $19 billion – $19 000, 000, 000 !!!

Here is how JEB got the $19 billions, a quote taken from his blog:

"By using David A Wheeler’s sloccount tool and average wage of a developer of US$72,533 (using median estimates from Salary.com and PayScale.com for 2011) I summed the individual results to find a total of 419,776,604 source lines of code for the ‘pristine’ upstream sources, in 31 programming languages — including 429 lines of Cobol and 1933 lines of Modula3!

In my analysis the projected cost of producing Debian Wheezy in February 2012 is US$19,070,177,727 (AU$17.7B, EUR€14.4B, GBP£12.11B), making each package’s upstream source code worth an average of US$1,112,547.56 (AU$837K) to produce. Impressively, this is all free (of cost).

James has done incredible job with this great research and he deserves applause.
However I believe the numbers proposed by his research are slightly different if we speak about realistic cost of Debian GNU / Linux.
The real costs of the working software ready to install on a user PC are way higher, as according to Jeb's research only the software cost based on code line count is considered.

Hence James software estimation calculates only the programming costs and miss many, many factors that constitute the software end cost.
Some of the many, many REAL COST / expenses for developing a huge Free Software project like Debian GNU / Linux to be considered are:

a) bandwidth costs for hosting free software (on the server side)b) bandwidth cost for developers or FS users downloading the software

a) Time spend to spread the word of the great added value of Debian and bundled software (Mouth by Mouth Marketing)

b) Time spend to advertise Debian and its free software components on blogs, social networks (identi.ca, facebook, twitter) etc.(Voluntary online Marketing, SEO etc.)

c) Time spend on generating ideas on future program versions and reporting them to Debian FS community

d) Time on evaluation and feedback on software

e) Time spend on managing free software repository (download) servers voluntarily (by system administrators)

f) Time spend by users on Bug Tracking & Bug Reporting

g) Time spend on research and self-actualization by software developer)

h) Time spend on software Quality Assurance

This are most of the multiple factors which should probably influence the cost of any non-free (proprietary software) project. No matter this costs apply for non-free software, it perfectly applies for free software as well.With all said if if we assume the non-programming costs are equal to the programming costs of $ 19 000 000 000 (suggested by Jeb). This means the real cost of Debian will presumably be at least $32 000 000 000. Putting $ 19 billion for all this long list of "additional" costs (besides pure source) factors is probably still very under-scored number.

  • the developers use of their own computers (hardware depreciation)
  • electricity bill of the volunteer (developer) working on the program or project
  • electricity bills for servers where free software is stored and available for download
  • volunteer developer IT skills and tech knowledge (KNOW HOW)
  • Internet, network, dial up bandwidth cost
  • personal time put in FS development (programming, design, creativity etc.)! here the sub costs are long:
  • Costs for Project Management Leaders / Project Coordination
  • The complexity of each of the projects constituting Debian

Very interesting figure from Jeb's research is the Programming Languages break down by source code figure.
Jamesresearch reveals on the 4 major programming languages used in the 17000+ software projects (part of Debian GNU / Linux):


  • ANSI C with 168,536,758 – (40% of all projects source code)
  • C++ at 83,187,329 – (20% of all projects source)
  • Java 34,698,990 – (lines of code 8% of sources)
  • Lisp – (7% of all projects source code)

  His research also provides a general idea on how much the source code of some of the major FOSS projects costs. Here is a copy of his figures

Individual Projects

Other highlights by project included:

Project Version Thousands
Projected cost
at US$72,533/developer/year
Samba 3.6.1 2,000 US$101 (AU$93M)
Apache 2.2.9 693 US$33.5M (AU$31M)
MySQL 5.5.17 1,200 US$64.2M (AU$59.7M)
Perl 5.14.2 669 US$32.3M (AU$30M)
PHP 5.3.9 693 US$33.5M (AU$31.1M)
Bind 9.7.3 319 US$14.8M (AU$13.8M)
Moodle 1.9.9 396 US$18.6M (AU$17.3M)
Dasher 4.11 109 US$4.8M (AU$4.4M)
DVSwitch 6 US$250K (AU$232K)


As you can imagine all the source evaluation results, are highly biased and are open for discussion, since evaluating a free software project/s is a hard not to say impossible task. The "open" model of development makes a project very hard to track, open source model implies too many unexpected variables missing from the equation for clear calculation on costs. What is sure however if turned in money it is very expensive to produce.  At present moment Debian Project is sponsored only through donations. The usual yearly budget 5 years ago for Debian  was only $80 000 dollars a year!! You can check Debian Project annual reports throughout the years here , for year 2012 Debian Project budget is as low as $ 222, 677 (US Dollars)! The output price of the software the project provides is enormous high if compared to the low project expenses!

For us the free software users, price is not a concern, Debian is absolutely free both  as in freedom and free as in beer ;)

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3 Responses to “What is the real development costs of Debian GNU / Linux – How much costs the development of a Free Software projects”

  1. admin Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Software cost estimation is tricky business even when all the variables are known (which we certainly don’t have). One thing to remember is that COCOMO was created to model large institutional projects, which often don’t compare well with distributed open-source projects. Beyond just development time, COCOMO is meant to include the design, specification drafting, reviewing and management overhead that goes along with producing quality software.

    This model seems to be most accurate with mature, large projects. Young projects with little activity are typically overvalued.

    On the link below there is alaternative estimation on how much the Debian project costs
    - http://www.ohloh.net/p/debian/estimated_cost

  2. admin Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Just as a matter of comparison it is interesting fact to know, the approximate number of lines of code in Microsoft Windows (data obtained from Wikipedia):

    Year Operating System SLOC (Million)
    1993 Windows NT 3.1 4-5
    1994 Windows NT 3.5 7-8
    1996 Windows NT 4.0 11-12
    2000 Windows 2000 more than 29
    2001 Windows XP 45
    2003 Windows Server 2003 50

    You see microsoft Windows contains a way less code compared to Debian Linux :)

    However while comparing it should be considered Debian basic core with Gnome will be far less than the overall 419,776,604. Probably it will be just few million lines of code.

  3. [...] might be a bit sluggish. However for most projects they should be of a great add on value, actually SLOCCount was already used for calculating the development costs of GNU / Linux and other projects o… and therefore it is proven it works well with ENORMOUS software source line code calculations [...]

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