Which operating system is best for your server, i.e. for your hosting package – Windows or Linux? I will analyze various parameters of both systems – including account accessibility, software compatibility, cost, uptime, security, support, and the choice of open source vs. proprietary technology.
Often the debate over operating systems becomes passionate and emotional, and it is difficult to find even-handed material. I want to view the two options as objectively as possible. With that in mind, I will reference articles that exhibit fair discussion on the topic – by Kristen Waters from Salon, John Hodge from Sysprobs, and Jack Wallen from Tech Republic.
The two sides are basically this: those who say Windows is awful vs. Bill Gates. The latter has been on the cutting edge of technology for years, so maybe he’s right. I’m considering buying all the other products he’s selling too, just based off his incredible excitement about how fun they are to use. I’m being ridiculous of course: the two operating systems each have their advantages and disadvantages – but other than the open source versus proprietary aspect, they are strikingly similar.
As Kristen points out in her Salon article, the difference between the two systems has become less marked in recent years. Windows had some distinct advantages which it no longer has. Most noticeably, Linux now offers visually appealing, user-friendly control panels which were only available through Windows in the past.
Windows does still has the advantage of being highly recognizable by users who have that OS installed on their PCs. That familiarity factor, though it may seem like a subtle suggestion to try something new, is a distinct advantage because learning any new system takes time and labor, both of which have a price tag. My cost to fly to your business and conduct a training session to convert between the two systems, for instance, would cost $680,000 – why not? (The good news: I’m a nonprofit. You can write it off.)
Open Sores vs. Open Source
Since this article is unbiased, referring to the Windows proprietary option as “open sores” is off-base, but I will keep it for its impact as a super pun. Puns, after all, are fully compatible with both operating systems.
As John Hodge suggests in Sysprobs, the two operating systems are primarily pitted against one another in terms of access to the code. Linux is open-source, and Windows is proprietary. System administrators tend to side with open-source because, like auto mechanics and residential burglars, they like to be able to get inside and take a look around. Windows does not offer this freedom because its code is privately held information.
Anyone looking at hosting plans should be aware of a fundamental truth: if you use Windows on your PC, you do not need to have a Windows server. The choice is completely separate from the operating system in use on your desktop. You can have a Mac, whatever. In fact, online business people who regularly access the Internet through their TI-84 graphing calculators (especially popular in the states of Idaho and Wyoming) are split 50/50 between the two systems.
According to John, the primary advantage of immediate access to code is that you can get in and make any fixes to the operating system as you go. He also mentions a reasonable flip-side to open source, however: anyone with malcontent can make alterations to the operating system and the software created for it, which can pose security threats.
Jack Wallen in his Tech Republic article references Linux’s licensing – the GNU public license – as the basis permitting full accessibility for anyone to change the code of Linux as desired, even at the level of the kernel on which the operating system is founded. While acknowledging the perspective of the potential for malcontents to damage the system, Jack points out that the open source model allows individuals with good intent to improve and enhance the system, preventing those working against the system to succeed in implementing negative components into the code.
Kristen discusses how the ability to access the two types of hosting OS’s is different, but very similar, for both Windows and Linux. Access can be achieved either through a control panel, which can be in the form of an FTP client or graphical user interface (GUI). The latter provides the ability to manipulate a hosting environment via a visually organized display as opposed to entering prompts via a command line. A typical command line prompt is, “Computer, build me a website” or “Computer, build me a website NOW” (the second version enables express processing but can also make the computer disgruntled and more likely to lash out).
Linux and Windows control panels are very similar in appearance and functionality (as described above, Linux is no longer behind Windows in this capacity). Communicating through FTP can be achieved either through a GUI or through a command line – two different types of applications. The command language differs between the two operating systems – but again, the functionality is similar. Be aware that some GUI-based FTP clients are not compatible with both types of servers.
Expense & Licenses
The difference in expense incurred by choosing one operating system over the other is discussed in John’s article. Windows is, generally speaking, significantly more expensive than Linux, but check with your hosting service to determine the specifics. Linux is widely used in part because it is so cost-effective to use as the basis for a network. In fact, the operating system itself is free – so only the hosting administration requirements will cost you anything. Membership in the Linux President’s Circle is also an additional $100,000 a year, but I know a guy who can get you in for 18 easy payments of $59.95.
Regarding cost, as Jack establishes, you will only necessarily see an improvement by using Linux if you are constructing the components of the server yourself. When looking at hosting environments, there are many different factors affecting price. You may find the two options are more equitably priced than you would expect, depending what hosting service you use.
Regarding licenses, Linux has an advantage. First of all, you can make changes to Linux and then even sell that new version if you want, as long as you make the changes you’ve made to the code freely accessible. You can install Linux on as many devices as you want. Microsoft cannot be adjusted and resold, and it cannot be installed unconditionally. A license is specific to a certain number of servers.
Kristen mentions that compatibility on either type of server allows full access to a broad range of software. Open source applications will generally have full compatibility with either system. Microsoft’s software, such as FrontPage, .NET, MSSQL, or anything else the company has developed specifically for its own servers will not work on Linux. Those companies that already have Microsoft built into their network will have a complicated decision to make if they are considering switching over to Linux. As always with any major choice in business, spend a full day making a decision-making chart, and then right before you end your work day, flip a coin.
As Jack establishes, support seems to be a major difference between the two operating systems – at least at first glance. Support for the two types of servers is relatively similar. Typically with Linux, companies use the open source community via forums and websites specifically focused on Linux support. Additionally, there are several large organizations that offer paid support packages for Linux. Servicing a wide swathe of customers, these organizations have become experts at the service.
Windows likewise offers paid support packages. Additionally, anyone with a Windows server can look to forums and other online sources for advice from others in the Microsoft community. In a basic way, then, support for both systems can be implemented similarly – for free or at a price. However, Linux, because of the intrinsically active and engaged nature of open source users, typically has a broader array of online conversations to solve server issues.
A brief note, as well, on support for hardware: Microsoft has always had an advantage as far as this goes. You will have a difficult time finding hardware that is incompatible with Windows. However, this, like most of the other problems in the past with Linux, has almost entirely been overcome. Linux does still have compatibility blind spots though. As an example, Jack notes that many laptops are not fully equipped for hibernate/suspend functionality.
Jack mentions removable media as a challenge for anyone adjusting to using Linux. Removable media can now be used the same way in a Linux or Windows environment, but in most situations, drives for removable media are not built into Linux hardware. This feature is considered a protection against overwriting of media between one user and another. However, people who are used to Windows systems may experience frustration with this Linux standard. If a new Linux user becomes frustrated with the servers, a common and productive way to release that emotion is to get out a set of really tiny tools, take apart the server into all its component pieces, meditate for a few minutes, and then put it back together.
As you can see, Linux and Windows have become very similar. The main reasons for the additional cost for Windows servers is because companies and individuals are used to them, and transitions can be expensive. Transitions can become especially expensive, and difficult, when considering how much Windows software is currently built into your infrastructure. Linux, on the other hand, will typically cost less and offers greater flexibility to adapt the code for fixes and to suit your particular purposes.
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