When you spin up a virtual private server, a basic and immediate question must be answered first: should you use Windows or Linux? Let’s compare the operating systems, both based on popularity and with a thorough discussion from experts on both sides of the aisle.
- Which Server OS is Winning?
- Is Linux or Windows Server Better, Though?
- 1 – Functionality
- 2 – Stability
- 3 – Specific Application to Cloud
- 4 – Datacenter Cost of Ownership
- 5 – Enterprise-Grade Data Protection
- 6 – Datacenter Equipment Requirements
- 7 – Support from the Developers
- 8 – Enterprise Authentication
- Developer-Friendly Cloud Server
Which Server OS is Winning?
Typically, when people think about the two top operating systems, they think of the client-side rivalry between Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s OSX. However, on the server side, things are a little different: instead of a battle between huge tech corporations, it’s a battle between two tech approaches. Windows Server represents the proprietary side, and Linux represents the open source side.
When people make the decision between Windows and Linux, the first question most people have is which one is more popular. A good place to find that out is through the W3Techs Web Technology Surveys. Basically these surveys are a collection of diagrams, updated every day, based on scans of top websites. By looking at the top 10 million websites in the Alexa rankings, W3Techs is able to provide a fair idea of how much certain technologies are being used. In the case of server operating systems used by those 10 million sites (roughly the top 1% of all live sites on the Internet), Linux is the big winner:
- Unix (primarily Linux) – 67.1%
- Windows – 32.9%
In other words, Linux beats out Windows by just over 2-to-1 in adoption rate for server operating system. Keep in mind that these statistics are just for websites, though, and don’t necessarily tell us what’s best-liked for virtual private server deployments.
Is Linux or Windows Server better, though?
Just because Linux is popular of course does not mean its better. What are some positives and negatives of each option? Let’s look at thoughts from experts on each of the two operating systems: Linux author/consultant Sander van Vugt and eight-time Microsoft MVP Brien Posey. These are broad comparisons, but cloud is a key topic of discussion.
1 – Functionality
When you think about functionality, your first question should be how you want to use the server, says van Vugt. “Windows isn’t going away any time soon, in particular as a corporate authentication and authorization platform,” he says. “But as applications move more to cloud platforms, Windows servers are moving out and making way for Linux as the server OS of choice.”
Van Vugt notes that Windows is known as a comprehensive, all-in-one OS that makes management simple. On the other hand, Linux is generally used within data centers to provide specific individual services.
It would be completely reasonable for businesses to deploy Linux systems for various purposes, but the convention is that they are task-specific. Linux is a free OS, so it would make sense to create various OS instances, each handling a separate task. In other words, you could have many different cloud servers running separate tasks, and that would mean immediately better security than you’d have with many different services on a single server, whether private on dedicated machines or cloud servers.
Despite van Vugt’s comments, Posey stresses that Windows Server is actually typically dedicated to singles tasks in the enterprise for more efficient resource use. In datacenters, that has been difficult in the past because of the expense of licensing.
However, you can use Hyper-V to virtualize an unlimited number of private servers on a single server today, so that’s no longer a problem. Plus, in the cloud, these concerns become essentially irrelevant because you simply spin up VMs for each task, regardless of OS.
2 – Stability
Linux was seen as more stable than Windows up until 2003. From that point forward, notes van Vugt, they have both been viewed as fundamentally stable.
“Both Windows and Linux OSes can only be brought down by hardware with faulty drivers,” he says. “Don’t choose a server OS based on outdated notions of stability: Windows and Linux are at the same level here.”
Posey essentially concurs. He adds that Windows Server has become increasingly stable over the past decade due to extensive testing and certification of hardware with which it’s compatible.
3 – Specific Application to Cloud
Most major tech companies support a Linux cloud infrastructure, which makes it evident that it is increasingly becoming the standard as the virtual OS. There are proprietary cloud platforms as well, such as Microsoft’s, but van Vugt sees those options fading over time.
Posey notes that Microsoft’s software-as-a-service offerings are supported by Hyper-V running on Windows Server. Plus, “[m]any third-party cloud service providers allow customers to create virtualized Windows Server instances in the cloud.” Atlantic.Net is an example of such a provider.
4 – Datacenter Cost of Ownership
Van Vugt says that Linux is free; the operating system itself is free. Nonetheless, you have to pay for the resources to run any program, of course. Plus, you typically will have to buy a high-end copy of Linux for the datacenter since free versions won’t necessarily meet your needs. That’s because free versions don’t have guarantees, essentially. In that sense, it should be understood that both Linux and Windows both come at a cost to business.
Typically, a business wants high reliability in their IT, high reliability that is also affordable. While the Linux OS won’t itself cost you anything, you’ll probably want a support package (or to go through a cloud hosting company). If you are deploying a server within your own datacenter, it often makes sense to get one from a firm that offers enterprise packages with support.
Linux is more affordable than Windows. That’s just a straight fact, because the Linux OS is free. Windows, on the other hand, charges a license for each user. It’s simply a different model.
Posey says that Windows has been known as incredibly costly since you have to pay for the operating system and then get client access licenses for each user. “Although Windows will likely always be more expensive to license than Linux,” he says, “Microsoft is making changes to the licensing requirements for some products to appeal to organizations in which users deploy multiple devices.”
5 – Enterprise-Grade Data Protection
Security is an interesting topic because of the two different approaches. Van Vugt mentions that any coder can see how Linux functions, with no need to hack anything; that’s the nature of open-source. The argument against Linux is that people have access and that makes it vulnerable. The pro-Linux perspective is that the wide access means many different and independent people are able to see and modify the OS back-end. It means bugs can be quickly fixed, even by the company itself. The proprietary scenario of Windows doesn’t allow you to correct bugs as they’re found; only Microsoft itself can make the change.
Keep in mind, open-source means the code is freely available; but security is built into the Linux kernel. You can even get security enhancements to Linux, allowing you to do things like block all system calls.
Posey notes that Microsoft sends out security patches for Windows as problems are revealed. The company has thorough paperwork available on using the OS’s security mechanisms yourself; plus, they provide information on how to design architecture that best protects your own network.
6 – Datacenter Equipment Requirements
Van Vugt points out that your equipment needs for Linux are not as high as they are for Windows. You can support a server with as little as 256 MB of RAM and a disk that only has a couple of gigabytes. Obviously those aren’t the limits that are typically used in an enterprise’s infrastructure.
When you are talking about a massive database, you generally won’t have to pay as much for Linux as for Windows. You can also customize and optimize the kernel as needed so it is purpose-fit.
Posey notes that the equipment that’s needed for the most recent version of Windows Server can run on systems that offer as low as 512 MB and 64-bit 1.4 GHz CPU. It’s not quite as lightweight, basically.
7 – Support from the Developers
“Companies don’t operate servers because they want to run a server,” says van Vugt. “Companies rely on servers because they want the applications that support the business.”
In other words, businesses usually want support services to pick up some slack; they don’t want to be experts on fixing and avoiding OS issues. Windows has traditionally had better organized support, but the Linux support industry has grown substantially in recent years. Although there has been a massive shift to the cloud, many firms still have some large legacy apps in-house, running on either Windows or Linux.
Posey points out that Microsoft is compatible and supported by all the biggest IT manufacturers. However, that support is only part of the selling argument for Windows Server, he says; in order for an OS to be valuable, the IT department must have access to drivers for any supplementary devices. Almost all companies that make servers and other datacenter equipment code Windows drivers to support them.
8 – Enterprise Authentication
Van Vugt points out that Windows Server is widely used by enterprises for user authentication. Active Directory is included within most Windows operating systems as a set of processes and services. AD “is a full authentication and authorization platform that integrates applications, users, computers and other resources,” he says. “Linux alternatives to Active Directory don’t have the same support of devices and applications.”
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