Do I Need a Windows or a Linux Server?

By: Robert Thomson

When asked this question on a computer user forum, one waggish expert felt compelled to say: Yes, unless you want an Apple Xserve. It was something of a joke, but contained various threads of truth about the situation in the server industry. There are actually three major server solutions, with Windows and Linux far outpacing the Xserve, which is popular with companies in design and media industries as primarily internal platforms. The fact is, when you go to find hosting, you will be presented with the two choices 99.9% of the time, Windows or Linux.

Technically and operationally, there is not that much difference in performance despite the vastly different software and measurably different hardware. It's difficult to make head-to-head comparisons that mean anything in the real world, and you can line up experts on either side of the divide. There are some differences about the two operating system (OS) approaches, and it will be nothing but an advantage to you, in shopping for or maintaining your company or personal server, to know at least a little about them.

Is Windows more expensive?
This is something the Linux people certainly want you to think. With dedicated hosting, prices for both platforms are about the same, assuming the same specifications on the hosting plan as regards bandwidth, storage and so on. When it comes to big numbers of shared servers, however, the costs of Windows tends to be a bit higher. This is because of the open source (free) nature of the Linux OS. As opposed to this, Windows is a Microsoft (MS) product and must be paid for and licensed properly. Also, Windows takes a slightly bigger bite of system resources, and uses more different kinds, than the Linux OS.

Windows, however, should be the OS of choice for Web sites using such applications as FrontPage, ASP.NET, MS Access, MSSQL, Windows Streaming Media or other proprietary MS technologies. As a tip for beginners, if those terms are unknown to you, then Windows may not be your best choice. It is accurate enough to say, to all but totally geeky experts, that Linux is more suitable to the less tech-savvy user who wants to host a basic Web site. Of course, it is also a primary choice of the ultra-techie types, so it may be reasonable to say that Linux is good for total beginners and total pros, while Windows fulfills the needs of the great numbers of people, from beginner to expert, in the huge middle ground.

Uptime downgrade
Long-term statistics seem to indicate that Windows provides slightly less uptime than Linux. This may be due to the fact that the MS OS runs more processes, and takes up more resources, even when idle. The more that code is being implemented, and the more ways it is, the more chances there are of problems. It is not uncommon for server managers to perform multiple reboots on Windows servers to end troublesome processes, recover from freezes/crashes and get back to normal. This certainly does not mean that this is going to happen to everyone, as the statistics speak to general conditions over long periods of time. However, the odds are you will have more issues with Windows.

Even in its idle state, the fact that Windows has to present a graphical user interface (GUI) to the user, while Linux has a clean black screen with a single blinking cursor awaiting line commands, means it will devour more resources. Linux is actually idle when it is idle, and does not use any resources to present a workspace, allow multiple windowing options or anything else. Some people want those things, and opt for Windows. Other server managers and system operators want to tell the screen what to present and control every view. They typically opt for Linux. People who are not experts and just want to pay the monthly fee tend not to consider any of these things when making a decision. All that matters is, Does it work?

Linux, plus or problem?
Linux is open source so it is being worked on and improved by a world full of people, meaning all kinds of approaches and all kinds of new ideas. This is both a plus and a minus, as it is beyond the reach of most hosting customers who don't follow the OS development cycles. It is free to the hosting firm, so you will probably pay a little less for your hosting plan. There are many freebies, too, in the Linux world. If you can get good advice when you encounter things beyond your expertise, it would seem to be a wise choice.

There are some people who feel that the Windows OS is somewhat less secure than Linux, mainly because it is a widely used OS that has attracted legions of hackers who somehow developed a loathing for MS, Bill Gates or both. The problem is not so bad, however, that you should avoid Windows hosting if, in fact, you need to work with Windows applications. On the other hand, if you do not know about Windows applications and how they run on Windows servers, Linux Web hosting is probably your best bet. Whichever you choose, of course, you need to feel comfortable and in charge so that the site is plus, not a problem, for your business.

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