Understanding the Core Differences: Linux vs. Windows Hosting
Linux hosting or Windows hosting? The line separating the two operating systems is becoming increasingly blurred as more of those software packages needed to run apps and websites are capable of running on both. That, however, doesn’t mean that we’re already at a point where the underlying operating system is all but irrelevant – for now, at least, choosing the right platform still matters.
On the surface, Linux hosting is better suited for applications that require a mixture of PHP and MySQL such as WordPress, while Windows hosting is ideal for apps that require .NET and MS SQL, such as Umbraco and Kentico. These OS/software combinations represent the most common hosting use cases and also hint that your choice of operating system should be based on what your application or website needs to run.
Linux was developed by Linus Torvalds, a computer science student at the University of Helsinki, back in 1991. Given that operating systems of the time came with a hefty price tag, Torvalds’ objective was to develop an operating system freely available to everyone. Linux was initially released under the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) and is currently distributed under GNU GPLv2. A significant reason for Linux’s rise, particularly in web hosting, was due to its open-source nature and cost-effectiveness compared to proprietary solutions.
Today Linux is regarded as one of the most stable and secure operating systems, powering everything from smartphones (Android is a Linux-based OS) to routers to personal computers and servers. Where hosting is concerned, Linux powers 82% of all websites.
Although Microsoft is a multinational tech corporation today, its beginnings stretch back to a more humble 1975 when high school friends Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed an implementation of the programming language BASIC for an Altair 8800 microcomputer. A few years later the duo registered Micro-Soft (a portmanteau of ‘microcomputer’ and ‘software’) before eventually settling on Microsoft.
The first version of Windows was initially called Interface Manager, but by 1985 the name had changed to Windows 1.0. Windows Server (formerly known as Windows NT Server) was first released in 1993 with Windows NT Advanced Server 3.1. Like many other Microsoft products, Windows Server releases are sold commercially and require a licence to use. Where Linux dominates the server market, Windows dominates the desktop space at 73.72% of all desktops.
Linux Hosting vs. Windows Hosting Software Ecosystems
Both Linux and Windows servers have their own strengths and preferred software ecosystems based on compatibility, performance, and user requirements. Here’s a breakdown:
Installation & configuration: Linux used to be notorious for its complicated text-based installation, which provided the upside of more granular control of the installation process. Nowadays, however, Linux operating systems are equipped with a GUI that can greatly simplify the installation process. The configuration and management of a Linux server still requires a fair amount of operating system knowledge and is typically done using the CLI.
Performance: Linux comes with less overhead than Windows, which means it requires fewer resources to run. More granular control over the installation process means it’s easier to install only those services and features needed for a specific purpose, further reducing resource usage.
Interface: Linux servers are equipped with a command-line interface, meaning that the entire server can be configured and managed with the use of text-based commands. It should be pointed out that Linux desktop operating systems come equipped with multiple options for a Windows-like graphical user interface. Many web hosting providers offer control panels like cPanel or Webmin that provide a graphical interface for server management.
Security: Generally speaking, Linux tends to be more secure than Windows. This is largely thanks to its open-source nature and the support of a global community of developers; vulnerabilities and bugs are quickly identified and fixed. Strict access control in Linux also plays a crucial part in keeping servers secure.
Installation & configuration: Unlike Windows desktop operating systems, Windows Server is available in either Server Core or Desktop Experience flavours. The former is installed without a GUI, while the latter comes with the GUI. Server configuration without a GUI can be difficult for people without the necessary experience.
Performance: When Windows Server is installed with Desktop Experience enabled, it will increase the performance overhead; there is a higher performance cost in terms of storage, CPU, and memory usage. Server Core was designed to eliminate that overhead.
Interface: As explained, Server Core = CLI and Desktop Experience = GUI.
Security: It requires more effort to keep a Windows server secure. Intricate operating system knowledge and the enforcement of strict internal security policies are required to minimise the potential of a breach or infection on a Windows server.
It’s worth noting that many software solutions are becoming platform-agnostic. For instance, Microsoft has made significant efforts to make SQL Server, .NET Core, and PowerShell available on Linux. Conversely, with the advent of the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL), Linux-oriented software is increasingly available on Windows.
However, the performance, ease of setup, optimisation, and feature availability often lean towards the server platform traditionally associated with the software. For that reason, even though you could run MS SQL and .NET on Linux hosting to power a CMS traditionally hosted in a Windows environment, it’s not a solution hosting companies are keen to support.
Windows hosting software
- IIS (Internet Information Services): This is a Windows-based web server application. Given its tight integration with Windows, it runs best on Windows Server.
- MS SQL (Microsoft SQL Server): A relational database management system developed by Microsoft. As a Microsoft product, it’s optimised for Windows.
- ASP.NET: A framework for building server-side applications. It runs best in a Windows environment, particularly with IIS.
- Exchange Server: Microsoft’s email and calendaring server solution, optimised for Windows.
- Active Directory: For directory services, Windows servers are the go-to because of Active Directory’s integration.
- PowerShell: While newer versions are cross-platform, Windows Server integrates seamlessly with PowerShell, a task automation and configuration management framework.
- Remote Desktop Services: Microsoft’s proprietary remote access tool, optimised for Windows environments.
Linux hosting software
- Apache: While the Apache web server is available for Windows, it’s predominantly used on Linux systems. It’s highly customisable and, when combined with Linux, becomes a powerful server solution, often part of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack.
- MySQL: Although it can run on both platforms, MySQL tends to be more commonly associated with Linux environments, especially in conjunction with Apache.
- PHP: PHP works on both platforms but is traditionally paired with Linux servers, particularly with the LAMP stack.
- Nginx: This is a high-performance web server and reverse proxy server that’s often favoured in Linux environments for its efficiency and scalability.
- PostgreSQL: A powerful, open-source relational database system. While it runs on various platforms, its history and strong performance with Linux make it a favourite for many Linux-based applications.
- BIND: This is the most widely used DNS software on the internet and runs best on Unix-based systems, including Linux.
- OpenSSH: Secure Shell (SSH) is vital for remote server management. OpenSSH is the de facto standard for Linux systems.
Linux vs. Windows Content Management Systems
One of the most prominent deciding factors for hosting OS choice is the software stack your app or CMS will need. At least, that is, until truly full-featured platform-agnostic software solutions become mainstream.
CMSs often hosted on Linux
CMSs often hosted on Windows
It’s important to remember that these CMS/OS assignments pertain more to shared hosting options than, say, cloud servers or virtual private servers, or dedicated servers. You typically have greater freedom in terms of software installation with a self-managed server solution. Server solutions managed by the hosting service provider may have some restrictions in terms of supported setups or configurations.
In the rapidly evolving tech landscape, the choice between Linux and Windows hosting remains significant, though the lines are increasingly blurring. While the essence of each platform persists, software is becoming more platform-agnostic, allowing for greater flexibility in hosting choices.
Linux, with its open-source origins and community-driven enhancements, continues to dominate the web hosting landscape, while Windows, with its GUI focus and integrated Microsoft ecosystem, remains a powerful contender. The decision between the two hinges on the specific software requirements and the personal or organisational expertise in managing the respective systems. Regardless of choice, understanding the nuances of each platform can ensure optimal performance, security, and scalability for websites and applications.
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