Jan 24, 2017

Linux Servers vs. Microsoft Windows Servers


Windows or Linux? It’s a tough question — many IT professionals passionately defend one server operating system over the other. Even a cursory search will net you thousands of articles and forum posts about the benefits of Windows or Linux and why it’s foolish to choose anything else for your dedicated servers.

Do the math, though, and a pattern emerges: There’s a lot of attention paid to Linux server benefits, while Windows pieces tend to come off like defenses of an OK-but-not-so-great server solution. Today, I hope to flip the script, and explain why Windows remains a solid choice for certain organizations and IT admins.

At INAP, we make no secret of the fact that we’re Linux experts and proud of it, but we also know our way around Windows Server 2016. After taking a good look, and putting it through its paces and seeing what shakes out, we’ve arrived at the conclusion: Sometimes Windows is the better solution and sometimes Linux is the better solution. It’s all a matter of organizational expertise and needs. 

The Great Debate

Why all the back and forth about Windows and Linux? The simplest answer is perception.

As a proprietary, licensed offering, Windows is seen as the “corporate” choice, the one that offers IT pros minimal control over server environments and forces them to toe Microsoft’s corporate line. Linux, meanwhile, is often seen as the righteous gunslinger that strolls into town and liberates the populace: At heart, Linux is a free, open-source solution that lets you pick from a host of “distros” including Ubuntu, CentOs or Fedora. Alternatively, you can choose a proprietary and packaged solution like Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Ultimately, installing and maintaining a Linux server package is more work. However, for many IT professionals, using Linux feels like they are paying their dues. At least they got out from the tells-you-what-to-do thumb of Windows, right? Not so fast.

Out of the Cycle

As noted by ZDnet, not everyone loves their Linux deployment. Why? Because despite its power and pliability, installing and managing a Linux distro is hard. Making sure you’ve got the right code in the right places and the ideal parameters set to support your server deployment is both time consuming and complicated — especially if a necessary server update crashes the system and trashes all your hard work.

Think of it like this: Windows Server exists to fill a need, to streamline the deployment and distribution of compute resources and storage on your server. It might not be the most elegant solution, and chances are it’s going to be a bit simplistic, but that’s the point: This offering is for the masses, meaning virtually any service or solution is going to work well and not become a giant headache for time-strapped IT departments.

Yes, you give up a measure of control, but you often get it back in time saved. Plus, with most IT departments overworked just keeping up with local network firefighting, more time is always a benefit.

The Freedom of Linux: Pro or Con?

While Linux comes with the big benefit of customization, it also comes with a number of drawbacks. First up? Support. Sure, the Linux community is active — but active isn’t the same thing as “helpful.” Many users have a great deal of knowledge, but aren’t always the most gracious when it comes to sharing key information or helping new users figure out the ups and downs of Linux. Put simply, if you’re new to Linux, be prepared to put in the work or tap a managed hosting provider to get the most from your solution. 

As noted by PC World, Linux also comes with the benefit of freedom to choose: Choose your Distro, then mix and match services that work for you. This is a pro or a con depending on your work style. It’s not always straightforward: What works well together? What can’t operate in the same environment? How do you bridge the gap between specific services? If you know the answers to these questions, Linux is likely for you, but for many hardworking IT generalists, overabundant choice isn’t always a selling point.

Windows Server 2016 Benefits

It’s also worth noting that the newest iteration of Microsoft’s offering, Windows Server 2016, comes with a number of key benefits, including:

  • Software-defined networking. According to Microsoft’s official site, Server 2016 now offers support for SDN, allowing companies to “both mirror and route traffic to new or existing virtual appliances,” in addition to managing the entire SDN stack with the System Center Virtual Machine Manager.
  • Hyper-convergence. As noted by Virtualization Review, Server 2016 uses Storage Spaces Direct, which allows IT admins to create Storage Space volumes by leveraging internal storage in nodes; storage can be SAS, SATA, SSD or even NVMe. With hyper-convergence, one of the most-hyped paths for server evolution, this is a key addition.
  • Nano server. Also of interest is the new “Nano Server” offering, which is a 64-bit OS that comes with Server 2016. It has no default GUI or embedded server roles, and is built to order to handle a specific task. The result? An incredibly lightweight server deployment — think 500 MB instead of 12 GB.

Beyond specifics, however, Windows comes with the big benefits of reliability and familiarity — there’s no need to find workarounds or custom solutions; common software, services and cloud offerings simply work with Windows Server.

Making the Choice

In the market for a new Linux or Windows dedicated server? INAP can help. While we’re a pro Linux shop, we’re also Windows experts who can guide you through the right custom deployment based on your preferences, personnel skill sets, and applications. Let us design a migration plan, spin up new servers, and ensure that your shift happens as quickly and painlessly as possible.

To sum it all up: Linux remains a popular choice among IT pros thanks to its flexibility and agility, but often its biggest appeal is that it’s “not Windows.” Server 2016 offering, however, comes with a substantial feature set and the proven reliability of Microsoft’s offerings. While it may not be the most cutting edge or customizable, it offers what many IT pros need more than anything else: Straightforward setup, predictable performance and the ability to play nicely with existing infrastructure.

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