Windows vs. Linux? It's Apples and oranges

Windows vs. Linux? It's Apples and oranges

Summary: The Windows vs. Linux debate comes down to three factors: Expertise, expertise, expertise. Sooner or later, someone will displace Microsoft.


Paul Murphy's recent article, "The better part of better, faster, cheaper," concludes with this observation:

There's a moral to this story: that it's the combination of expertise with technology that counts, not just the technology. The objective reality is that there isn't anything that Windows Server OSes do "out of the box" that Linux can't do better but the practical reality is that Windows set up by an expert works better than Linux set up by a beginner -and the scary thing is that most of the expertise out there is Windows only.

I continue to be perplexed that industry pundits continue to compare Windows and Linux as if they were comparing two similar products when in fact they are comparing apples and oranges. One really needs to look at Linux as compared to UNIX to get a true sense of TCO as it compares to capabilities.

In such a comparison, the winner will almost always be dependent upon the scale required. As long as the available horsepower on commodity hardware is sufficient to do the job, Linux will usually win out (due mostly to reduced hardware costs); however, when an application requires the scalability (or stability) only available on "big iron," a proprietary UNIX solution -- such as Solaris or AIX -- usually has the edge.

Returning to the discussion at hand ... Windows vs Linux:

You are certainly correct that the combination of technology and expertise is what counts. You are also correct when you say that "there isn't anything that Windows Server OSes do 'out of the box' that Linux can't do better" -- while UNIX falls at one end of the scalability spectrum, Windows (even the "Enterprise" version of Windows) falls at the other. Despite Microsoft claims to the contrary, Windows just doesn't seem to scale very well.

Unlike many of your readers, I don't consider the price of an OS as being any kind of a useful measure of TCO. For instance, most readers will say "But Linux is FREE." Well, yes, if you are a hacker setting up a server in your bedroom, Linux is indeed free (to download) -- and is totally unsupported. If you want to buy Linux with media and documentation, the price with limited support starts at about $35. Fully supported Linux workstation software comes in at around $180 -- annually. Fully supported Linux server prices start at around $350. These prices are virtually identical to Microsoft's OEM and retail prices for Windows XP Pro and for entry-level Windows Server 2003. Since the hardware is identical, the "cost" argument is simply moot.

Expertise, expertise, expertise. The entire thrust of your argument is almost lost in your article but it is the linchpin of the entire Windows vs. Linux debate:


How much does someone need to know to install and run a Windows server?
How much does someone need to know to install and run a Linux server?
Virtually anyone with a high school diploma and few hundred dollars can get certified in Windows server technology in a matter of weeks or months -- while most people entrusted to administer an enterprise level UNIX/Linux server have a college degree and/or years of UNIX/Linux experience.


How is this possible? By deciding to favor 'simplicity of use' over 'simplicity of design' Microsoft has leveraged the low cost of commodity hardware to produce cost-competitive software which is complex in design but easy to use. The result is inefficient (and sometimes bug-laden) software running on over-powered hardware. Throw in affordable training and certification programs and Microsoft has a winning combination.

For the small business, where scalability is not an issue but human resource are, the inefficiencies don't matter because the overriding factor is the up-front cost of the system and the cost of hiring someone with the minimal experience necessary to take care of the system.

The point that is missed by many outside of the enterprise is that the enterprise measures everything in total cost of ownership and then compares that TCO to productivity. This is a measure almost impossible to make outside of the enterprise itself.

It is in the enterprise that scalability and OS efficiencies come into play. From a purely technical standpoint, the differences in efficiency between UNIX and Linux are very small indeed -- and are attributable almost entirely to the relative maturity (and respective development models) of the two operating systems.

So, how does Microsoft compete in the enterprise? Well that depends. For services which are being delivered cross-platform and which require scalability and reliability, not very well. In this environment, Microsoft is being squeezed at the top by UNIX vendors and at the bottom by Linux vendors.

For proprietary services being provided to Windows clients, there is little choice but to go with Microsoft -- again because simplicity of use for minimally-trained employees outweighs the inefficiencies of Windows server technology.

In the end, the enterprise will rarely be a purely Windows, purely Linux, or purely UNIX shop. They will choose their platform based upon their immediate need for scalability and stability, the availability of well-trained human resources, and TCO.

Your final comment is that:

... the scary thing is that most of the expertise out there is Windows only.
It's true enough (for the reasons I have state above) that there are more Windows techies out there than UNIX/Linux techies, but "scary" doesn't seem appropriate. It might be "scary" if you run a large UNIX/Linux shop because it means that as your staff ages and retires, it will become more and more expensive to replace them with employees with similar skills and levels of expertise. This is simply a fact of life with which any manager who is not a baby-boomer will need to deal -- regardless of the industry. Still, with three-to-five year hardware lifecycles, today's decision need not impact the decisions you make tomorrow.


The fact that the expertise is overwhelmingly Windows today should not be "scary" at all. Remember:

  • First it was CP/M, then it was DOS, then it was MacOS, now it is Windows.
  • First it was WordStar, then it was MultiMate, then it was WordPerfect, now it is Word.
  • First it was VisiCalc, then it was Lotus 1-2-3, now it is Excel.


UNIX predates all of these operating systems and applications and perhaps Linux and its applications will one day displace Windows. UNIX was develop as a highly portable OS which could run efficiently on relatively inexpensive hardware. First DOS and then Windows surpassed that feat. More likely than not, something will come out of the blue to change the IT landscape once again. Either way, sooner or later, someone will displace Microsoft.

Topic: Operating Systems

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  • The problem is Windows is setup

    mostly by beginners.

    Linux setup by a beginner is much more safe and secure than Windows setup by a beginner.

    We need more professionals in both arenas setting up the respective OS's.
    • That's Total BS

      Let's see. A Windows beginner, setting up Windows 2003 (non-embedded) SP1 out of the box would end up with hardly any service installed that's not needed to run a basic server and keep it up-to-date.

      Windows XP SP2 out of the box is secure by default. Sure M$ continues to patch this system like it does all of its products which all the OSS vendors do as well. In a default configuration, XP will phone home every day looking for all available updates.

      M$ still has a way to go to remediate the major flaws still being found in their products, but so does everyone else. Like it or not, Vista and the yet to be name Longhorn Server version will build upon M$' latest successes with securing their products.

      Two final points:

      3-4 years ago security experts were finding flaw after flaw in IIS4/5 which led to some very nasty viruses and worms. M$ accepting the blame for this and hence completely re-wrote IIS6 from the gound up. The last I checked IIS6 only has had one security vulnerability issued relating to WebDAV, which again with M$' secure by default settings is not part of the default install. And the big reality of the IIS4/5 attacks is that corporations should be assigned some blame for not having patch management strategies in place. I know the company I work for has done a complete 180. Typically, our production Windows (1200+ servers and 40K+ desktops) are all patched withing 3-5 five days of M$ relasing the patches.

      Finally, take a moment and go read up on how secure M$ is designing IE7. I think any M$ hater or critic will be surprised how locked down it will be. Will it be perfect and have all outstanding IE vulerabilities patched? No. Of course not, but that doesn't mean M$ isn't making large strides in making their products more secure.
      • Microsoft has definately learned their lesson... well, half of it anyway.

        To address several points at once, the only reason Windows Server 2003, Windows PX SP2, and IIS 6 are better off than their predecessors, is because Microsoft finally learned a valuable lesson from the Linux/UNIX camp: Don't install absolutely every friggin' service you can, then leave it running by default.

        Just by turning OFF most services and leaving it to the user/administrator to turn on just the services they need, it's like night and day! A "secure" computer is laughable, Windows doubly so.

        Now, as for IE 7. First of all, you can't discern between IE and Windows. It's just Windows. Microsoft was dumb enough to integrate their webbrowser into their OS. Sure, it got them the marketshare and the money, but at the expense of security for its userbase.

        Obviously, people like you don't care or are clueless; but I REALLY have a problem with a webbrowser that can install, uninstall, modify, delete, move, copy, send, and recieve documents, applications, and core system components on its own. There is something fundamentally WRONG with that. It's terrifying. People litterally make simple webpages (a WEBPAGE!!!) that will install and run software on your Windows PC without you even knowing it. Webpages that can modify your computer's security settings, your OS settings, install, disable, and manipulate core components of the operating system. It's rediculous.

        So, as for Microsoft making their products more secure... well, they're only doing it half-way. They've managed to learn how to turn off services which was a good measure, but as long as they perpetuate the idea of browsing the internet with your Operating System instead of a self-contained browsing application, Windows will always be complete CRAP for security.
        • More BS

          You need to go read up on what M$ is planning with IE 7.0 security. Actually, I do care and am far from clueless. I've been running Windows for 10 years now without anti-virus software, and I've never had any issues with security. Many of today's security issues with Windows are self inflicted by the user. A user running Windows XP SP2 with anti-virus, M$' anti-spyware program, and automatic updates turned on should have no issues with security which aren't self inflicted (i.e., running any exe known to mankind). It's that simple, but you seem to be blinded by you loathing of anything M$.
          • If it were that smiple...

            If it were that simple, there wouldn't be an entire industry based on securing your Windows machine. If it were that simple, security issues with Microsoft products wouldn't be an issue in the first place.

            Wouldn't everyone love it if all you had to do was turn on Windows Update and never worry about it again.

            Unfortunately, malicious Flash components, buffer overflow code with .PNGs, code hidden in containers for movies executed through Windows Media Player, and MP3 music files installing ActiveX controls are a problem. They're seemless, invisible, and you don't need a .EXE to click on, and for the average computer user (who makes up 90% of the computing base) who don't know about these things, it's going to happen. Their computers will get exploited.

            From what I understand, Windows Vista has been rewritten from the ground up (which is part of the reason why it's taking so long to come out.) Microsoft will be introducting a lot of new security measures by taking a page out of Linux and UNIX/OS X.

            I guess it does take a completely new OS for Microsoft to plug the holes that make it Swiss. Although not security related, even Apple had to switch to a brand new OS to address the biggest criticisms with its operating system.

            My apparent loathing for Microsoft is part business practice, and part they can't write a decent OS. Will Vista change the OS part? I guess we'll see... sometime in 2007.
          • MS - More of the same

            SIMPLE -3pts spelling

            I work with several different OS types, I don?t trust any of them. but I don't sit around bashing them. Ask Paris Hilton how here phone was hacked? I don?t think is was a Windows OS or server! Doing a quick search on Linux security and Linux Antivirus, there is and entire industry on your brand also.
            You stated the 'code hidden' & 'seamless, invisible', go to Novell if you don't like having options, bells, whistles and other options. Do you prefer drive a Yugo or a Lexus? I will agree that the average base will get exploited. Heinlein stated: "Ignorance is curable through education, stupidity is permanent." If the user wants the toy, learn something about it. I just don't see an entire industry writing the add on programs for Linux that Windows has, I don't see the ease of use that MS has created.
            As far as the Vista rewrite, Dos Evolved: 1 to 7, Windows 1 to 3.11, 95, 98, me. kernel rewrite; NT, XP, 2k, etc. Novell has had major improvements, Linux has had major improvements.
            Linux has no solid base company. It relies on open source, a lot of tech people like you and I note a bug, then many programmers jump on it fast. MS being a corp has to make sure the patch doesn't conflict with their other products, which happens. I have had a Linux patch crash the entire server, not MS, it work both ways!
            I, jjworleyeoe, and many others are anxiously awaiting the new ?olePigeon OS V1? from the anti-M$ crowd to compete with MS. The hackers will have a field day with it. Linus Torvalds did it, come on guys! The top dog is always the one that is attacked first!
      • Windows XP Home as secure as Mandrake 10 out of the box? No way

        But go ahead an pick a totally strange comparison Windows Server 2003....

        The article is bizarre as well with the author saying what exactly... Mandrake (a desktop distribution) not being in the same market segment as Windows XP Home??? ER actually it is:

        they are both Desktop Operating systems.
        Where on earth do these guys get their ideas?
        • They're not in the same market segment.

          There isn't a free version of Windows. :P *rimshot!*
          • mandrake 10 isn't free

            *rimshot richocet's and gets olePigeon's rim*
  • But the problem is...

    ...that the Microsoft apple seller seems to be determined to compel everyone to buy their apples and to drive the Linux orange sellers out of business.

    There are a lot of good reasons why you can't directly compare Windows and Linux; there's no good reason why the two can't peacefully co-exist. I like Linux for the same reason I was a motor-head in my younger years: it's fun to tinker with and it goes fast. My wife, on the other hand, doesn't like tinkering with techy stuff and views computers as annoying tools she needs to get things done. You get one guess as to which OS she uses.

    But the Ogre of Redmond doesn't care about that. If they had their way, we tinker-techies wouldn't be allowed to have our Linux boxes, we'd /have/ to run Windows machines because Linux would have been driven out of existence. And /that's/ what I find intolerable--that's why I rail against Microsoft. It's not that I don't like Windows--as an OS, it's childish but it seems well-suited to non-techies--it's just that I don't like Microsoft's efforts to deny me my techiness.

    Compared to Linux, Windows is rigid and simplistic.. No surprise there--Windows was designed to limit user-visible complexity to the least possible degree so as not to confuse non-techies. But Microsoft doesn't care that I think their principal product is mostly a glittery and fragile toy, they want to make me use it anyway.

    And /that's/ the non-apple, non-orange, comparison between Microsoft and the Linux people. Microsoft wants to force every computer user on the planet into its paradigm; Linux people, mostly, feel no such urge. If you want to run a toy OS that breaks a lot, that's fine with me. But I insist that you show me the same courtesy, and the last thing Microsoft is is courteous.

    So it's not an argument about OSes, it's an argument about attitude. The respective philosophies behind Windows and Linux--non-techie ease-of-use vs. techie tinkerability, flexibility, and power--are both perfectly reasonable philophical foundations behind the design of an OS. Not everyine is a techie, and, despite Microsoft's demands, what a techy wants out of a computer is /not/ the same thing non-techies want.
    Henry Miller
    • Have your hobby.

      If you want to run any version of Linux at home, I don't think Microsoft would campaign against you. There are a lot of non-commercial distributions available already, and nothing Microsoft (or Unix vendors) can do will stop you.

      In the market, though, where non-techie users are the ones determining the value, Microsoft does compete. And, in order to make money, Microsoft has to defeat Linux where one product or the other is going to be purchased.

      So the battle between Windows and Linux is a standard-issue contest for buyers' money. And wanting to win such a contest doesn't make Microsoft a villain.
      Anton Philidor
      • Anton,

        Leveraging a massive multinational monopoly to drive competition into the ground, unabashedly, DOES make MS a villain. Ever hear of anti-trust? Unfair competition? MS has leveraged near-total market control by means of unscrupulous business tactics like frivolous litigation to swamp innovative startups and top-level under the table deals with PC manufacturers to cut out anyone not in Bill's good books. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or a business major to figure out that this kind of business practice is unacceptable in a world becoming more and more reliable on technology to survive. If we support this sort of business fascism, we may well be cheering on our own eventual demise. Bring on the Linux! I don't want all of my computing ability under the Microsoft jackboot, thanks.
        • Wanting to profit doesn't make Microsoft a villain.

          But there's no reason to endorse illegal or unethical business tactics.

          I'd prefer other cometition than Linux. Its roots in a movement to reduce IT employment and salaries is unfortunate, and guarantees that the software won't be the product of a company huge enough to compete with Microsoft.
          Anton Philidor
          • Unfortunately

            ...due to MS's villainry, the only potential and possible competition has been forced to be through a non-profit freedom movement that fights MS not based on product or profit but on ideology and responsibility. If Linux were an upstart commercial product from one company, MS would have crushed it long ago. What Linux represents, however, is potential - potential for greater knowledge and power in the hands of average people like you and me. And that, Anton, is a very good thing. In terms of business opportunities, my server clusters run Linux. Stable, reliable, highly functional, almost no overhead, and highly profitable. I am a small business operator. Would I even for a moment consider switching to proprietary? Not on your life.
          • Okay.

            As a small business operator you live on your profits. If a contribution to those profits comes from products which have reduced the number of people paid to work on Unix and other software, that's okay.

            You have no obligation to pay more to assure continued employment elsewhere. Unfairly, I can also say that you have no obligation to avoid products made in sweatshops. There, too, cheaper prices come from lower labor costs.
            If you purchased products solely to preserve jobs, you'd not be able to purchase as many products.

            I wouldn't say the Linux equals potential argument works too well, though. Most people do nothing with the code, and are as reliant on the provider as they would be with a proprietary product. Particularly when they want or need to obtain a service contract.

            Given how many users, especially corporations, do expect service contracts, Linux is actually a commercial product with a combined software/service cost. The supposedly free code is for many (not apparently including you) not even a distraction.
            Anton Philidor
          • reading your comment

            it sounds to me that you are scared of change. you know, technology is about the ability to adapt, and just like technology, your skills have to adapt. If you can't change with the times, then yes, you will be out of a job, too bad so sad, your fault. If you only know one set of skills, then that is fine, but as time goes on, those skills will be less needed, and you in fact, will be less needed. All you talk about the loss of jobs is pathetic Anton. What person in the IT field lets themselves stick with one set aspect of IT? There's a saying, "can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen", it seems to sum up a response to your rant about the loss of jobs. If you can't further yourself and keep up with technology as well as follow where it's leading, you should look into another field. With the F/OSS people out there, they are in fact making jobs, more so as people who can support the things you evidentally cannot bring yourself to learn. Sure a few programmers here and there will have to change to adapt to the situation, but hell, don't you get hired on the perception you're good at your job and you will do what it takes to keep that job? IT is an ever changing field, plain and simple, go with it, or get run over.
          • I hope that...

            ... you never lose your job suddenly. And figure out how to wait to be rehired in your field, if possible.

            ... you never have to lose the monetary value of skills and experience developed over a period of years. And have to start again as a beginner at a lower salary.

            ... you never have to get a job on the basis of education as opposed to experience.

            ... you never have to be among the oldest applicants for a new job.

            These have not happened to me. But I have known people who went through each of the problems named, and I sympathized.
            If I had ever been tempted to be a Social Darwinist, I would have been dissuaded. These are not people who fell behind. Talented, intelligent, dedicated people are harmed by economic forces.

            And if you were one of them, imagine how you would feel if you were displaced not by some impersonal factor, but by an individual not much different from you, who decided to give free labor knowing the main result wiould be costing you your job.

            I don't think you would easily reconcile yourself to the idea.
            Anton Philidor
          • Overpricing

            Then again how much of the money that goes into commercial software is actually supporting jobs and how much simply goes to enrich a tiny few?

            I haven't seen any evidence that Linux is costing jobs though. In the given example the guy is running a small business that probably couldn't survive on proprietary commercial software.
          • RE: I hope that...

            I did in fact lose my job, and yet that didn't stop me or disuade me in any such way. Maybe it's my upbringing, or my military background, but I'm not one to sit around and lick my wounds. I got out there and I started my own consulting business. I didn't sit around sulking and wonder what was going to happen, instead I chose my path and furthered myself. These people you talk about, sure I'm sorry they lost their jobs, but don't you think you can only sulk and cry for so long, nothing in this world comes without work. It leads right back to adapt or get rolled over. Maybe you should tell these people to pick themselves up, and either find another career or go with the hand they've been dealt and further themselves. To me, I have always believed "everything happens for a reason", and it did, now i make 3 times as much as I had previously along with now I don't have to work under someschmuck who hasn't a clue in hell what they are doing. In fact, I do consulting work for the company that had to let me go, and they get an little extra charge simply for letting me go, knowing that I was the one who did all the work, now they are paying for it 2 fold because they listened to a blithering idiot.
          • I agree you may have a point

            ...insofar as free software may take away from employment of developers by major firms.

            But really, Anton, is this the case? Isn't it true that talented OS developers and programmers are often the "in demand" staff for commercial projects? And that they build their reputations with OS projects, to go on to working for commercial projects?

            IT staff are always running the thin edge of the knife. We have to grow, and learn, and adapt continually, otherwise we are phased out and become useless. Is Linux, with it's admittedly greater requirement for technical expertise on the admin side, taking away IT jobs more than Windows, with it's ever-increasing simplicity? I don't think so.