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This debate arouses vehement opinions, but according to one IT consultant who spends a lot of time with both Windows and Linux, it's a matter of arguing which server OS is the most appropriate in the context of the job that needs to be done, based on factors such as cost, performance, security and application usage.
"With Linux, the operating system is effectively free," says Phil Cox, principal consultant with SystemExperts. "With Microsoft, there are licensing fees for any version, so cost is a factor." And relative to any physical hardware platform, Linux performance appears to be about 25% faster, Cox says.
Combine that with the flexibility you have to make kernel modifications, something you can't do with proprietary Windows, and there's a lot to say about the benefits of open-source Linux. But that's not the whole story, Cox points out, noting there are some strong arguments to be made on behalf of Windows, particularly for the enterprise.
For instance, because you can make kernel modifications to Linux, the downside of that is "you need a higher level of expertise to keep a production environment going," Cox says, noting a lot of people build their own packages and since there are variations of Linux, such as SuSE or Debian, special expertise may be needed.
Windows offers appeal in that "it's a stable platform, though not as flexible," Cox says. When it comes to application integration, "Windows is easier," he says.
Windows access control "blows Linux out of the water," he claims. "In a Windows box, you can set access-control mechanisms without a software add-on."
Patching is inevitable with either Windows or Linux, and in this arena, Cox says that it's easier to patch Windows. Microsoft is the only source to issue Windows patches. With Linux, you have to decide whether to go to an open-source entity for patches, for instance the one for OpenSSH, or wait until a commercial Linux provider, such as Red Hat, provides a patch.
Microsoft presents a monolithic single point of contact for business customers, whereas "In Linux, you need to know where to go for what," which makes it more complicated, Cox says. "There's no such thing as a TechNet for Linux," he says. Linux users need to be enthusiastic participants in the sometimes clannish open-source community to get the optimum results.
These kind of arguments may indicate why Windows Server continues to have huge appeal in the enterprise setting, though some vertical industries, such as financial firms, have become big-time Linux users.
Linux and open-source applications are popular in the Internet-facing extranet of the enterprise, Cox notes. And Linux has become a kind of industrial technology for vendors which use it in a wide range of products and services — for instance Amazon's EC2 computing environment data centers rely on Xen-based Linux servers.
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.