Windows vs. Linux

The fight between Windows and Linux has been nearly as overhyped as a Don King venture in a monster Vegas arena, screaming fans included. In one corner, hard-core Microsoft fans avow Windows Server 2003 as the comeback kid of the new century, rising above all previous problems with Windows servers. In the other, Linux boosters claim the open-source operating system is poised to power the enterprise from stem to stern, trash-talking Microsoft's bloated code and licensing gotchas along the way.

The truth, unfortunately, is far less dramatic. The real battles take place in smaller venues, where Windows wins sometimes and Linux pulls off its share of victories with little fanfare.

Those looking for blood are bound to be disappointed, as the two would-be combatants increasingly make an effort to play nice. For instance, although it has been possible to share files to Windows clients from Linux servers via Samba for years, only recently has integration with Active Directory been solid. Domain integration has always worked, but it was occasionally tenuous and difficult to administer. No more.

On the Windows side, the release of Microsoft Services for Unix 3.5 has shown that Redmond is providing some semblance of integration with modern Unix systems. SFU's network information service and network file system services are reasonably complete, and its Unix tool set even includes Perl and the Korn shell. In fact, these tools will be officially distributed with Windows Server 2003 R2.

Rather than force all network services onto a single platform, most enterprises are implementing Linux servers in key areas. Although this trend is not exactly new, the areas served are changing. Any smart IT manager with carte blanche to design a new network should include both Windows and Linux as major players.

Historically, if a few Linux servers existed in a Windows network, they were orphans handling a single task that had little relation to the services provided by Windows. Today, Samba 3 provides true integration with Active Directory, making it easy to configure directory-authenticated Linux Web servers, FTP servers, file servers and especially database and network management services.

Conversely, stability improvements on the Microsoft side and Active Directory's reliance on the Domain Name System make the case for Windows servers to handle DNS and DHCP tasks. Although it's certainly possible to run an Active Directory environment with Linux providing the DNS and DHCP services, it's not as easy to manage.

File and print sharing may still be a toss-up. For the most part, both platforms are equally suitable.

But which Linux to go with? Red Hat is still the one to beat for enterprise use, but Novell Inc.'s SUSE is catching up fast. Within the Linux camp, the allegiances to specific distributions are almost as strong as the resistance to Microsoft, which can certainly confuse matters. Ultimately, the distribution decision is usually made at the independent software vendor level. Whatever your database vendor supports is what you'll be running -- and the same goes for Microsoft shops.

The good news is that Linux projects can be developed quickly on license-free, community-supported distributions running on test systems and then be migrated to licensed, supported systems when they head into production. Of course, if your administrators are adequately skilled, you might not need a vendor-supported distribution in production, but it's always a good idea for mission-critical systems.

Ah, the administrators. Traditionally it's been easier to hire Windows admins, but their skill sets can be less developed than those of Linux admins. Although Windows may appear easier to configure and install, actually implementing Active Directory completely and correctly requires skills beyond what most general Windows administrators have to offer.

Microsoft has contributed to this situation by watering down the qualifications for MCSE certification, although the Windows Server 2003 certification test is more thorough than either the NT 4 or Windows 2000 ones. By comparison, however, Red Hat Inc.'s Red Hat Certified Engineer qualification entails a grueling eight-hour lab test, with an 80% failure rate.

With the licensing issues that surround Linux showing clear signs of abating, cost should be the focus. Whether the total cost of ownership for Linux is more or less than that of Windows depends on your network, your applications and your administrators. And there's always the question of how much a network failure caused by a virus might cost. The vocal minorities will continue their battle cries, while smart IT shops watch the skirmishes and place their bets on both sides -- knowing that, ultimately, the battle can only make their networks better.

This story, "Windows vs. Linux" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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