Battle Of The OS: Windows Vs. Linux

For many years there has been two major competitors for commercial operating systems dominance…

Standalone computers and small networks have traditionally relied on Windows as their operating system of choice, while larger networks have opted for Linux. While Linus Torvalds championed his platform’s ability to deliver stable network functionality, Bill Gates was concentrating his company’s efforts on powering individual devices.

Today, online titans like Google and Twitter execute their software across thousands of machines for rapid processing and dependable universal access. The increasing adoption of born-in-the-cloud applications powered by Linux’s CoreOS led to a fairly radical rethink at Microsoft, and the result of this collective brainstorming was formally announced earlier this month at the company’s annual Build developer conference.

The all-new Windows Server Nano represents the biggest change to Microsoft’s network offerings since Windows NT came out in 1993. While Nano’s predecessor (Server 2012) still requires a graphical user interface (GUI) for some installations, Nano is completely headless. In other words, there is no requirement for local log-on or a GUI. Instead, a web-based remote system administration toolkit can handle access to Nano servers, facilitating any necessary adjustments. There’s no need to sit in front of a server to govern processes on individual machines, or monitor network performance.

Every superfluous feature has been stripped out of Nano Server to minimise its resource requirements and ensure it can run cloud-native applications. It occupies less than 10 per cent of the disk footprint of the bulky Server Core OS, and has eliminated 90 per cent of the critical security bulletins. That means a Nano server can boot in 15 seconds (even on a tired old desktop tower), and remain in almost continuous operation. It also has the flexibility of being a host OS on physical hardware, or a guest OS on a virtual machine. Indeed, it can govern a thousand VMs at once, using a single eight core processor.

The advent of Nano effectively signals Microsoft’s intention to compete on every operating platform, from the mobile-friendly Windows 10 OS through to the huge cloud servers that have underpinned so much of Linux’s success. Microsoft has finally acknowledged that the rival it once described as “a cancer” has spread across the majority of today’s cloud infrastructure. After all, the flexible Linux platform is now the world’s third largest OS, courtesy of its adoption by the Android platform.

Linux variants are also being streamlined and optimised for the cloud. A brand new beta version of RHEL’s Linux 7 Atomic Host has recently been announced, offering a container-based architecture that mirrors Microsoft’s central focus on addressing security concerns. For the uninitiated, containers enable applications to operate autonomously without conflicting with each other. These single-task containers can be clustered into an orchestrated system or moved around to capitalise on unused computing power.

Because Windows Nano is still in development and won’t be launched until next year, a definitive verdict can’t yet be made about whether it can topple Linux’s market dominance. The fact that Nano minimises bandwidth and disk space means its boot times will finally get close to Linux server performance, while the near-elimination of forced security updates and patches will also increase its appeal among IT managers who have cursed unavoidable downtime in the past.

One advantage Linux will always retain over Microsoft is its constantly-refined open source architecture. Linux has a strong and loyal market share that has historically sneered at the erratic release cycles and revolutionary (as opposed to evolutionary) upgrades of its mainstream rivals. However, Linux has also fragmented into rival brands (such as RHEL and Canonical), while Microsoft is heading in the opposite direction and gradually becoming a WORA platform for programmers and developers. It’s unclear at present how Nano’s focus on scalable cloud hosting will pan out, but it’s certainly a belated step in the right direction from a company that’s been behind the times for too long.

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