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Unix vs. Windows NT Hosting

The Introduction

'What operating system should my web host be running?'

This is one of the most common questions we receive from those looking to set up a web hosting account for the first time. It is also one of the most complicated to answer.

We'll begin our discussion here by clearing up a few common misconceptions.

For starters, many people believe that just because they run a version of Windows on their home computer they must choose a host who runs Windows NT (now Windows 2000). This couldn't be farther from the truth. The operating system you run on your PC has absolutely no bearing on your dealings with a host's web server. Even those designers using Microsoft's FrontPage will have no problem publishing their site on a Unix server.

We would also like to point out that there are many different flavors of Unix available, with Linux being the most popular. For the purposes of our discussion here we will refer to all of these different variants collectively as Unix.

Of course, Unix and NT are not the only two operating systems available. However, combined they claim well over 90% of the market share for professional applications and as a result they are the ones we will concentrate on here. Well, let's get to it!


Unix Pros:

Many server applications and programs are written exclusively for use with Unix.

Sendmail, along with other bundled Unix subroutines, are considered essential by many programmers and designers.

Unix is an open source operating system distributed free of charge as are many of the programs that run on it.

Stability and efficiency are staple traits of the operating system, giving hosting clients more bang for the buck.

Unix Cons:

The Unix command line can be daunting for new users.

Many popular Microsoft software packages will not run on Unix servers.

The Unix Operating System

Unix is traditionally considered the operating system of choice for most professional, advanced users. This is due mainly to its reputation as a powerful and versatile, yet very stable OS.

As for the advantages of running Unix, there are quite a few.

For starters, many web server applications available on the Internet, both as freeware and commercially, are intended for use with the Unix OS. This includes many of the scripts, written in languages such as Perl, C, C++, Java, and PHP, which are used to add functionality to web sites. Sendmail, a Unix subroutine used to -- you guessed it -- send e-mail messages, is also required for the implementation of many useful programs.

In addition, Unix itself is an open source operating system. This means that the source code for the OS is freely available to anyone who wants to add to or improve it. As a result, there have been a massive number of bug fixes, new features, and additional developments over the last couple of years. For this reason, among others, many professional programmers and designers have always and will always work only with Unix systems.

Those serving in a Unix environment will also have more freedom within their account on the server than those running on other operating systems. With Unix-based Telnet and SSH connections, customers can do a lot more themselves configuration-wise, including easily managing files and directories, changing file permissions, and debugging programs.

By far its most attractive quality, Unix is widely regarded as the most reliable operating system. Built with stability and efficiency in mind, the OS uses text-based commands instead of a graphical user interface. The resulting operating system doesn't waste memory or disk space on bells and whistles and is able to do a lot more with a lot less resources than comparable NT systems. It's not unheard of to have Unix machines that are several years old, with only 32 or 64 MB of RAM, running multiple programs with perfect stability. An NT machine in a similar situation would be very unstable and run the risk of server crashes on a regular basis.

Now for the downside. Many new users simply aren't comfortable with Unix. While those with simple hosting needs could run their sites on a Unix server without ever learning a single thing, those users wishing to build advanced sites would need to learn at least some of the basic Unix program commands. A task many aren't willing to undertake.

There are also several types of server applications, mostly those authored by Microsoft, which cannot be supported by Unix. These include Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) and Microsoft's SQL database software, among others. This may not be a problem for long, though, as several companies have already developed software that will allow these applications to run on Unix systems and other fixes are currently under development.

So what about the pros and cons of servers running Windows NT/2000?:

Microsoft Windows NT/2000 Operating System


NT/2000 Pros:

Ease of use for those users who are new to the hosting world.

Flawless integration of advanced design tools authored by Microsoft, such as FrontPage, Active Server Pages, Access, and M SQL, is possible.

NT/2000 Cons:

Operating system and programs can be very expensive to purchase.

Operating system is tough on server resources and will require a generous allocation of RAM for relative stability to be achieved.

Many server applications and scripts may require Unix subroutines, such as sendmail, and may not work on Windows machines.

Microsoft's NT is the operating system of choice for many new users. Its reputation for ease of use and administration has recently contributed to considerable gains in market share.

NT allows those with little or no experience in the fields of web development and hosting to get advanced features working very quickly. Using tools and software such as Microsoft's FrontPage, Active server Pages (ASP), Visual Interdev, Access, and M SQL you can have a fully functional site up in a short amount of time. You'll easily be able to include custom pages, built on the fly, and database integration that will allow you to create a very powerful, cutting edge site. Data from customers can be easily stored and manipulated and large product databases can be constructed.

These powerful features and the user-friendly environment, however, come at a cost. Money. Lots of money.

In order to implement the features we mentioned earlier, you'll have to purchase the software programs that provide these tools from Microsoft. Price tags for these programs range from several hundred dollars into the thousands. Take a look at Microsoft's web site for more pricing information.

To clarify. It is very easy to integrate Microsoft's programs, and the documents they create, with the NT operating system. However, you still have to learn to use the programs effectively.

In many cases it may be necessary to spend a considerable amount of time working with these software programs to truly take advantage of their many advanced features. You may also wish to attend Microsoft seminars or even hire a professional to provide support for advanced development with some programs.

Microsoft's NT operating system has another drawback. It's very hard on web servers and will require a generous allocation of resources if stability is to be maintained.

While Unix can easily be run in a professional environment on a machine with a single 300 MHz processor and 128 MB of RAM, NT generally cannot. The requirements necessary to maintain relative stability will depend largely on the server's traffic level and the number of applications running at any given time, but a fairly busy NT server will generally require a dual processor system of at least 500 MHz and 256-512 MB of RAM.

Even with a generous hardware setup, NT servers will have to be rebooted regularly. As a result, it is especially important that the support staff for an NT host be knowledgeable and reliable.

The Conclusion

Despite all the pros and cons we've listed here for both operating systems, the decision is largely inconsequential for those users without specific, advanced needs.

In most cases those users with specific needs will already know which operating system they should choose, but for those of you who are still confused here's a brief summary.

If you work with a designer who specializes in Unix programming, you wish to take advantage of free CGI scripts, or you have a need for a specific Unix routine or program (such as sendmail or My SQL) you should go with a host who supports Unix and thus the features you will require.

If you are strapped for cash, Unix will probably also get you the most bang for your buck without sacrificing stability.

On the other hand, if you work with a designer who specializes in the NT operating system, you work with a good number of Microsoft server applications (such as ASP or M SQL), or you have an IT staff which is already comfortable working with NT you should choose a host that runs NT.

Still not sure which operating system to choose? Consider yourself lucky.

If you don't know by now, it's very likely that you could choose either operating system and be just fine. Now you're free to select a host host based on features, pricing, connectivity, and support, without having to eliminate prospects based solely on what operating system they run.

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