Your Operating System (OS) is a vital part of your dedicated server set-up. But why is it so critical and how do you choose from all the options available? Here we run through some of the options from Windows and Linux to help you decide the best OS for you.
What is an OS and why do you need one?
At its core, cloud computing is built on the concept of switching from on-premise IT assets to those hosted and managed remotely by a third-party service provider. And that’s not just subscribing to application services so you don’t have to buy and run your own software. It can also mean running a complete IT infrastructure, servers and all – but using hardware your hire rather than own, located in a data centre rather than on your own premises.
This is what dedicated server hosting is all about – making high performance, cutting edge servers available for hire, removing the burden of buying and maintaining your own machines, and handing over the day-to-day management to specialists in the field. It makes the very best, fastest, high capacity hardware available to a wider range of businesses at lower cost, improving the efficiency of IT systems and benefitting operations.
Dedicated server services are sometimes referred to as ‘bare metal’, because in essence that is what you pay for – a server and nothing more. They can be used to run your entire suite of business applications, for data storage or back-up, to host a company website. The advantage over types of cloud and hosted IT services is that you get an entire server (or bank of servers) to yourself – no sharing resources, no security or privacy concerns. But what you do have to do is install, configure and run the software you need for whatever services you want your dedicated service to host.
This includes an operating system, or OS. An operating system can be described as the link between computing hardware and the applications that run on it. For example, an OS interprets the resource demands of a piece of software and makes them available from the server accordingly. An OS also interprets commands and initiates actions in the server accordingly, and manages file and data storage.
The OS is therefore a crucial part of your dedicated server set-up. Installing an OS is something that can be done by your hosting provider, or by your own internal IT team. But the essential point is, you have a choice – unlike an IaaS or PaaS cloud service, a dedicated server does not come with OS included.
There are two main choices for which OS you run on a dedicated server – Windows or Linux. However, Linux is further segmented into dozens of different versions, known as distributions, each with their own unique features and benefits. Choosing the right OS for your business is therefore a matter of assessing the relative strengths of the various options and comparing them to what your IT operations need most.
Below, we’ll run through the main options, Windows and the various iterations of Linux, with their key benefits and why you might choose each over the others available.
Microsoft’s Windows has dominated the operating system market for the past 30 years. Run on an estimated 1.5 billion devices worldwide, Windows commands a staggering 91% share of the global desktop market.
Now, running an enterprise IT system via a dedicated server and running a PC are two different things. However, Windows has one thing that translates very well from its desktop stronghold to dedicated servers – familiarity. If you choose to run Windows on your hosted server, you get the same graphical interface, the same navigation options that most of us have grown up using on home computers.
This makes Windows a very attractive option if you don’t have an IT team packed full of developer expertise, yet you still want to be able to engage with and configure your server resources. Whereas Linux is all command line functions and syntax, Windows server comes with a remote desktop interface that allows you to manage via all the familiar icons and menus. Without previous experience, Linux poses a steep learning curve. Windows allows you to achieve a fairly sophisticated level of server management, including configuring settings for databases, access control, applications, company email etc, through in-built tutorials and help prompts.
Other reasons to choose a Windows server include the fact that you get dedicated support from Microsoft. With Linux, a decentralized, open source product, you have to know where to look for help. A Windows server is also a natural choice if your business is heavily reliant on Windows software products, as it offers natural, straightforward integration. If you are looking to build and run your own website, some developers also argue the Microsoft scripting frameworks ASP and ASP.NET are among the simplest and best supported to work with. You usually need a Windows server to run a web page or script written in ASP or ASP.NET.
Such is its familiarity and iconic status, we still tend to think of Windows as the most-used operating system in existence. That isn’t necessarily true. Although pinning down usage stats for open-source platforms like Linux is difficult because of the complex family trees of versions and sub-versions involved, what we do know is that Android – Google’s mobile OS based on Linux – is now locked in a neck-and-neck battle with Windows for market share of consumer devices.
And when you step back from device installations, Linux plays an even bigger role in modern IT infrastructure. Around 37% of websites, for example, are run from servers that use Linux, compared to 30% that run Windows. Incidentally, for web hosting purposes, Linux is considered a subcategory of Unix, the OS developed by AT&T in the 1970s which played a significant role in the development of the client-server architecture behind the World Wide Web. Linux was developed as an open-source equivalent based on Unix, which still accounts for 70% of global web hosting.
The reasons why web hosts like to use Linux translate to dedicated servers, too (remember, web hosting is one possible use of a dedicated server). Although it requires a greater degree of technical expertise to use, Linux affords much greater levels of flexibility and control than you get with a Windows server. As a ‘developer’s OS’, it allows full customization so business users can configure their server resources to suit the precise needs of their operations. It is also more agile, allowing in-play modifications without having to reboot the whole system – something you cannot do with Windows.
As an open-source platform, Linux is also much cheaper to run than Windows. You don’t need to buy licenses or time-limited subscriptions to use it (though you can do for some distributions), the source code is free for anybody to access. Another cost benefit Linux delivers is that it uses server resources more efficiently than Windows, so you can end up running more services from a single bare metal machine.
Another important feature that stems from Linux being open-source is that it doesn’t exist in a single ‘official’ version like Windows does. Different developers are able to take the Linux source code and create their own OS with it (as Google has done with Android). Many of these are popular choices for businesses looking to run dedicated servers in their own right. Here’s a quick overview of four of the main Linux distributions.
Ubuntu is a popular configuration of Linux for dedicated servers because it is considered one of the most user-friendly. It is the OS of choice for several major tech enterprises, including IBM, HP Cloud – and even Microsoft. As well as the usual Linux benefits of being highly cost-effective and efficient, Ubuntu is designed to make customization and scaling of services as straightforward as possible within a Linux environment. One for the large-scale enterprises and the ambitious growing companies alike.
Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Unlike other distributions, Red Hat Enterprise Linux is a paid-for subscription product available under license from its developer, Red Hat. The company positions its Linux distribution as a product for big enterprises looking to take full advantage of the cloud, with dedicated technical support, regular stable release cycles and high levels of security. As added value extras to sweeten the subscription costs, users also get access to a comprehensive software collection and development toolset. One for companies who want the flexibility and control of Linux but with the kind of support you can rely on from Windows.
CentOS is an open-source version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, mimicking all its key features but in a free-to-access platform. Big on stability and security, CentOS is usually felt to be less feature-rich than other Linux distributions – probably because you don’t get access to those Red Hat developer tools and software that the paid-for original comes with. One for companies that prize reliability and security over features and tools.
Debian is popular with what you might call the Linux purists – big on open-ended configurability and customization, big on community support, big on security and stability. Versions are frequently updated and upgraded to add new features, fix bugs and tackle threats, with a very efficient update system meaning you are always sure to be running a cutting edge OS. This is not one for the technical novice – installation alone is a specialist task, as this is when you basically configure your OS to do exactly what you want. One for the development pros who want to squeeze the maximum out of their OS.
Choose what’s right for your business
All in all, there are so many options to choose from and this is a major decision to make. Consider what works for your business, the level of technical support you want and technical capabilities you already have. At M247 our experts can help discuss your options with you without bias. Get in touch with us!