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Nov 29
2009

Is Linux Better Than Windows?

Posted by Michael Neubarth in Untagged 

Michael Neubarth

In his essay "Open Minds, Open Source," Eric Raymond compares the open vs. closed development and debugging processes of Linux and Windows.

The open source process yields better reliability, says Raymond, asserting that:

 "The pattern is simple and compelling. Where we have open-source software, we have peer review and high reliability. Where we don't, reliability suffers terribly."

Windows security and reliability, says Raymond, suffers from increasing complexity that is a result of a huge and increasing amount of code that comprises Windows. As a result of its complex "monolithic" code base, he says, "the debugging task (and the number of skilled programmer-hours required to debug a typical program) is also increasing geometrically at a higher rate--much faster than any one organization can hire programmers."

Linux, on the other hand, benefited from having "a single visible focus for open-source development" that allowed it to assimilate "the development efforts and momentum of almost the entire hacker culture, perhaps as many as 750,000 developers worldwide."

The result, says Raymond, is that:

"Microsoft Windows machines are subject to frequent lockups, generally require rebooting more than once a week, and need periodic re-installation from scratch to eliminate problems such as registry creep and DLL conflicts."

Linux systems, on the other hand, "are so stable that many only go offline when brought down for hardware fixes and upgrades."

Raymond's arguments for the superiority of peer review in software design are persuasive. "Historically, he says, "the way we have gotten high reliability of results in engineering and the sciences is by institutionalizing peer review."

As examples, Raymond cites:

  • "Aeronautical engineers (like Internet hackers) have learned to use a design process that is top-to-bottom transparent, with all layers of the system's design and implementation open to constant improvement and third-party peer review."
  • "Physicists don't hide their experimental plans from each other; instead, they skeptically check each others' work."
  • "Civil engineers don't build dams or suspension bridges without having the blueprints sanity-checked first by other engineers independent of the original design group."

 

Raymond also cites the Internet as a shining example of reliability attained through open source peer review:

  • "The Internet is a particularly compelling demonstration because it is the largest and most complex single system of cooperating hardware and software in existence. It's multi-platform, heterogeneous, international, and served user populations of widely varying backgrounds through thirty years and many generations of computer hardware and networking technology."

 

Thoughtful Comparison

Michael Horowitz in "A comparison of Linux and Windows" on michaelhorowitz.com offers a detailed comparison of the features and cost of Windows vs. Linux. Begun in September 2001 and updated through July 2009, Horowitz also sees Linux as more reliable and bug-free as a result of its development and peer-review process. Says Horowitz:

"The difference in OS development methodologies may explain why Linux is considered more stable. Windows is developed by faceless programmers whose mistakes are hidden from the outside world because Microsoft does not publish the underlying code for Windows. They consider it a trade secret. In contrast, Linux is developed by hundreds of programmers all over the world. They publish the source code for the operating system and any interested programmer, anywhere in the world can review it."

Horowitz finds advantages for Linux in a number of areas, including clustering, support of multiple users, hard disk partitioning, bugs and bug fixes, development, hardware supported, application software provided, and scripting.

In a "Linux-only" category of features, he writes:

"The first item on his list strikes me as very important--you can update "every single piece of software on my system with a single action." Windows and Microsoft Update only do a handful of Microsoft applications. With Linux, the OS updater application handles software from other companies too. Huge plus for Linux. Huge."

Horowitz also sees an advantage for Linux in the decision process that determines when a new OS version is considered complete and ready to ship. "Linux and Windows differ greatly in how this decision is made," says Horowitz. Finding in favor of Linux, he cites the following note from Linux creator Linus Torvalds to support his view:

"Because the software is free, there is no pressure to release it before it is really ready just to achieve some sales target. Every version of Linux is declared to be finished only when it is actually finished, which explains why it is so solid. The other reason why free software is better is because the personal reputation of the developer is attached to every release."

Security is an area in which Linux is generally considered to have a better story. Says Horowitz:

 "The vast majority of malicious software (of all types) runs on Windows. I don't know the actual percentages, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was 98% or so. Windows users are burdened with the need for anti-virus and anti-spyware software. Linux users are not. Why is this?"

In his cost comparison, Horowitz finds that, "for server use, Linux is very cheap compared to Windows. Microsoft allows a single copy of Windows to be used on only one computer. Starting with Windows XP, they use software to enforce this rule (Windows Product Activation at first, later Genuine Windows). In contrast, once you have purchased Linux, you can run it on any number of computers for no additional charge."

Ironically, says Horowitz, "Windows rose to dominance, way back when, in large part by undercutting the competition (Macs) on cost. Now Linux may do the same thing to Windows." 

It's the Code

Jack Wallen in his comparison of Linux and Windows on zdnet.com's TechRepublic, in September 2008, also saw an advantage to Linux providing full access to its source code. Said Wallen:

"Having access to the source code is probably the single most significant difference between Linux and Windows. The fact that Linux belongs to the GNU Public License ensures that users (of all sorts) can access (and alter) the code to the very kernel that serves as the foundation of the Linux operating system. You want to peer at the Windows code? Good luck."

Wallen also found Linux superior to Windows in the areas of licensing, flexibility, command-line control, peer support and community, centralized application installation, security, cost of ownership, and interoperability.

The Linux Difference

Open source security firm Guardian Digital, while admittedly a pro-Linux advocate, provides a fairly evenhanded summary of Linux's advantages vs. Windows that jibe with those above. The reason for the rapid adoption of Linux, says Guardian in its whitepaper entitled "Windows vs. Linux in Corporate Environments," is its "unique ability to provide powerful functionality, security, compatibility, customization at a more cost-effective price than proprietary vendors."

It is important to remember, says Guardian, "that Linux was created as a solution to the unaddressed issues found with Windows. Issues with stability, security, and flexibility provide substantial disadvantages for Windows in a corporate environment."

Guardian gives Windows its due, conceding that Linux and Windows each "have their advantages and disadvantages when implemented in a corporate environment." Moreover, says Guardian, "from a proprietary viewpoint, there are many advantages to using the Windows platform."  Among Windows advantages, says Guardian, are user friendliness, simplified installation, and a greater variety of software choices.

Once again, security is not seen as a Windows advantage. As with Raymond, Horowitz, Wallen, and others, Guardian points out that:

"Due to the closed source nature of Microsoft, the programs are unable to undergo the rigorous scrutiny and testing Linux systems endure at the hands of the open source community. The limited staff to write and edit the code for vulnerabilities leaves the systems more susceptible to attack and due to its popularity, many more viruses are written to hit Microsoft programs (i.e. Blaster, Nimbda, etc.)."

Linux Costs Less

Most cost of ownership comparisons show that Linux has the edge over Windows.  As 2X Software shows in its cost comparison on 2x.com, a key cost saving for Linux vs. Microsoft is the lack of Microsoft CALs (client access licenses), which can add significant cost to Microsoft server solutions. As 2X explains:

"Beyond the actual server license, each user that accesses the server requires the purchase of a client access license. The total client access license was calculated at $165 per PC. This is made up of one Windows Server CAL @ $70, one Exchange Server CAL @ $80 and one SQL server CAL @ $150 per 10 users, making it $165 per PC. There are no CALs when using Linux."

Overall, says, 2X:

"The core of the Linux savings proposition is no software license fees, reduced hardware costs and less unplanned downtime. Companies changing their systems over from Windows to Linux are reporting massive cost-savings from software licenses alone."

Reliability Ratings

That Linux is more reliable than Windows is seen in most reliability surveys. In Yankee Group's second annual Server Operating System Reliability survey, for 2007-2008, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Novell SuSE Linux showed the biggest reliability improvements, with each decreasing per server per annum downtime by an average of 75%.

Windows server reliability went downhill. As Yankee group said, "The biggest and most unwelcome surprise in the survey was that Windows Server 2003 downtime increased by 25% to nearly 9 hours of per server, per year downtime compared to the results it achieved in Yankee Group's 2006 Global Server Reliability Survey."

Windows Server 2003's decreased reliability, said Yankee Group, was "attributable to a series of security alerts Microsoft issued in the summer and fall time frame which caused network administrators to take their Windows Server 2003 machines offline for significantly longer periods of time to apply remedial patches."

Microsoft Attacks  

As Linux adoption surged, Microsoft saw the threat it posed to its Windows server franchise and launched an anti-Linux campaign called "Get the Facts." As IDG News Service's Joris Evers noted:

"Get the Facts is a marketing effort by Microsoft that compares Windows favorably with Linux and other open source software products. Microsoft launched the campaign in mid-2003 and has gradually expanded its scope to include issues including total cost of ownership, security, indemnification and, the latest addition, reliability."

While Microsoft's "facts" have been shown to be distorted (for example its cost comparison compared Windows running on Intel boxes to Linux running on System z mainframes), the fact that it attacked Linux so fiercely says something about the seriousness of the threat and the quality of the competitor.

Michael Neubarth is a Contributing Editor to CIOZone.com.

Comments (6)Add Comment
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written by antony satyadas, November 30, 2009
Great writeup...

Check out http://www.ibm.com/lotus/openclient
Bill Gerneglia
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written by Bill Gerneglia, November 30, 2009
I have several Linux Machines running for a variety of processing purposes that have not been rebooted for 2 years. You want stability - consider Linux, especially the Fedora Core versions.
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written by jelk1217, November 30, 2009
For what? Over the years, I have seen similar arguments about Mainframe vs. Unix vs. Windows. In the case of operating systems, until you decide the purpose of the operating system and applications that are to be used, comparison is arbitrary.

Without this being decided, pick the qualities that you like, and compare based on that. Ever try to get a device driver for a new piece of hardware on Linux, usually ships with Windows drivers. How about when the Linux group decides to change the way they do something (think Alsa to PulseAudio), out of luck again until someone figures out why it broke something you were using.

All that said, I like Linux very well and consider it very stable, but you still need to be technically savvy IT person to work on it. Also, until recently, try to get a 3rd party applications providers to ship their products on it.
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written by Sharat, November 30, 2009
good one!
we had the need to setup machines on cluster env and it was so easy to setup and administer unix machines on cluster compared to windows servers.
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written by Husain Al-Khamis, December 08, 2009
Well articulated!

Wherever you go you won't find better than Unix-based OS and even applications.
Days ago, I wrote a post like yours explaining why I abandoned Windows and migrated to Linux http://hsmak.wordpress.com/200...ife-linux/

Great article supporting Linux and the Open Source Community!

BR
Husain
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written by Jim Gross, December 08, 2009
Very well written post. However, there are a few points to consider when looking at stability, reliability, uptime, etc.

First, you really need to think about what you are measuring! If you're only interested in OS Stability and uptime, you need to completely ABSTRACT or REMOVE any applications from the stack. This is never the case and is a huge contributor to system stability, but almost never considered in these "studies".

Second, when you consider the larger picture, why would you measure stability or reliability at the OS level anyhow? Since when does an OS provide any value to the business anyhow? To get a true measure, you should be measuring at the service level. And, if your service requires 5 9s or better, then you should have architected the solution for that to begin with - Linux, Unix, VAX, MVS, OR WINDOWS!

Finally, level the playing field. Yes, Windows has bloated pretty considerably over the years. But, so has the number of things we layer on top of these systems. It is well known that the single biggest contributor to unreliability is interoperability of software with the OS and hardware. In the Windows world, this usually comes down to devices and devices drivers and how software interacts with these things. With everybody and their brother writing drivers, it's almost impossible to eliminate all the potential problems. This is or will be a problem for Linux, it just hasn't hit critical mass yet.

On a side comment, I've run both Open Source and Commercial Enterprise solutions. We complain about the number of Windows patches, etc. Do you guys have any idea how many Drupal patches have shipped in the past 60 days? I get notified of updates pretty much weekly. Point being, this whole reliability argument is all relative and should never be considered an absolute.

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