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What are the pros and cons of Windows vs. Linux server OSes?

Linux licensing is more affordable than Windows Server licensing, but that doesn't necessarily make the Linux server OS the better option for your data center.

As readers are probably well-aware, Windows Server 2016 comes with a rather monumental licensing change. Compared...

to previous versions, which feature a per-processor licensing model, Windows Server 2016 operates on a per-core licensing model that kicks in after the first eight cores. With the core density of CPUs now reaching 24 cores per physical processor, this change might cause sticker shock for those who want to update to Microsoft's latest server OS. You might even ask, "Why don't we move to Linux instead?" This idea sounds great in theory, because Linux licensing is free, but the reality of the Windows vs. Linux debate is more complicated.

One of the primary reasons companies move their virtualized environments from Microsoft to Linux is licensing costs. Microsoft is expensive to license and requires additional hypervisor licensing for virtualized infrastructures. Linux licensing is open source and free, unless you purchase support from a third-party vendor. And, even then, what you save on maintenance effectively cancels out the cost of support.

The real concern with Linux is application compatibility -- after all, what good is a server OS if it can't run the applications you need? Microsoft has the clear advantage in this aspect of the Windows vs. Linux question simply because it's been around for so long. Compared to Linux, the installation base of Windows-compatible applications is staggering. Linux is slowly gaining ground, but it will take years -- if ever -- for it to come even close to the number of applications Windows supports. There are Linux-friendly application vendors, but the goal is to let your application choice drive your server OS choice -- not the other way around.

Linux is built around the command line, rather than the graphical user interface (GUI). This, in combination with the sheer number of items Windows supports, means Linux generally has a smaller footprint than Windows Server. The Server Core option for installation addresses this concern, but Microsoft still has a ways to go. As far as resources are concerned, Linux still has the edge.

One of the biggest challenges in any environment is support: Every application and every server experiences updates, patches or crashes at some point in time, and requires a dedicated effort to bring it back online. Many IT professionals grew up with Windows and can easily maneuver in any version of the OS, despite any changes that have occurred under the hood.

The installation base of Windows-compatible applications is staggering. Linux is slowly gaining ground, but it will take years -- if ever -- for it to come even close to the number of applications Windows supports.

Although you can use a GUI overlay, many aspects of Linux will kick you back to the command line. The syntax and function of a Linux command line are very different from anything in the Windows world; this can make Linux environments a challenge for administrators to work with. The number of Linux flavors complicates things even further, as different Linux installations require different training support.

When you weigh Windows vs. Linux, be sure to look at the bigger picture, rather than a few single data points. Although free Linux licensing seems ideal, it often comes with hidden costs that can add up quickly once you get into the weeds. Linux still has its place in the data center, but applications and support aspects should drive your decision, not the upfront licensing costs.

Next Steps

Which is the better server OS: Linux or Windows?

The case for using Linux and Windows in tandem

A Linux beginner's guide for Windows users

This was last published in May 2017

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