Will Linux replace Windows NT as the server OS of choice?
“Linux is ready, or at least poised, to take on Windows NT for market dominance of server operating systems”, said T. W. Burger Owner, Thomas Wolfgang Burger Consulting June 2000.
It is the competitive choice for the user wanting a cheap, versatile, scalable, and reliable server solution. This article examines how Linux is ready to meet or exceed all user requirements that NT provides and why Linux should be the preferred alternative to NT. Included are the steps, requirements, options, and costs involved. Linux will soon surpass NT in most if not all network service applications. It is an open source, multi-vendor, and multi-platform server operating system solution. It is stable, versatile, and powerful, and it can be free. Anything Windows NT can do, it can do as well and often better; and the Justice Department is not trying to break up any Linux shops.
When Linux was publicly released in 1991, creator Linus Torvalds and his team had been developing a system they and others could afford and use on the Intel 386 processor. The emphasis was on a networked desktop design that used and promoted Open Source Computing — the sharing of source code so that others could adapt, adopt, and improve the original product. Open source has caused Linux to be developed into the contender for not only microcomputer OS dominance but for dominance of network server OS software. Presently, Linux is a weak alternative for the desktop market due to the momentum of the installed base of Microsoft Windows 95/98 products and lack of a clear marketing methodology. The dependence on the Windows desktop/workstation OS may be insurmountable. Server OS may yet be another story. Server OSs provide file storage and other network services that the user does not directly interact with. Linux offers the power, functionality, and performance range required of a network server OS to satisfy the needs of users ranging from the home office do-it-yourselfers to enterprise administrators.
A network operating system is software that provides centralized services to a group of linked computers. The group may be only one other computer or several hundred. A server OS satisfies three categories of demand. A personal or home office server provides network functions to two to five users. This level of service can be handled by all newer desktop operating systems like standard Linux, Windows 3.11 for Workgroups, Windows NT Workstation and Windows 95/98, Macintosh OS, BeOS, QNX, and any microcomputer flavor of Unix. A small business server handles under 50 users and an enterprise server 50 or more. Novell Netware, Windows NT, and other scalable server solutions will handle various numbers of small business user loads. At a certain point a business will require an enterprise server product. This OS will be capable of handling massive user traffic and provide a total solution: a comprehensive set of software tools that will allow a business to be run using computers. An enterprise OS will be run on a minicomputer such as the HP9000 or a super-microcomputer with large data processing capacity like a multi-processor Alpha Chip-based machine. Enterprise computing is a term describing a set of software tools with a network OS at its core. Enterprise computing provides not only a place to store and share files but everything required for a business to gather and manipulate information throughout the business as well as Internet access for customer support and business-to-business data flow. An enterprise computing product is generally made up of the network OS and components that provide one or more of the following: file service, print service, Web page hosting, Internet access/firewall, mail service, backup, and database, and/or SQL database services. A server is, as the name implies, a provider of computing resources. It is part of a client-server network configuration that generally has one of two topologies. The first is Thin Server, which is a specifically tasked network appliance that does very little processing for the connected Fat Clients, which are workstations that carry out all or most of the processing. An example would be a simple file server connected to a network of word processing stations. The second network design is Fat Server – Thin Client. This design has the server doing most of the work, either many tasks or one computationally intensive one. This allows a specialized server to more efficiently do the work and then send back to the clients the final information, thus keeping the network clear of unneeded data. An SQL server provides this service by taking an SQL query from a workstation and doing all of the necessary processing to provide the resulting record set. Larger networks are often a mix of the two configurations, using multiple servers.
Comparing network/enterprise operating systems
Enterprise computing is dominated by IBM AIX 4.3.2, Compaq Tru64 UNIX 4.0F, Hewlett-Packard HP-UX 11.0, Silicon Graphics IRIX 6.5, Sun Solaris 7, and Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition. Linux does not yet fully compete in the highest end server class that handles hundreds, or even thousands, of users. The Linux community and other elements of the computing community think that this will soon change based on data gathered on OS performance and consumer demand.
In April of 1999 the consulting firm D.H. Brown Associates Inc. conducted a rating of two major commercial Linux distributions, Red Hat Linux 5.2, and Caldera OpenLinux 2.2. They were compared against the six major commercial enterprise server OSs. These are IBM AIX 4.3.2, Compaq Tru64 UNIX 4.0F, Hewlett-Packard HP-UX 11.0, Silicon Graphics IRIX 6.5, Sun Solaris 7, and Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition.
The study rated scalability; system management tools; reliability, availability, and serviceability; PC client support; distributed enterprise services, Internet capabilities, and degree of support provided by major hardware vendors. The results are summarized in the following graph:
Ratings of 2 commercial Linux distributions vs. 6 commercial enterprise server OSs
As the chart shows, Linux rated only at or beyond the “OK” mark, but not a single operating system rated as excellent. Note also that this comparison is a year old and did not test the Linux versions that have recently been developed as true enterprise solutions.
The range of pricing for Linux and other enterprise computing solutions is very broad. If you are a technical do-it-yourself type, Linux is free for the downloading. At the other end of the price spectrum, Penguin Computing System’s Linux 8000 is an eye-popping $80,000 for a base system (hardware included). Linux 8000 is a fully scalable product meant for multi-processor platforms and for large institutions.
Most Linux server OS prices run from about $65 to $200. These are low to mid end products meant to provide home and small business solutions. In the mid-level, small business range are products such as Caldera OpenLinux(TM) eServer 2.3 from Caldera. This is a thin component-based server operating system priced at about $200. Another example is Cybernet Systems Corp NetMax Professional for $499. Red Hat has just released an enterprise version of Linux. At the enterprise OS level Red Hat Linux Enterprise Edition is a specialized Linux distribution offered as a complete enterprise database platform. It is touted by Red Hat as the perfect platform for customers interested in deploying Oracle 8i(TM) on Linux. An international survey firm, International Data Corporation, conducted a survey, and as of February 2000, has Linux second only to NT in server market unit sales.
Linux accounted for 25% of all shipments in 1999, up from 16% in 1998. It now exceeds Unix and NetWare sales. The Network OS market share for Windows NT Workstation remained at 38% with the remainder of the unit sales going to Unix and NetWare. In the Client OS market the share for Linux is only 4% with NT taking 21% and other Microsoft OS (mostly 98) at 66%. IDC currently estimates the worldwide server operating systems shipments of Linux licenses to be at 1.3M, growing at 92% from 1998 to 1999 in across-the-board use. This is a greater rate of growth than any other OS and well above the 23% unit growth of the average server OS. At LinuxExpo, last April in Montreal, IDC announced at the show opening that Linux shipments (all categories) have increased 166% for last quarter of 1999 compared to the last quarter of 1998. Linux dominates Web applications support for Web hosting, proxy, and e-mail.
NT versus Linux operating system hardware features and costs
Feature-for-feature, Linux and NT compete equally. System requirements are also similar. Cost is again very much the same. Commercial Linux Server packages of similar power to NT installations cost about the same, although Linux offerings tend to include more added value in utilities and abilities. For example, a typical Linux Server offering will include MySQL whereas Microsoft SQL7 is an extra to be purchased separately.
Linux, for the highly technical, is free. It is simply a matter of downloading and installing. Support is at least adequate and can be quite good from the Open Source community. The lower priced packages such as Caldera OpenLinux offer a pre-packaged solution at a far lower price than NT.
Hardware requirements are also similar between Linux and NT. The low end and high end Network OS needs are almost exactly the same. Hands-on reports cite better performance from Linux using the same hardware, although these results tend to be based on opinion rather than recorded statistics.
If Linux and NT are so close, in most technical aspects, why change from NT?
First and foremost Linux is open source (code) and multiple source (vendors). NT is proprietary. Open Source allows all and any aspects of Linux to be altered and improved by any competent programmer. The competition between vendors keeps customers happy by allowing market forces to motivate excellence. If the source code is on hand, a bug in Linux can be corrected with the GNU compiler. NT’s Blue Screen of Death is fixed only by applying a service pack, when and if it comes out and if it solves that particular problem. NT crashes constantly; more than once a week is not uncommon. Linux 300-day uptimes are common. The best performance I have personally achieved on my NT Server is 12 days uptime, and when it crashed it was usually while doing nothing (and yes, the latest service pack was applied).
(Author’s note: I was afraid I would have to retract that statement. My NT server had been humming along flawlessly for the previous 10 days and, just as I was finishing a coding project for a client, the NT machine rebooted for no apparent reason.)
Overall, Linux is less expensive. NT requires per-user licensing. Linux does not. Linux tools are often free and, generally, less hardware is required to run Linux, and it is often reported that it runs faster. Benchmarks show Linux at or ahead of NT in some tests and well behind in others. Generally the results are mixed and a bit confusing; there does not seem to be a clear winner. Linux is the more popular in many areas despite ambiguous performance results. Installed Web server surveys have Apache (Web server software) on Linux at over 60%, while NT is at about 20%.
There is a question as to the stability of NT and its replacement, Windows 2000 Server. The application programming interface (API), the method of writing programs that use an operating system, is largely a new reworking of past versions as opposed to an evolved product. The Linux API is based on Unix, a decades-old standard, and proves itself stable, on a daily basis, across the globe. The proven reliability and growing popularity of Linux has many major server application vendors moving to support Linux. IBM has ported the DB2 database to Linux, Oracle has ported its database offering, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution providers are porting applications to Linux.
The largest cost involved in any change of technology is in the conversion from one platform to another. Costs to consider including training, down time, data transfer, and testing. These costs are usually much larger than the initial cost of the hardware and software.
In converting from NT to Linux it would be advisable to run a parallel conversion, running both OSs at the same time. This method allows you move the processes one by one, comparing the results and allows a fall back to the old system if problems are encountered. A variation of this is setting up Linux as a new server that handles new functions. This method eliminates the costs of converting existing functions from NT to Linux and allows adaptation to Linux to proceed at its own pace. After Linux has been established as a network solution, former NT processes can be moved without the steep learning curve.
? Web-based administration interface to configure DNS, Samba, NFS, local/remote file systems
? Tunable kernel parameters are set to meet server requirements
? Hardware-level and software-level RAID is compiled into the kernel
? Disk quota support is enabled by default
? Compiled and optimized for Pentium Pro or better processors
? Additional PAM (Pluggable Authentication Modules) are included to enhance basic system security
? Option to build the kernel to support up to 4 GB of physical RAM
? Raw I/O support for enhanced database performance
? Dynamic file descriptors to support enterprise-level database/application performance
? Unattended installation option
? Intel-based PCs Pentium III, Pentium Pro, Xeon or Pentium/compatible
Cybernet Systems Corp NetMax Professional
? Provides a firewall, file and Web servers
? Complexities of Linux concealed
? Management of Web, Email, FTP, News, DNS, DHCP, and LDAP servers
? File, CD-ROM and Print sharing
? Generates extensive system and network reports
? Windows, Macintosh, and Unix clients
? 64 MB RAM, 1 GB hard drive space.
? Open source code gives control back to developers and system administrators
? POSIX(TM) Environment, with its familiar UNIX commands and framework, eases transition for administrators from UNIX
? Motif(TM) 2.1 Integration provides complete Oracle integration without the need for third-party products
? Oracle Integration — fully tested and supported by Oracle and Red Hat — ensures a stable, reliable environment
? Standard tools such as C, C++, and Perl allow developers to easily create new database applications
? Java configuration tools JDK and JRE(TM) deliver efficient configuration of Oracle system from the Linux desktop
? Raw I/O increases Oracle disk throughput, resulting in faster database access and more efficient memory use
? Large memory support allows Oracle8i to take full advantage of available memory resources
? 64-bit file I/O allows access to files greater than 2 GB in size
? Vectored I/O provides the ability to read and write from the database using significantly less CPU bandwidth
? SMP scalability takes advantage of multiprocessors, maximizing database performance on a single machine
? Remote management enables efficient administration of multiple machines from remote locations
? Enterprise-class support from Red Hat offers localized support via Red Hat service centers worldwide.
? 10-incident support pack provides fast access to Red Hat experts for problem solving to advanced configuration assistance
? One year of priority online access makes downloading software updates fast and easy
? Enterprise-class support from Red Hat provides localized support via Red Hat service centers worldwide
? 256 MB RAM, 1.6 GB hard drive space
? Computer/Processor – Pentium 90 MHz or higher for Intel or compatible systems; System with Alpha processor for RISC systems
? Hard Disk – 500 MB of available hard disk space
? 5 Client $740.00 25 Client – $2981.00 Enterprise $3600.00
? 133 MHz or higher Pentium-compatible CPU
? 256 megabytes (MB) of RAM recommended minimum (128 MB minimum supported; 4 GB maximum)
? 2 GB hard disk with a minimum of 1.0 GB free space. (Additional free hard disk space is required if you are installing over a network.)
? Windows 2000 Server supports up to four CPUs on one machine
? 5 Client – $850.00-$1200, Advanced Server – $4000 (25 client), MS SQL Server 7 – 5 Client $1250.00
Linux is a very powerful, inexpensive operating system. Simply put, Linux controls the software and you control Linux. This means that on the rare occasion a program crashes, Lyou can kill the program and continue to work with confidence. When compared to Windows NT, Linux is at least the technical equal of NT in most ways and is arguably superior. Performance tests seem to indicate NT is still ahead in sheer speed, but Linux is less expensive than NT and can even be downloaded for free. Linux runs on the same equipment as NT and can run better, with less downtime, if not faster. Good support is available for Linux from the vendors and from the Linux and Open Source communities. It is a far more popular Web server platform than NT and Red Hat Linux’s Oracle support may soon make it a more popular database server. Major software corporations like Oracle, IBM, Corel, and others are throwing massive industry support behind Linux. You’ll find your favorite applications available for Linux, such as Corel’s WordPerfect, games like Quake II and Civilization, and internet software such as Netscape Communicator and Sun Microsystem’s StarOffice 5.1a.
On the other hand, Linux is a weak alternative for the desktop market. The Linux offerings have, so far, been too difficult for the average user to install, and there is a lack of marketing to the computing masses. Linux remains a technologist’s OS option, not a general one.
Will Linux Server replace Windows NT? Yes. Linux can do the job and all current indications show a trend that Linux Server OS installations will soon be outpacing NT.
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