Article by Jerry Low
Geek dad, SEO data junkie, investor, and founder of Web Hosting Secret Revealed. Jerry has been building Internet assets and making money online since 2004. He loves mindless doodling and trying new food.
Most prospective web hosting customers are familiar with the technology “wars” which have ensued over the past few decades. First, there was the war between Macintosh and Windows operating systems on desktop computers; following that, there was a war between web browsers on those computers; and, some time after that, a war ensued between mobile device manufacturers for supremacy in the smartphone industry. In fact, that war rages on as Microsoft, Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Nokia all vie for the title of the world’s foremost smartphone provider.
In the background, however, a smaller-scale war has been raging for almost the entire length of the web hosting industry’s existence. This is the war between hosting products based on the closed Microsoft Windows Server system and those based on open-source Unix and Linux alternatives. There are a number of reasons that the war should be no war at all, as these products compete for different types of consumers and offer different advantages that benefit different types of developers. Yet, most people see it as a mere “preference,” and they’re so unfamiliar with the differences between these two options that they frequently pick the one which is least appropriate for their type of business.
There are several key differences between Windows and Unix web hosting plans, and those differences directly correlate with who should use each technology — and why. Knowing these differences will make the web hosting shopping process considerably easier, and it will reveal a key truth: There is no war between web hosting technologies, as they’re simply not in competition with each other most of the time.
There’s no secret about the fact that almost every business in the world uses some form of Microsoft operating environment. Whether it’s the company’s mainstream consumer Windows operating system, or the more advanced Windows Server systems, it’s hard to escape the reach of Microsoft among corporate and enterprise clients. For these people, there is a natural way to shop for web hosting. That includes choosing products based on Microsoft Windows technologies and communicating over remotely-hosted Microsoft Exchange email servers. It’s a no-brainer because it’s simply so easy to setup and configure.
When an enterprise client is looking for hosting, they’re searching for a product which can seamlessly integrate with their existing setup. The key to this process is to save time and money by investing in something which is essentially “plug and play.” Once the hosting plan is purchased and data is transferred, a few easy settings should be able to be configured and the product will be available to entire base of employees within any one company or enterprise setup. That solution is Microsoft.
First and foremost, the company offers the number one database product among major enterprise customers in the form of Microsoft SQL. When combined with the Microsoft Access application which ships as part of the Microsoft Office suite of productivity applications, this data can be easily synced among desktop computers and between those computers and the remote web hosting server itself. This is an especially big consideration, as it would take a great deal of time to make the same functions operate between a Microsoft-designed database and an open source alternative based on a remote server.
In addition to Windows servers’ support of Microsoft’s popular database protocols, these servers also support deep integration with the Microsoft desktop in the form of a remote file server. Most enterprises, before they switched to a Windows web hosting server, simply had their own in-house computer which remotely hosted files for their employees. Moving these files to the cloud is now imperative, as it allows universal access on mobile devices, home computers, and corporate machines.
Microsoft allows these servers to be setup by simply plugging in a few settings via the standard Windows control panel interface. The server is then able to be seen as a native component of the operating system by every Windows computer on the company’s network. That process would take far longer to configure and deploy when choosing an open source alternative.
The most popular method of communicating among major business and enterprises is a combination of the Microsoft Exchange email server software and Microsoft SharePoint collaboration technologies. As these two technologies have evolved, they’ve made it possible for on-the-go communication that syncs between remote and mobile denies as well as company computers and servers.
There are certainly open source alternatives to these technologies, but they’re far less-developed and they take a great deal of time to integrate into the traditional Microsoft environment. Because almost every office uses Microsoft Outlook for its email services, it simply makes sense to choose a Windows host that can immediately plug into that software. On top of it, the web-based interface for these applications closely mirrors the desktop counterpart. That means there’s a very little, if any, learning curve when choosing a Windows server for an enterprise environment.
Simply put, a Windows server is best-suited for business and enterprise customers who are committed to the Microsoft “ecosystem.” That system involves the Microsoft Office suite of applications, easy configuration and integration with Windows, the world’s most popular desktop operating system, and easy deployment and syncing to mobile devices and home computers using technologies like Exchange and SharePoint. While these servers can also be used by individual web hosting clients and those who just prefer Microsoft technologies, it’s highly unlikely that they’d be any better served by a Windows server than one based on Unix. In fact, the Unix method of hosting may be better for their very different needs and requirements.
Unlike the “closed” system presented by Microsoft applications and server components, a Unix-based server is constructed entirely with open source software which is updated and maintained by an active community of third-party developers and programming experts. This has a number of great side effects that directly benefit those customers who choose an open source server over one which runs the Microsoft Windows Server operating system.
First and foremost, servers based on Unix technologies are exceedingly affordable, especially when compared to the high prices attached to almost every Windows hosting plan and web server online. It’s quite true that most Windows hosting clients pay as much as ten percent more per month for the privilege of using the world’s most popular operating system on their server, while Unix clients enjoy the lowest hosting prices available online. Open source software often comes with a very small licensing fee, or no fee at all, and this savings is passed on directly to consumers.
The second benefit of choosing an open source Unix server is that the software included with this server is more actively developed and rapidly updated. That’s because the community of developers is always submitting changes to the code, adding new features, and working on new ways of performing old tasks in more innovative and efficient styles. Microsoft is more likely to adapt these innovations several months or years later, after they have been “proven.” Its customers are rarely on the leading edge of technological advancements which benefit the web hosting industry. For web application developers and others, this is a great advantage that allows them to be ahead of the Windows “curve.” Because being ahead in technology means being ahead in profits, there’s simply no reason not to choose a Unix web hosting solution.
It’s worth noting that servers based on open source Unix technologies do not sacrifice functionality for price. These servers are a bit more difficult to integrate into today’s standard Windows or Mac OS X operating systems, but their technologies are still appropriately robust and meet the demands of both developer and enterprise clients alike. In place of Microsoft’s popular database technologies, most Unix servers ship with an adept combination of MySQL databases and phpMyAdmin administration tools that make it easy to manage data from a wide range of popular content management and interactive applications.
These servers ship with a number of email server options, which is something that Windows simply doesn’t offer. With a Unix server, the hosting client can choose the email server technology and webmail interface which works best for them, rather than merely being told which option they will use and how they will deploy that solution. Unix is all about choice and, for most people, that’s a key reason to select it over a comparable Windows hosting plan.
There’s another reason to select these open source servers, as well: In a number of key tests, Unix servers have been shown to be more capable of running many simultaneous applications and processes than their Windows Server counterparts. That might not be important to an enterprise customer who only runs Exchange and database applications, but the wider development community does value being able to multi-task in demanding and advanced ways. Those customers would be poorly served by the more crash-prone, resource-intensive Windows Server suite of tools.
There was one a time when Microsoft was dogged by continual security threats that challenged the integrity of both its enterprise and consumer-grade desktop operating systems and productivity tools. While the company is still the victim of more security threats and loopholes than either Unix or Mac OS X operating systems, the company’s server product is among the most secure it has ever produced. In fact, major web security firms have done extensive tests on both Windows and Unix environments; they’ve found that they’re relatively equal in the number of vulnerabilities, and the strength of their defenses, even when pursued by the web’s most notorious hacking and intrusion methods.
This is one area where it’s refreshing to see that there is little if any difference between the two major technologies that compete for web hosting clients. For far too long, choosing a Microsoft Windows server was considered technologically-smart, but not a good choice for corporate or enterprise security. The change of pace is a welcome one.
The differences between Windows servers and those based on the open source Unix suite of applications are pretty stark. Microsoft is almost custom-designed for businesses which need a “plug and play” solution for their remote data storage and syncing needs. The company markets itself as the sensible choice for any office which primarily uses the Windows operating system, with good reason. When it comes to integrating Windows technologies, Microsoft Office applications, and remote web servers, there is simply no better option than a hosting package that runs the Microsoft Windows Server operating system. Anything else would take advanced knowledge, extensive configuration, and lots of tutorials and customer support to master.
Unix, on the other hand, presents a high-technology alternative to Windows hosting which is perfect for web developers of all levels. It combines leading-edge technology with lower licensing fees and monthly costs and lends itself to the development, novice, and budget-minded hosting community which is growing by leaps and bounds on an almost daily basis. While its technologies might not be as familiar as those found on a Windows server, they are at least as capable of performing the same tasks and, in many cases, they can actually perform those tasks in a faster and more efficient way.
Always keep in mind that choosing a web hosting technology should be subject to extensive research and planning for all scenarios. Almost every business will choose a Windows solution, but individual consumers need to keep both their needs and their budget in mind when picking either a closed system or an open source alternative. The need for lower hosting prices must be balanced with the desire for easy of use, with budget and usability winning above all else.
With careful attention to detail and knowledge of where each web hosting option succeeds and fails, choosing between Windows and Unix need not be a war of ideals. Instead, it can be a victory for the consumer and their unique hosting needs.