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Windows is on the way out, and Linux will take its place.
As long as I've been in IT, I've heard this prediction repeated more times than I can count. This talk has been going on for quite some time, but Windows Server remains solidly in place in the data center.
Were all the predictions wrong? Does Microsoft simply have a better product? From my perspective, Windows Server remains the top choice when you compare Windows and Linux in the following key areas: cost, licensing and management.
Linux might appear to be a good, less-expensive alternative to Windows. However, once you dig into the details, you'll see that, sometimes, you get what you pay for.
A closer look at the real cost to run Windows and Linux
When admins compare Windows and Linux, the licensing cost is often the biggest point.
At the surface level, Microsoft costs more than Linux, which is a free, open source OS. With Microsoft's recent changes with Windows Server licensing and its new cost jump, the price difference is even more apparent.
Purchasing a copy of Windows Server does not provide unlimited support. You have to pay for support cases with Microsoft, just like with a Linux vendor. So what do you get for all that money?
With Windows Server, it's more than just features and functions -- it's consistency. Organizations pay for that uniformity between versions. This means administrators know when they upgrade that Windows, the API and the .NET interfaces will remain familiar from one version to the next. They have confidence that the applications the company depends on will work after an upgrade. So Windows Server licenses are expensive, but they pay for themselves in other ways.
Many times, when we look at Linux applications, they are deployed as appliances that remain fixed. When a new version of the application arrives, it comes with a new virtualized appliance; the admin imports the settings and data from one application appliance to another. While this process often goes smoothly, it still takes some work.
Windows Server administrators go through the same process, but they can also upgrade the base OS. Linux deployments do not typically include that option. In an ideal world, you should always replace the OS rather than upgrade, but it helps to have this choice.
Compare Windows and Linux support
Both Linux and Microsoft have vendor-related support, but at a cost. Your IT staff handles a majority of the issues with the server OS, but they will reach out to a vendor when things get over their heads.
Due to the prevalence of Windows as a desktop OS and through college training, there are more Windows admins than Linux admins. To find a good Linux admin, organizations will have to pay more due to supply and demand.
Admins must also know all the permutations of the Linux distribution they use. All Linux distributions are built on the same kernel, but each vendor can add its own wrapper. Your administrators will need to know what particular flavor of Linux they use and whether there are areas that require specific knowledge to troubleshoot.
Your particular Linux distribution might not work with API or third-party tools that work with other Linux distributions. Linux integration has gotten better over the years, but most admins will side with Microsoft and its install wizards when you compare Windows and Linux in this area.
Microsoft releases patches once a month. Admins might not like it, but they can count on these security and feature updates arriving like clockwork. A Linux distribution might come with what amounts to a forklift upgrade for the appliance.
This might work for companies that focus on technology, but in other industries with a lean IT staff, Linux might prove difficult to support. If your administrators are not used to Linux commands, they can look like first-year IT students as they Google for patching instructions. Is that really what you want for your production environments?
Windows remains the top choice for enterprise workloads
All of this doesn't mean that Linux is not a good operating system. It's very solid and has a number of uses in the modern data center. While there's not much upfront cost, Linux is not free when you consider the support fees, and it can be difficult to use and manage when you compare Windows and Linux server operating systems. In many discussions, those points can get buried during the initial discussion about costs.
While many have said Linux will spur the end of the GUI version of Windows Server in the enterprise, I feel a more viable replacement is Server Core. This Windows Server deployment has taken a lot of its cues from Linux with a smaller footprint that requires fewer patches and offers more stability. The other features in its favor are the consistency and usability of the Windows Server lines.