Compare Windows Server to GNU/Linux

Comparing...?

Microsoft has an article on their website where they compare Windows Server to "Linux". While they do have some points, the comparison obviously focuses on what they percieve as Windows' strenghts, and ignores GNU/Linux's strenghts; or they do talk about what is commonly seen as an advantage for GNU/Linux, but then only give arguments in favour of Windows.

There's of course nothing wrong with that. Microsoft is a company that makes profit out of Windows, not GNU/Linux, and everyone will understand that a comparison on their website is likely to be slightly biased. But that doesn't have to mean I can't be giving counter-arguments; and it also doesn't mean I have to be any more honest than them. So, here goes:

AreaMicrosoft's argumentsMy arguments
Total Cost of Ownership
  1. Red Hat Enterprise Linux costs $2499 per server per year
  2. Ongoing management and maintenance of systems is 60% of TCO
  3. Downtime involves 15% of TCO
  1. Yes, Red Hat Enterprise is a pretty darn expensive distribution. But it's important to realize that Red Hat isn't the only distribution out there; there are many more, and many of them come with enterprise-class support from the company that manages the distribution, too. Examples include Debian, SUSE, Ubuntu, CentOS, Mandriva, and many others; a pretty comprehensive list and comparison can be found on Distrowatch, but note that no list can ever be complete.
    In addition, there are many third-party support companies who can give you the same type of enterprise-class support on many GNU/Linux distributions. In contrary to the Windows situation, it's important to remember here that every third-party contractor has access to the same source code as the company or organization that created the distribution in the first place; and for that reason, the original company does not have a significant advantage when compared to third-party support companies. Compare to Windows, where only Microsoft could really help customizing, tuning and extending Windows when this were necessary.
  2. Microsoft does not specify why Windows would be in the advantage when we're talking about ongoing staffing costs, but one could guess that they think it is easier to maintain Windows Server than it is to maintain GNU/Linux servers (they repeat that argument later on)
    "Easy", however, is a subjective argument. What's easy for you isn't necessarily easy for me. With GNU/Linux, you often have the choice between many configuration systems; there's YaST on SUSE, Debconf on Debian, or linuxconf on some Red Hat derivatives. There's webmin, Plone, and other web-based things that aren't distribution-specific. And if you prefer to micromanage, you can manually edit configuration files, or just roll your own configuration system with some scripting language. With so much choice to use what's best for yourself or for your organization, you're pretty sure to find something that's at least as easy to use as Windows Server, if not easier.
    Easy is also a question of experience. As an example, the last version of Windows which I personally have used regularly was Windows 98; since graduating from college in 2001, I personally haven't used anything but Debian GNU/Linux. As a result, by now, using GNU/Linux is far easier for me than Windows Server is, even if we're talking about different distributions than what I usually use.
  3. Stating that downtime involves 15% of TCO can only mean they intend to tell you that Windows is more stable than GNU/Linux.
    In that case, though, one could wonder why Windows requires you to reboot to install a new driver, or even to install some applications. This is not the case on most other operating systems, such as MacOS, FreeBSD, or GNU/Linux.
Reliability
  1. A reliable system isn't just available; it's also easy to configure and manage for administrators as requirements change.
  2. Windows Server comes with a set of utilities that standardize common administration tasks to make them easy to do; >Windows Server also comes with robust tools that easily allow for more customized administration
  3. Windows Server is the most broadly tested and certified platform for applications and hardware
  1. This is true. If you modify a system incorrectly, it will most likely not do what you want it to do.
    However, their statement that many changes on a GNU/Linux system will invalidate support contracts means only one thing—that the support contracts were wrong.
  2. Providing a double set of administration tools to manage a system (one for scripting, and one for daily use) is a pretty bad idea. If the standard interface is scriptable, then a system administrator will learn the scriptable interface as they do common daily tasks. As a result, the barrier to write a script to automate repetitive, common, daily tasks will be much, much lower; and it is in the common and repetitive tasks that errors have the most profound interface. If, however, the interface to do daily tasks is significantly different from the interface used to writing scripts (as is the case on Windows Server), then anyone who wants to write a script to automate a common and repetitive task will first have to learn the scripting interface for the subsystem of this repetitive task, which is a time-consuming job; therefore, many people will neglect to do this, introducing errors and reduced reliability along the way.
  3. Windows Server may be more broadly tested than any other operating system out there, but this is only useful information if the choice of hardware for other alternatives is not significantly large. As it is, this is not the case; except if you want to run a server on desktop-class hardware (a choice that I would not recommend, not for Windows and not for GNU/Linux-based servers), Linux certification for server hardware is available from all the major vendors, including Dell, HP, IBM, Fujitsu-Siemens, Sun, and many, many others. It is therefore very easy to buy hardware with the necessary support contracts for running GNU/Linux on them, at competitive pricing.
Security
  1. Empirical evidence that the "everyone can see the code" approach to software security doesn't work for Red Hat: the amount of published vulnerabilities between Red Hat Enterprise and Windows differed in favour of Windows
  2. At Microsoft, they've developed a structured approach to developing secure software
  1. This isn't a very strong argument against the "everyone can see the code" approach. Microsoft themselves admits that it is empirical evidence; as with any empirical evidence that's based on observations over any given time period, it might have been the case at one point, but it's probably just as easy to find empirical evidence that points out the opposite.
    Their specific empiric evidence involves looking at the past, counting the amount of published vulnerabilities, and comparing them. This is wrong, in many ways:
    • You shouldn't be interested in the past; rather, you should be interested in how many vulnerabilities exist today, and how many more will be discovered in the future.
    • Counting past vulnerabilites does not tell you what you want to know, which is how many vulnerabilities are still left. For example, if product A currently has X security issues, and product B has X+N security issues, and then product A fixes M of them, while product B fixes M-N of them, then suddenly product A is in a much better position, security-wise, than product B; it would have 2N less security vulnerabilities, even though it had to fix N extra security vulnerabilities to get there.
    • The argument revolves around the idea that Windows and GNU/Linux, by default, install the same amount of software features. This is not true. For instance, almost all GNU/Linux distributions will include a complete development environment, Office suites, database servers, and much more; in contrast, though it is much better than it used to be, Windows Server still comes with much less than the average Linux distribution. If Red Hat sends out a patch for a security vulnerability in one of their products, it may be a vulnerability in one of the subsystems that would be part of Windows Server had it been Windows, or it might be a vulnerability in one of the other things that are add-on capabilities in the Windows world (all of which have their own vulnerability statistics that are counted separately). That's the same as saying "this car is safer than that one, provided we disregard tire safety on this car but not on that other one"
    Ben Laurie's statement would be quite convincing, if we ignored the fact that a simple google search only turns up results at microsoft.com...
  2. A structured and proactive approach to security certainly is a good idea; and given the decentral organization of the Open Source world, expecting the same methodology being used throughout all the code in a GNU/Linux system is unrealistic. In recent years, however, many people have begun to actively perform security audits on Open Source software; it is not unreasonable to assume that the GNU/Linux security situation has been much improved since then. Also, the "many eyes" approach does work, as projects such as the Linux Kernel actively show each day.
Choice Windows offers you less choice on the operating system level, therefore you have more choice on the application level. This is total nonsense. First, the argument readily admits that there is less choice in the Windows world: there are many GNU/Linux distributions out there, but just one Windows. Second, Open Source applications on one distribution, even when patched, will not function significally differently from the same applications on another distribution, and an experienced GNU/Linux administrator will easily switch from one distribution to another, if this would be necessary at some point; so administrators would easily cope with having one server run Red Hat, and another server run SuSE, if this would be required at some point. Finally, projects such as the LSB exist to provide a common interface shared by all distributions, which allows third-party applications that are not open source to run on a variety of distributions.
Manageability Managing servers involves far more than just an update tool; Red Hat comes with yum, which is very good at updating, but there's so much more needed Manageability is one of the main areas in which distributions differentiate. If Red Hat's manageability options aren't sufficient for your needs, then you should look at other distributions. SUSE, for example, comes with YaST by default, which centralizes configuration, installation, and management in one tool. Debian's "debconf" allows to store configuration in a central database, to autoconfigure packages at install time, and Debian comes with a number of tools to help you manage hundreds or thousands of similarly-configured computer systems (such as desktops, or cluster nodes). If one distribution's management tools do not do what you need them to, then you should shop elsewhere.
Interoperability Open Standards is not the same as Open Source, and Microsoft is interoperable by design. Funny they should say that. Microsoft's tools are indeed interoperably by design, but only with other microsoft tools. As long as you're interested in only running Microsoft-tools and operating systems (not just now, but for all eternity), then Microsoft's tools are indeed a very good choice, interoperability-wise. The moment you want Microsoft tools to talk with software from other vendors, however, chances are pretty high you're in trouble; and even where Microsoft tools appear to be interoperable, hidden issues will most likely still surface. Examples include the minor incompatibility they introduced in their Kerberos implementation, with as a result the fact that connecting Windows servers to a non-Windows Kerberos implementation is problematic, at best; or the fact that they only rarely publish specifications of network protocols they introduced in new products (other than through APIs which they only develop for their environments), making it harder than necessary for third parties to implement services that can properly communicate with their systems.
That's not to say that they made it impossible to have GNU/Linux systems interoperate properly with Windows systems; an experienced GNU/Linux administrator can get this done in most cases. However, they do appear to do their best to create the sort of Vendor lock-in that will only get more expensive to get out of as time passes.
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