June 28, 1999Developments:
Linux Vs. NT: Head To Head
Which operating system is best? Here's our unscientific but real-world evaluation.
By John Tibbetts and Barbara Bernstein
n an industry as competitive as ours, every new development seems to turn into a contest. This year's most publicized showdown is between the upstart Linux operating system and the well-entrenched champ, Windows NT. Armies of testers have been pushing these two systems to the wall in scientifically controlled, high-stress comparisons.
The Tibbetts & Bernstein Performance and Evaluation Lab operates more modestly, but we, too, have data to report. After using Linux and NT side by side as servers for roughly comparable small business ventures, we offer a modest, anecdotal, but 100% real-world-experience report-and a little free analysis, too.
We've used NT for three years and Linux for 10 months. Each handles the day-in, day-out workload for a separate small business: Web site, E-mail, news, and file and print services. The NT box also supports a custom-built search engine for the "Self-Referential Movies Mailing List," which we run as a hobby. The Linux box supports the source control system for a rapidly growing stable of Java developers.
The configurations aren't identical. The Linux server runs on a last-generation platform that was left over when we upgraded the NT server. It makes the best of a 200-MHz Pentium with 64 Mbytes of memory, while NT gets the 300-MHz Pentium II with 256 Mbytes. Yet the hardware-disadvantaged Linux supports a community of users roughly three times the size of NT's.
The NT server displays itself on a spiffy 17-inch SVGA monitor. As for the Linux box, there's an ancient VGA cast-off sitting on the floor nearby, but we hardly ever use it. Linux/Unix has the architecturally sophisticated feature of being viewable (and manipulable) from any monitor on the network. In contrast, NT is hard-wired to a specific piece of glass. That 17-inch SVGA monitor is the one and only place from which the system can be accessed.
Both systems are robust and reliable. Linux may have an edge here: NT requires a pretty vanilla server configuration to stay stable. Trying out new software risks corrupting one of the system library files with, for example, the vendor's favorite version of MSVCRT.DLL. But we've avoided NT's notorious Blue Screen of Death. We can't say what color Linux uses for its obituary screens; the server hasn't crashed once.
The most significant differences have to do with system administration. Linux is a far tougher environment to master. Getting started requires learning a lot about multi-user issues that are built into the very foundations of Unix-file permissions, user groups, and other arcane topics. But this up-front investment pays off in considerable leverage, since all Linux products and infrastructure use these same rules and metaphors of server governance.
NT requires much less effort to get a starter server up, running, and reasonably configured. But as you add an E-mail server, then a Web server, then a news server, those ugly multiuser issues rear their heads. The problems are simpler to grasp, but you have to solve them for each and every subsystem. Under NT, managing the shared community is more a product burden than an operating system burden.
Each server's strengths and weaknesses seem directly traceable to its heritage. NT grew from the PC world. Like every Windows product, it's intended to make life as easy as possible for the nonprogrammer. NT presents itself through consistent graphical interfaces, wizards, and easy-to-grasp metaphors. But over time, as the server chores become more customized and more demanding, NT starts to look a little ham-fisted.
Linux evolved in the opposite direction, starting from a multiuser, programmer-based culture. It makes few concessions to ease of use. First and foremost, Linux is a textual interface (with X-Window dressing added later), and this can make it extremely frustrating for users who are not "regular-expression minded." But for complex jobs, especially those that require repetitive scripting, Linux gives those willing to work at it a succinct and powerful set of tools.
John Tibbetts and Barbara Bernstein are partners in Kinexis, a San Francisco consulting firm.
You can visit their Web site at www.kinexis.com.
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