Choose the right Operating System (OS) for your Dedicated or VPS Server

created: 01.21.2008 updated: 05.08.2009
 
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In early days of computing each manufacturer created their own operating system and competed with others in areas of functionality and usefulness. After AT&T was forced to give up on manufacturing operating systems as part of an Antitrust Settlement, its UNIX became a free source for developers all over the world. Because of the openness of UNIX and its capability of being easily movable into new hardware, it became an instant hit in colleges and universities. Now these institutions were able to run their numerous computers on a single operating system even though they came from different manufacturers.

Very soon UNIX found its way into the commercial world and became a market leader in its own right beating all resistance from other operating systems except possibly IBM’s MVS and DEC’s OpenVMS. This happened not because of the superiority of these operating systems over UNIX but because of a completely different reason altogether. MVS survived because of the sheer number of users and OpenVMS remained a trusted tool with the banking and financial sector because of its high reliability, security, and preservation of data. Finally IBM and DEC also had to bow to public demand and offer an option of a UNIX-based operating system along with their proprietary systems.

Operating Systems for servers

The basic difference between servers and desktop computers is not so much in the hardware as in the software. Servers mostly run operating systems which have been designed specifically to be run on them. When a server is turned on it does extensive pre-boot memory testing and verification, along with starting up remote management services. The hard drive controllers then proceed to start up the racks of drives in a predetermined sequence so that there is no sudden pressure on the power supply with everything turned on at once. This is followed by system pre-checks to ensure correct operation of redundancy. The whole operation might take quite a few minutes and is much longer when compared to a desktop. But once they are turned on and properly set up, servers run without a break for a very long time.

Since the requirement of servers and desktop computers are almost diametrically different from one another, it's very difficult, practically impossible, to design an operating system which is suitable for both servers and desktops. For example, a server generally doesn’t require a Graphic User Interface (GUI) which is a must in desktops. Servers must have the capability of reconfiguration (in both hardware and software) to at least some extent without stopping the system. There must be advanced backup facilities to permit online backups of critical data at regular and frequent intervals. There must also be facilities of large scale transfer and movement of data between different volumes and devices in such a way that the user can track such transfer at every stage. The operating system must have flexible and advanced networking capabilities and must also sport features which allow reliable execution of programs even when not supervised by human presence (such as daemons in UNIX or services in Windows). There are some advanced server operating systems which can interact with hardware sensors to detect conditions such as overheating, processor and disk failure, and either alert an operator, take remedial action, or both, depending on the configuration.

But with the advent of microprocessor-based servers, several versions of UNIX were developed to run on Intel x86 microprocessor architecture. Microsoft came out with versions beginning with Windows NT which were suitably modified for making them capable to be used on servers.

So, even though the operating systems of desktops and servers vary distinctly in terms of code base, hardware and vendor providers, improvements in hardware performance and reliability have narrowed down the distinction between these two systems. Today, many desktop and server operating systems have the same code base and differ only in configuration.

The most widely used operating systems for servers—such as FreeBSD, Solaris, and Linux—are either very similar to or are derived from UNIX operating system. However, Windows Server product line is steadily encroaching in the home turf of UNIX and has already become the top server operating system in terms of revenue since 2005. But that really doesn’t mean anything since UNIX-based systems are mostly available free of cost.

Basic Difference between Linux and BSD projects

Though all of them have origins in UNIX, the basic difference between Linux and BSD projects is in the tightness of their designs. While Linux has a free flowing form, BSD projects have very strictly controlled designs. Mention has already been made of FreeBSD, but there are two other equally popular BSD projects known as NetBSD and OpenBSD. It is said that personality conflicts between team members led to the creation of these three different operating systems. Linux, on the other hand was started by a college student who, it is said, was unaware of the existence of BSD OS.

All these operating systems have a great deal of commonness in terms of source code and most software written for one of the four operating systems will run on the other three with little or no modification. But BSDs are chosen for applications where reliability is critical (because of their tightly controlled design) while Linux is preferred by those who want to be adventurous and love to experiment and tweak their own copy.

Dedicated Server and VPS

A dedicated server is a type of Internet hosting where the client leases an entire server which he does not share with anyone. Under this setup the client has full control over the server, including choice of operating system, hardware and other related details. Virtual private servers also provide the same options to the client. Apart from Full Administrator Level Access, Integrated Server Statistics (Disk Usage, Full Traffic Monitoring, System Uptime, and RAM usage), Remote Reboot or Shutdown, Firewall Configuration facilities and Unlimited Mailboxes, the hosting company usually provides varying amounts of disk space and bandwidth to intended clients. For those who don’t have enough traffic to justify a dedicated server, virtual private server is a welcome option. No wonder then, the concept of VPS has become a huge commercial hit. With it has come the task of choosing the right operating system for VPS hosting or the dedicated server.

Price

It's but natural that price plays an important role in choosing an OS. Variations of open-source operating systems such as Linux are mostly available free of cost. The most widely used free Linux based operating systems are CentOS, Fedora Core, and Debian. There some equally popular Linux distributions or BSD systems such as FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD. However, not all variations of Linux are offered free. Red Hat Enterprise provides a commercial version of Linux against monthly a fee. Microsoft also offers Windows Server against a license fee through a special program known as Microsoft SPLA (Service Provider License Agreement). SPLA includes Windows Operating System, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft SharePoint and shoutcast hosting.

The good thing is the fee charged by OS providers is not only user charge but includes OS updates and support too. Red Hat provides these updates through Red Hat Network via an application called up2date. Updates include kernel upgrades, service packs, application updates, and security patches that keep server secure and safe. This relieves the user the burden of server management.

Security

Data stored in servers must be totally secured. With obtrusive invaders, spammers, hackers, and other potentially harmful problems such as Trojans and worms swarming all over the net, security assumes an all-important position. Depending upon the operating system one uses following are the protections currently available:

For servers operating on Linux based operating system:

    Port Sentry

    Connect scans

    SYN Scans

    FIN Scans

    NULL Scans

    XMAS Scans

    FULL-XMAS Scan

    UDP Scan

For servers operating on Microsoft operating system:

    Trend Micro

So, data security is also closely interlinked with the operating system you opt for. While choosing an OS one has to keep this factor in mind too.

Let's now go for a technical comparison of various operating systems suitable for servers. The technical details and applicability are mentioned, however, the final choice will depend on the individual likes and dislikes of individual users.

Classic Macintosh

Macintosh OS 9, OS 8, OS 7 and OS 6 are made by Apple Computers and run on Motorola/IBM Power PC and Motorola 680x0. These can be used in small scale servers. They are not appropriate for Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS).

OS/2

This is a high end operating system made by IBM that runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium and Intel 80x86. This is suitable while graduating from a small to a medium level server. This again is not suitable for RTOS.

Linux

Linux is a free version of UNIX that runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium, Intel 80x86, Motorola/IBM PowerPC, Motorola 680x0, Sun SPARC, SGI MIPS, DEC Alpha, HP PA-RISC, DEC VAX, ARM, API 1000+, and CL-PS7110. It has one of widest range of compatible hardware and can be used in small, medium and large scale servers with equal ease. However, this operating system is not appropriate for RTOS.

Free BSD

It is a free version of UNIX that runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium and Intel 80486 and is suitable for small, medium as well as large scale servers. Due to the strictness of structure, all BSDs are favored by organizations which place a high premium on data security and integrity. It can be used as embedded system in hand held applications but is definitely not suitable for RTOS.

NetBSD

This again is a free version of UNIX and runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium, Intel 80486, Intel 80386, Motorola/IBM PowerPC, Motorola 680x0, Sun SPARC, HP PA-RISC, DEC VAX, and ARM and is suitable for servers of all sizes. Since the range of compatible hardware is more than that of FreeBSD, it scores over it on that point. It also can be used as embedded system in hand held applications but is definitely not suitable for RTOS.

Open BSD

Open BSD is another free version of UNIX that runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium, Intel 80486, Intel 80386, Motorola/IBM PowerPC, Motorola 680x0, Sun SPARC, HP PA-RISC, DEC VAX, and ARM and this is also suitable for servers of all sizes. This however is not an appropriate operating system for handheld applications and as is the case with its siblings is not appropriate for RTOS too.

Solaris

Solaris is a UNIX based operating system made by Sun Computers that runs on Sun SPARC and Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium. It is basically an enhancement of SunOS in the sense that it includes a graphic user interface. It is suitable for medium to large scale servers; corporate databases and supercomputers. Thus, as claimed by its creators, it is indeed a quantum leap from the older version. But it's not an appropriate software for handheld applications and also not suitable for RTOS.

HP-UX

It is a UNIX-based operating system made by Hewlett-Packard that runs on HP PA RISC. It is a suitable operating system for small to large scale servers, database servers and mainframes. Like almost all the server operating systems this is also not an appropriate software for handheld applications and RTOS.

Open VMS

It is a high performance operating system made by Compaq/DEC that runs on DEC VAX and is an updated version of VMS. It is eminently suitable for medium to large scale servers, minicomputers and mainframes. By now you must be already having a feeling that it is not suitable for handheld applications and RTOS. You're absolutely right on this count!

NeXT

It is a UNIX-based operating system made by NeXT that runs on Intel/Cyrix/AMD Pentium, Intel 80486, and Motorola 68040. The OpenSTEP version, in addition to the already compatible hardware, also runs on Sun SPARC and HP PA RISC. It is ideal for small and medium scale server systems and some enterprise systems which have a predominantly scientific, mathematical, or engineering workload. This is, like it's fellow travelers, not suitable for handheld applications and RTOS.

Windows Server 2008

Just as Windows Server 2003 introduced some major features of Windows XP, the latest offering from Microsoft, Windows Server 2008 introduces some major features of Windows Vista and taking advantage of common code base it benefits a great deal from the technical, security, management and administrative features new to Windows Vista. Without going into too much technicality, let’s try to find what’s new in this OS which immediately grabs our attention.

Self-healing NTFS

Previously if there was a corruption in the file system of a NTFS volume the entire volume had to be taken offline for correction of the errors. Now with self-healing NTFS only the corrupted portion can be locally patched up without taking the whole volume offline. This is an extremely significant improvement over its nearest rivals.

Hyper-V

It is an implementation of operating system-level virtualization which has been the target of Microsoft for a long time. It virtualizes servers on an operating system's kernel layer and can be considered as partitioning a single physical server into multiple small computational partitions. With VPSs becoming a rage, this feature is sure to attract a lot of attention from prospective users. However, this will not be available immediately and will be shipped 180 days after initial dispatch of Windows Server 2008.

There are quite a few other improvements such as Terminal Services, Windows PowerShell, and Windows System Resource Manger which will definitely causes many an eyebrow to be raised. It seems Microsoft has taken a very significant step forward with its new offering the Windows Server 2008.

Operating System Advocacy

Any discussion on operating systems will remain incomplete if something is not said about operating system advocacy. This basically stems from fierce brand loyalty which automatically urges an individual to come out and assert the superiority of the operating system owned and used by him.

While this sort of advocacy is generally done by individuals voluntarily there are advocacy groups such as SEUL whose sole objective is to try and establish the superiority of Linux as an operating system. The advocacy often takes the form of T-shirts, plush toys and posters. Sometimes such advocacy also takes unorthodox forms such as body paints and video games.

Apple computers has a long history of propagating its platforms and operating systems and it almost invariably describes all forms of competition as awkward and Microsoft as a totalitarian big brother.

If a person really wants to find out the strengths and weaknesses (sometimes perceived, but mostly real) of various operating systems, he would find a wealth of information if he ventures into the websites of these advocacy groups. The only problem with these groups is that brand loyalty often borders on zealotry and emotions run high so much so that solid reasoning takes a back seat.

OpenBSD provides a mailing list specifically intended for advocacy, advocacy@openbsd.org. It was created on July 21, 1998 for discussion of user groups, stickers, shirts and the promotion of OpenBSD's image and also to host all relevant discussions.

Neowin.net is a recent attempt in Windows and Microsoft advocacy, concentrating a community of fans of Microsoft products. The site also wrote editorials opposing Windows bashing in the media. 

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