Linux versus NT

Are you getting the most from your OS?

By Cameron Laird

August  1998
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A comparison of Red Hat Linux 5.1 and Windows NT 4.0, with Solaris 2.6 thrown in for good measure. (700 words)

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Comparing Linux with Windows NT is a full-time job. I wanted to give you a neat little table with precise entries (using terms like more or less, expensive, reliable, and scalable), but the footnotes would have taken up more space than the table itself. These dimensions depend too subtly on the situations in which they're measured to allow a simple summary. Even getting the column headings right is notoriously difficult with these two OSs, because Linux has several distinct vendors, and Microsoft is without peer for announcing changes in features (is that Windows NT version 4.0 from July 1996, July 1997, or July 1998?)

A couple of useful conclusions can be drawn, though. First, Linux and NT are roughly comparable. Whenever I found a claim that one was better in a particular area, I could find a plausible counter-claim going in the other direction. The two seem to overlap a great deal.

The second thing to report is that people really are making the switch from NT to Linux. Though I haven't performed any statistical reductions of this, it's still worth reporting on what advantages motivated the true-life decision-makers with whom I spoke. Judge for yourself how well these reasons match your own needs.

Spotlight on Linux
  • How to put Linux on your SPARC
  • Interview with Linux creator, Linus Torvalds
  • Linux vs. NT. vs. Solaris
  • Red Hat fixes Linux/SPARC bug
  • Why Intel and Sun love Linux
  • Reader Survey: How do you like your open source?
  • We've included Solaris in the rack-up to add some perspective. Solaris is Unix, like Linux, but vendor-specific, like NT. It's at home behind glass windows, but much of what it does depends on open source software. Java software often appears first on Solaris, yet even experienced system administrators don't know where to find good Solaris office suites.

    Finally, note that we've deliberately eliminated some important dimensions from this table. Estimates for cost of maintenance, for example, range widely, and differ little between Linux and NT. No short description does them justice. Service arrangements, scalability, and hardware compatibility are crucial -- and you'll need to work them out in detail with your vendor, because what you'll find is a larger subject than I could cover here.

    x86 operating systems RH Linux 5.1 WNT 4.0 Solaris 2.6
    Range of compatible hardware Very wide Modest Narrow
    Minimal hardware 386, 8 MB 486-Pentium, 16 MB to 32 MB Pentium, 32 MB
    Representative cost of
    minimal hardware
    $200 $1300 $1600
    DCOM support No Yes Yes
    VB vendor support No Yes No
    Oracle vendor support Announced for 1999 Yes Yes
    Average downtime Very low As low as 30 min./week Very low
    Performance High Comparable to Linux Half of Linux to same as Linux
    64-bit-readiness (sources
    portable to 64-bit OS)
    Since 1995 Year 2000? In late beta
    Office(TM)-compatibility Yes The standard Yes
    Remote administration Standard Just released June 16 Standard
    Multi-processing capabilities Excellent Modest Excellent
    Symmetric multiprocessing
    (SMP) maturity
    Since 1995 Since 1993-4 Since 1990
    Off-the-shelf SMP limit 4 10 64
    Clustering maturity Since 1997 Since 1997 Since 1994
    Clustering limit 8 2 4
    IP Security (IPSec) Yes Committed to support 1999
    IPv6 Available Primitively demonstrated Beta
    hardware bugs (F0 0F,
    div, ...) patched
    Yes Third parties No
    Reboot required for installations No In many cases No
    Overall user satisfaction,
    according to Datapro
    Highest Lowest Medium
    Source code readily available Yes No No
    Java developer tools Lagging Yes Yes
    Corporate acceptance Tiny, but growing Yes No
    Installed base Many millions Many millions Hundreds of thousands
    VolanoMark 2.0.0 JVM performance (higher is better) 234 1411 839

    The correct format for understanding why an organization decides on Linux is really a narrative, not a checklist. Recurring themes in the Linux narrative are that the OS is reliable, flexible, and high in performance. Here are some typical stories:

    NT, on the other hand, has traditionally held the upper hand when it comes to ease of use, ease of installation, predictable service, and the size of its application portfolio. But these distinctions seem to be evaporating. Many organizations prefer the support provided by Red Hat and other Linux vendors over that of Microsoft. Linux now does a better job than NT at plugging-and-playing selected hardware. A Linux desktop can be configured not only to look like Windows, but to run application suites that are functionally equivalent to Microsoft Office. Linux implementations of new standards and protocols are often the first to appear. Because its source code is widely available, Linux patches for hardware defects sometimes pop up overnight.

    NT remains the preferred choice in many situations. For organizations that are comfortable with it, those who have compatible and sufficiently potent hardware, and particularly for those relying on ActiveX or other proprietary Microsoft protocols, Linux holds little advantage. Wired's HotBot development team, for example, acknowledged that it sacrificed out-of-the-box reliability and performance in its recent move to NT, but did so to gain access to a number of emerging NT technologies. NT boasts replicating directory services, an export-licensed cryptography API, transaction processing, and several other hot items.

    Are you content with the features and functionality of your current platform? If so, don't waste your time on a gratuitous change. If not, another operating system might well take you to new levels of integration, manageability, performance, or reliability.


    About the author
    Cameron Laird manages his own software consultancy, Network Engineered Solutions, from just outside Houston, TX. Reach Cameron at

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