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Microsoft Windows NT Server 4.0 versus UNIX
Networking Consultant and Microsoft Certified Professional (Windows NT)
Last update: 10 November 1998
IT managers worldwide are being confronted with the question, should we go with Microsoft Windows NT Server or one of the UNIX operating systems? As you may already know, UNIX is not a single operating system; it refers to a family of operating systems which includes AIX, BSDI, Digital UNIX, FreeBSD, HP-UX, IRIX, Linux, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Pyramid, SCO, Solaris, SunOS, just to name the more prominent ones. Windows NT Server is increasing in popularity, but is it increasing the productivity of your MIS operations? Most important of all, though, for you as a manager is, are you increasing the profits of your company when you choose a Microsoft solution?
The bottom line is, which is cheaper? Hardware costs, software licenses, technical support agreements, prices of upgrades/service packs, costs of hardware upgrades, profits lost for every hour of downtime, personnel costs for recovering/recreating data lost due to product defects in the operating system and/or hardware platform required by your choice of operating systems, and personnel costs for systems administrators, these are only some of the factors that contribute to the overall budget resulting from your decision. It is not a trivial consideration.
Although money is the bottom line for you as a manager, given the complex set of factors I've just presented, a technically superior combination of server hardware and operating systems could prove to be less expensive in the long run. UNIX is a mature, technically superior group of operating systems with a proven track record for performance, reliability, and security in a server environment. The almost thirty years of continual development, performed often by volunteers who believe in what they're doing, has produced a group of operating systems--and extremely powerful multiprocessor server hardware tailor-made to its needs, whose performance is still unparalleled by Intel hardware--that not only meets the demands of today's computing needs, but in many cases exceeds them.
Why Windows NT Server 4.0 continues to exist in the enterprise would be a topic appropriate for an investigative report in the field of psychology or marketing, not an article on information technology. Technically, Windows NT Server 4.0 is no match for any UNIX operating system, not even the non-commercial BSDs or Linux. A manager is not expected to have the technical expertise of a systems administrator with 15 years of industry experience. There is no shame in not having the facts, only in being ignorant of such facts, which will in the end cost your employer, and eventually all consumers, money. The aim of this article is to give you these facts, and prove that they are facts, because facts are not debatable.
The following article relies on my experience in this industry, which started back in 1979 with Chevron Geosciences Company, and on roughly 150 links to other technical articles, white papers, and executive summaries. At this point it should be noted that I am not promoting the product of any one company, nor would my employer benefit should you choose UNIX. My goal is to ease the burden of systems administrators, promote more efficient and economical computing worldwide, and encourage a more fair and diverse community of software vendors.
This article should be considered a work in progress. Anyone wishing to contribute to this project is welcome to send me e-mail. Please confine your e-mail to constructive comments or criticism.
Most managers will agree that the mere cost of an operating system is trivial when looking at the big picture. Although Windows NT Server 4.0 can be more expensive than some commercial UNIX operating systems, it can be had for trivial amounts at trade shows.
|NT Server 4.0 (5-user version)||$809|
|NT Server 4.0 (10-user version)||$1,129|
|NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition (25-user version)||$3,999|
|NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition (50-user version)||$4,799|
|NT Server 4.0 Documentation Kit||$69.95|
|20 Quantity Client License||$329|
|Single Quantity Client License||$19.95|
Is NT Server really worth its price? See
NT Lies: Lie 6 - NT Server is worth more. What
is not trivial, however, is that a networked operating system in this
price range should ship without a telnet server, SMTP server (e-mail),
disk quotas, news server, or at least a DNS server that works to
customers' satisfaction (many NT administrators feel compelled to go
with third party DNS solutions). In order to match the functionality of
a BSDI installation, additional Microsoft products and third-party
solutions would bring the final price of a comparable NT solution to
around $4,000, according to
Maggie Biggs, a senior analyst in the InfoWorld who specializes in
database technology and application design, development, and deployment
via intranets and other networks, estimates a price of $4,636 for a
comparable Windows NT 4.0 solution in her
article which compares NT 4.0 to Red Hat's commercial
Linux (for only $49.95).
Here one sees that successful marketing can often distract customers
from considering their need for functionality.
NT is often chosen for budget reasons since many customers are not willing to pay for the more expensive hardware required by most is often chosen for budget reasons since many customers are not willing to pay for the more expensive hardware required by most commercial flavors of UNIX. More important, however, is the overall cost of implementation which includes system administration along with several other factors like downtime, telephone support calls, loss of data due to unreliability, etc. For a more detailed discussion of NT's hidden costs, see the following InformationWeek article:
"Windows NT systems carry lower sticker prices than their Unix counterparts, but ongoing maintenance and support requirements can make them much more costly to run."
Tippett Studio, the company responsible for the graphics in Starship Trooper, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects, uses 130 SGI ( Silicon Graphics, Inc.) machines running IRIX, SGI's very own UNIX operating system. Tippett's studio operations manager explains why they use SGI with IRIX instead of an NT solution:
"'SGIs are cheap for what they do,' says Tippett's Jeff Stringer, the studio's operations manager. 'The cost of maintaining an NT system is pretty high when you think of all the system administrators you have to hire.'"
For the most cost-conscious customer, Linux, FreeBSD, NetBSD, or OpenBSD would be the obvious choices. They cost nothing, yet they are just as stable and offer as much functionality as, if not more than, the commercial UNIX operating systems.
Journalists R. Scott Raynovich and Polly Sprenger at LAN Times indirectly point out the flexibility of the Open Source concept in their recent article on Linux and how commercial organizations can benefit from it:
" . . . Linux can be downloaded for free over the Internet or obtained inexpensively with support and documentation from a number of commercial vendors. This makes it an attractive product for companies trying to reduce the cost of licensing and managing OSes.In Software Magazine's recent cover story on Linux, Ann Harrison points out how even large companies are finding a cost effective alternative to Microsoft in the deployment of Linux servers:
"Randy Kessell, manager of technical analysis for a Southwestern Bell operation center, notes that because Linux allows his company to do more remote network administration and software loads than was possible with either Microsoft or NetWare products, it has driven down their network management costs."
One reader informed me that mentioning Linux would detract from the credibility of this article. I beg to differ. The existence of such alliances as mentioned in the article Andreessen Sees Mozilla-Linux Upset of Windows clearly shows that Linux is strengthening its presence in commercial environments. (For newcomers to this arena, Mozilla is the name of the Netscape/Communicator code and Marc Andreessen is Cofounder and Executive VP of Products at Netscape.) Also noteworthy is a new alliance between Sun Microsystems and Linux International. (Slashdot: Sun Joins Linux International, 21 May 1998) Yet another recent development is Corel's special relationship with Linux:
". . . Corel, which has already announced plans to build a Linux-based network computer, said it will next month post free Linux-based development tools to its Web site, joining a number of software companies supporting the Linux open source movement."
The very latest headlines indicate that Linux is well on its way into the major leagues: Informix, Oracle ready to port to Linux (PCWeek Online, 20 July 1998), Oracle to port database to Linux (PCWeek Online, 20 July 1998), and Netscape: Linux a top priority (CNET News.Com, 7 April 1998).
Historically, large corporations have steered clear of free software due to the unfounded assumption that anything free can't be worthwhile. The recent trend among some corporations is to use these cost-effective operating systems. Hewlett-Packard used Linux instead of its own HP-UX operating system "to port the Carnegie Mellon Mach kernel to HP PA-RISC in order to use it for their imagery work." ( full story) Schlumberger chose Linux over SCO for its new point of sale computers. ( Linux Journal, November 1997, Issue 43, pp. 83-4) It is interesting to note that SunWorld On-Line gives Linux positive press in one of its articles, Linux lines up for the enterprise.
The September 1998 Software Magazine cover story reveals just how far Linux has managed to infiltrate corporate America and how it is not about to go away:
"Tim Payne, director of database marketing at Oracle, says many of his company's corporate customers have made large investments in Linux. When Oracle announced in July that it would be offering 24x7 support for Oracle8 on Linux, he says 300 customers called the next day asking about availability. 'It's reliable, it's proven, it runs on commodity Intel boxes, and it's a really low-cost alternative to NT,' says Payne. 'The fact that you are going to be able to get enterprise quality support from Oracle to deploy on the Linux platform will help customers adopt Linux.'
Since these operating systems are free for use even in commercial environments, many ISPs run on Linux or FreeBSD. NetBSD will run on practically anything: DEC Alpha, Motorola 68k (Amiga, Atari, Mac, MVME, Sharp, Sun3), PowerPC, Intel, DEC VAX, Acorn RISC, MIPS (Sony NEWS, DECstation), etc. OpenBSD's primary focus is on correctness and security. Linux is the most popular and will run on a wide range hardware: Sun, Intel, DEC Alpha, PowerPC, PowerMac, etc. Paul Krill's recent articles in InfoWorld ( Linux picking up steam and Linux supporters rally around freeware OS) focus on the ever increasing support of major vendors and future plans for added functionality, i.e. support for Intel's 64-bit Merced processor. Currently, Linux is perhaps the fastest growing operating system on the market. For more information, see Linux Resources or Red Hat Software.
Nicholas Petreley, editor-in-chief of NC World and columnist for InfoWorld and NT World Japan provides an explanation for the rise of Linux and FreeBSD in IT departments:
"Yesterday's college students learned their UNIX expertise on Linux and FreeBSD. Today they're working in IT departments, and many of them are openly hostile to both Microsoft and Windows NT. As a result, Linux, BSD, Solaris, and other forms of UNIX are finding their way into IT departments, both overtly and on the sly.
Even The Economist is now reporting on the rising popularity of Linux:
"Oracle, a database firm, is planning to offer Linux versions of some of its software. . . . Even without such endorsements, Linux has achieved a measure of success. In only a few years, the program has evolved from a hacker's toy into software that is, at least in part, technically superior to Windows NT.
NT is often considered to be a "multi-user" operating system, but this is very misleading. An NT server will validate an authorized user, but once the user is logged on to the NT network, all he/she can do is access files and printers. The NT user cannot just run any application on the NT server (in order to take advantage of the superior processing power of server hardware). An NT user can only run special applications that have been written in two pieces, i.e. client/server applications. When a user logs in to a UNIX server, he/she can then run any application (provided the user is authorized to do so), thus taking the processing load off his/her workstation. This also includes graphics-based applications since X-server software is standard issue on all UNIX operating systems.
For most businesses, e-mail has become an indispensable tool for communication, and most companies run their own internal/external e-mail systems. With Windows NT, you will have to buy a separate software package in order to set up an e-mail server. UNIX operating systems come with a program called Sendmail. There are other mail server software packages (or MTAs, Mail Transport Agents) available for UNIX, but this one is the most widely used, and it is free. Some UNIX administrators feel that exim or qmail are better choices since they are not as difficult to configure as sendmail. Both exim and qmail, like sendmail as well, are free for use even in a commercial environment. Many NT-based companies use Microsoft Exchange Server as their MTA. This is an expensive solution with limited success in an enterprise environment. Microsoft Exchange Server Enterprise Edition - 25 Client Access Licenses costs $3,549.00. If you have more than 25 employees, the same package with 50 Client Access Licenses costs $4,859.00 (Source: Microsoft) For more information on this topic see Microsoft Exchange versus Sendmail: Views of Other MIS Professionals.
Since Microsoft sees NT as a viable alternative to all other network-capable operating systems on the market, UNIX and Novell included, one would assume that NT would come with all the tools necessary to accomplish the most basic tasks required: file and printer services. Any systems/network administrator knows from experience that there are two important issues to be considered when setting up a file server or adding a new network user: security, i.e. passwords and file permissions; and quotas for limiting disk usage of any new or existing users or groups. Although NT provides basic password security, it only provides file-level security if you choose to use its proprietary filesystem called NTFS. More important than this issue, however, is that NT does not provide any mechanism for limiting a user's disk usage! UNIX and Novell, on the other hand, provide software for performing this seemingly elementary control. Microsoft has announced, however, that its not yet released NT Server 5.0 will provide "new storage management features such as disk quotas . . ." (see their press release, Windows NT 5.0 Beta Delivered to Over 200,000 Developers).
Another disk related design flaw in the Microsoft suite of operating systems is its antiquated use of "drive letters," i.e. drive C:, drive D:, etc. This schema imposes hardware specific limitations on system administrators and users alike suite of operating systems is its antiquated use of "drive letters," i.e. drive C:, drive D:, etc. This schema imposes hardware specific limitations on system administrators and users alike. This is highly inappropriate for client/server environments where network shares and file systems are to represent hierarchies meaningful to humans. UNIX allows shared network filesystems to be mounted at any point in a directory structure. A network share can also span multiple disk drives (or even different machines!) in UNIX, thus allowing administrators to maintain pre-existing directory structures that are well-known to users, yet allowing them to expand the available disk space on the server, making such system changes transparent to users. This single difference between the UNIX and Windows operating systems further underscores the original intentions of their respective designers: UNIX was conceived as a client/server operating system for professional use, whereas Windows and its descendents sprang from DOS, an operating system that was never intended to be a player in a client/server environment, much less a server. For more detailed information on this topic, see Nicholas Petreley's article It will take less drive to make most PC operating systems work like Unix.
Last but not least, UNIX operating systems are equipped with scripting languages (Bourne Shell, Korn Shell, C Shell, and sometimes Perl, just to name a few) and a "cron" facility for scheduling jobs to run at fixed intervals (every n minutes, every n hours, once a week, once a month, etc.). Cron scheduling is highly configurable and not just limited to these examples here. In short, high-level scripting languages + cron = a powerful resource for system administration, the likes of which cannot be found in Microsoft NT Server 4.0. A great deal of UNIX system administration is automated and customized for site-specific needs through the use of these tools, which in effect cuts down on personnel costs. As one reader pointed out, NT does have a "Scheduler" and an "at" command, and that Perl is available for NT. Yes, this is true, however, I don't feel that NT's limited cmd.exe scripting environment combined with the "Scheduler" or "at" can even begin to approach the functionality offered by the UNIX tools I've mentioned. One reader, Neil McKellar, provided an excellent example which supports this statement.
Running automated tasks is only useful when the scripts/tasks/executables can be run without human intervention. So much that runs on NT is GUI-based, and thus, requires interaction with a human administrator. If seen realistically, the types of automated tasks that are being run in most shops are site-specific routines that have to be programmed by system administrators. Based on my own industry experience, it is a rare site indeed where Perl is installed on NT servers and there is any NT administrator who knows the first thing about Perl. The driving force behind buying cheap hardware goes hand-in-hand with the hiring practice of selecting the cheapest NT administrators available; after all, it's NT, all you have to do is point and click!
To summarize, once you logon to an NT network, all you can do is read files and print. In a UNIX environment, once you log in to a UNIX server, you can be on that machine and do anything on it that you could do if you were sitting at its keyboard and mouse! With NT, don't plan on being able to set up an e-mail server with the software at hand. You will need to buy expensive mail server software like Microsoft Exchange Server separately. If your NT server should function as a file server - what else can you do with it really? - don't plan on being able to prevent users from crashing the server by filling up the disk(s) with their data.
Ease of configuration and being able to configure a server without causing downtime is yet another aspect of functionality:
"Some versions of UNIX (Linux, for example) support loadable device modules. This means you can boot Linux and reconfigure its support for hardware and software on the fly. For example, you can boot Linux without support for the SCSI card you have installed. You simply load support for that SCSI card when you need to access one or more of the SCSI-connected devices, such as an optical disk for backup. You can unload the SCSI driver when you're finished. You can also freely load and unload support for sound cards, network cards -- even file systems such as HPFS, FAT, VFAT, and others (an NTFS driver is in the works).
When it comes to more sophisticated networking functionality, it seems that Microsoft's NT Server 4.0 Enterprise Edition can't hold a candle to the more mature commercial UNIX operating systems. Although not essential to network performance, 64-bit computing is here today with these UNIX operating systems (as opposed to NT's 32-bit operating system). D.H. Brown Associates Inc. reports the results of their analysis as follows (the following quotation along with the table and the three graphs immediately following the table are excerpts from a Web page on Digital Equipment Corporation's site entitled AIX 4.3 Leaps To 64-Bits In Dead Heat With Digital UNIX 4.0):
AIX 4.3 takes the lead in Internet/intranet networking features by providing the broadest set of TCP/IP extensions and adding value with a bundled Notes server. Digital UNIX comes in second place with strong network security capabilities, bundling not only Web-browsing capabilities but also Web-authoring tools, with Navigator Gold, and a solid set of TCP/IP extensions. However, Digital UNIX lacks advanced NFS features such as CacheFS and AutoFS. IRIX 6.4 places third, bundling CacheFS and AutoFS, and network security features almost as strong as Digital's. But IRIX lacks network time facilities (NTP) and TCP/IP capabilities such as IPv6 and IPSec. Sun follows, with good support for NFS functions and the second-place array of TCP/IP extensions. However, Sun relies on its own Web server, rather than Netscape, Microsoft or Apache, and lacks authoring tools as well as important services such as Novell's NDS directory service. HP provides strong Internet support within HP-UX, bolstered by its good showing in advanced Internet protocol function and network security, while lagging behind in support for advanced NFS capability. HP-UX, along with AIX, has also established a lead in supporting NDS. While Microsoft NT 4.0 provides Internet/intranet support that overall rates as "Good," NT lags behind the leading UNIX vendors due to poor support for directory services, network security, NFS, and few TCP/IP extensions. Microsoft has largely focused adding value to its bundled Web server product and to tuning its Java Virtual Machine.
|Telnet in kernel|
|TCP Large Windows|
|Zero Copy TCP/Hardware Checksum|
|Path MTU Discovery|
|RTP: Real Time Protocol|
|RTCP: Real Time Control Protocol|
Copyright Digital Equipment Corporation 1995-1998. All Rights Reserved.
See also D. H. Brown's Operating System Scorecard page for other graphical comparisons of the operating systems compared above.
In today's world, reliability is often more important than speed. Although performance is largely a function of hardware platform (see the next section), it is in the area of reliability that the choice of operating systems has the most influence. Even if one operating system offers more functionality, is more scalable, and offers greater ease of system management, what good are these advantages when a server processing real-time financial transactions is plagued by frequent crashes resulting in unacceptable downtimes? The analogy of a fast, economical automobile with lots of gadgets, and sporty appearance that frequently stalls in traffic despite repeated visits to the authorized service center is actually quite representative of Windows NT.
One often hears about Windows NT Server being referred to as a "stable" operating system, but this is not entirely accurate. Were it so, then we wouldn't be reading articles like NT Lies: Lie 5 - NT is robust and crash-proof, Software glitches leave Navy Smart Ship dead in the water (Gregory Slabodkin, Government Computer News, 7-13-98), Corporate IT needs an engine that never quits (Peter Coffee, PC Week 3-30-98) or We do not have a failure to communicate (Peter Coffee, PC Week 04-13-98). When the author of these last two articles posed the question, "What do you use when failure is not an option?" he was bombarded by "three times the usual number of vigorous e-mail replies." Concerning these replies he states:
"Notably, I did not get a single message from anyone who took the position that Windows NT was good enough. Quite the opposite: Several messages expressed a resigned expectation that Windows NT 5.0 would stagger out the door, burdened with immature add-on services but without achieving corporate-class reliability in its basic functions.Indeed, Windows NT is a great improvement over Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, but it still has a long way to go before it can reach the level of stability offered by even the Open Source (free) UNIX operating systems. When pitted against Sun Microsystems's Solaris, there's really no comparison at all. At the recent Microsoft Global Summit, Computer Reseller News journalists Barbara Darrow and Stuart Glascock interviewed some of the attendees:
"We have a Solaris box that hasn't been rebooted in two years," said James Domengeaux, president of Comspace.Com, a Houston-based Web reseller. In comparison, NT servers are rebooted often, he said. "That's a problem especially in e-commerce if you're talking transactions per second, because how many orders do you miss?" he said.
Windows NT's lack of stability is a known issue yet managers tend to deal with it in discrete ways, reports one IT professional:
"'I know three companies that are silently putting more and more into UNIX . . . at the expense of NT, simply because NT falls over too often,' says Peter Flynn, a consultant in Cork, Ireland. NT is known to crash too frequently for many IT manager's tastes. Typical causes are memory access violations and I/O errors.
Any IS professional who has worked in a Windows NT environment has intimate knowledge of the infamous "Blue Screen of Death," a situation in which the normal desktop windowing system disappears completely and is replaced by a full screen of hexadecimal numbers on a blue background. The only method of recovery in this situation is power method of recovery in this situation is powering the machine off and rebooting. What causes "blue screens" in NT varies. In my own experience, the following can induce this state of failure:
In some situations, Linux too will complain about its hardware. I personally have not experienced this despite having installed Linux on a wide variety of hardware, but it may happen. It appears to happen mainly when one is compiling the kernel on a machine with bad memory. For more information see Signal 11. The above list is by no means complete. As a matter of fact, Tim Newsham, a software developer for both Windows and UNIX platforms, found this short list very misleading:
In the BSOD section you mention a few ways that a BSOD can be caused. I think this (small) list is misleading to the reader. There are so many ways that an NT system can crash, that by listing a small number you are likely to give the wrong impression. More dangerous yet is the fact that your cases mostly involve a person who is on the console doing something BAD to cause a crash. Many of the ways to crash an NT system happen inadvertently in the day-to-day operation of the system (indeed, leaving the system on too long while running a myriad of applications can cause bizarre crashes with little clue to their cause). Additionally malicious users can trigger crashes due to shoddy implementation in software modules such as the login program (LSA) or the tcp/ip stack.The "Blue Screen of Death" can be commonplace in some computing environments and is often difficult to troubleshoot due to the either cryptic or non-existent error reporting. In addition to this, NT is particularly prone to virus attacks on the Intel-based hardware. For operating systems on Intel hardware that must be booted from a hard drive, i.e. NT Server, the Master Boot Record of a hard drive can be the death of the operating system. Linux, along with several other UNIX operating systems that run on Intel-based hardware, can load a compressed kernel from a boot floppy, thus avoiding this problem. What this means is, an NT Server can theoretically be crashed by a virus written 10 years ago for MS-DOS computers. Anyone planning to deploy an NT Server in a mission critical environment should consider this fact. I personally have encountered MBR viruses in a corporate environment running Windows NT 4.0 (no Windows 95 clients!), and their effects are devastating. In addition to this, most viruses that would incapacitate a Windows operating system don't have an effect on UNIX operating systems since they often require the MS Windows environment to do their damage.
One real-life situation involving NT's reliability is reported by the University of Nebraska Press's Information Systems Department manager, Quinn P. Coldiron, who writes,
Life after moving Cats [an order fulfillment and inventory system] to NT was a nightmare. The system was crashing two to three times a day with no reason that I could find. I was on the phone with Microsoft and Cats constantly, but nobody could figure it out. Microsoft had me apply Service Packs one through three and a few HotFixes, which helped, but it still was crashing at least twice a week with the infamous "Blue Screen of Death". After many weeks and about $1500.00 in phone support from Microsoft, the technical support rep told me that I should find a better software package than The Cat's Pajamas. This was not the solution I was looking for, since this is the package that a sizeable percentage of presses our size nationwide are running, so I was forced to bring the old Novell server back into production until I could figure something out. . . . Fourteen months later, we are running Linux as our server.
The UNIX equivalent of the "Blue Screen of Death" would be called "kernel panic." It obviously exists, since I have heard and read about it, but I've never been witness to it in my professional career. Although I am sure that UNIX servers do crash on occasion, these are extremely rare events. If and when a UNIX server crashes, it is almost always due to a hardware failure of some sort. Any software induced problems in a UNIX environment generally make themselves known over a period of time, sometimes in the form of overall gradual performance degradation of the system, giving the administrator ample time to track down the source of the problem, correct it, and stop/restart the process (very rarely the entire machine!) causing the problem. In general, a UNIX server is halted only in the following situations:
The argument that Windows NT is easier to manage due to its GUI (point-and-click graphical user interface) is unfounded. The advantage, if any, of GUI over CLI (command line interface, i.e. having manually to type commands from a keyboard) is questionable. The first assumption is that Windows NT has an advantage over UNIX because of its GUI. This is wrong. UNIX operating systems have a GUI as well (see this graphic example).
"NT has long enjoyed an intuitive user interface for managing single systems, largely benefiting from the exceptional familiarity of the Windows look-and-feel adopted by the NT GUI. However, as users begin to deploy large numbers of servers, and geographically-dispersed servers, some of NT's architectural shortcomings for system management have become more apparent, deriving primarily from its design as a single-user system. The multi-user design of UNIX supports remote access at multiple levels, including the ability to login with a character session, via telnet, to edit configuration files, running GUI tools over the network-enabled X Window System, and now through Java versions of system management tools. NT currently enjoys none of these features. Rather, remote NT management typically involves either installing a local expert which Microsoft hopes will be easier due to NT's larger volumes and similarity to mainstream Windows versions or relying on layered system management products from Microsoft or third parties. Neither option, though, quite matches the efficiency of managing distributed UNIX systems."
Processing power is largely a function of computer hardware rather than of operating system. Since most commercial UNIX operating systems run only on high-end workstations or servers, it would be ridiculous to compare an IBM SP2, Sun Enterprise 10000, or a Sun Enterprise 450 to anything Compaq or Dell produces. UNIX has been historically an operating system for high-end hardware. To say that UNIX outperforms NT based on the results of differing hardware would be unfair to Microsoft. On the other hand, Microsoft has reduced, rather than increased, the number of hardware architectures it supports. NT for MIPS has been discontinued due to lack of customers and PowerPC support is only marginal. NT, now reduced to only x86 and Alpha architectures will remain "a poor man's server" as it is commonly referred to in the IT business.
NT's lack of reliability is only surpassed by its lack of scalability. The superior scalability achieved by the commercial UNIX operating systems on their respective hardware is the reason why large corporations with high capacity computing needs cannot switch to NT even if they wanted to. Mary Hubley, Research Director with the GartnerGroup, mentions in her article NT and UNIX: Irresistible Force vs. Immovable Object (January 1998) that the public's overly positive perception of NT's capabilities is based mainly on marketing hype:
"Many people believe that NT is easier to use than it actually is, scales better than it does, and is powerful enough to do what UNIX can do. But most of this perception is due to great marketing by Microsoft, and is not reality.
Ann Harrison's article provides an excellent testimonial from Southwestern Bell regarding how Linux outperforms NT:
"Randy Kessell, manager of technical analysis for a Southwestern Bell operation center, . . . adds that his company is thinking about replacing their NT network server with Linux. 'Our preliminary tests show that the Linux solution is outrunning the NT solution,' says Kessell. 'It's much faster.'
"Several times a month, customers in the printing and prepress industry ask us what server platform they should use: Unix or Windows NT. Windows NT might be acceptable for day-to-day operations in the average business, but does not handle the loads that publishers typically put on servers.
The interesting thing about MikroGraf's UNIX vs NT comparison is that the same hardware was used in two of the four tests, a Digital Model 2100: once with Digital UNIX as the operating system, and again with Windows NT on the same hardware.
To be fair, one should compare NT Server's performance to that of Linux or FreeBSD, since all three operating systems run on the same hardware, Intel, the hardware-type most often used with NT. Unfortunately, a truly objective analysis of performance would have to based on benchmarks, but these are not plentiful and usually only focus on specific areas like Web performance: Caldera OpenLinux vs. Windows NT: WebBench Performance Test. The general consensus among IT professionals is, however, that Linux and FreeBSD greatly outperform NT. Considering that these UNIX kernels are custom-compiled to contain only the software actually required by the administrator, Linux and FreeBSD can function more efficiently than NT. Inherently, any operating system requiring fewer resources will outperform a more bloated operating system like NT. UNIX does not require a graphical user interface to function. NT does. Anyone knows that graphics require incredible amounts of disk space and memory. The same holds true for sound files, which seem to be so important to the Microsoft operating systems.
Benchmarks performed on similar UNIX operating systems using the same hardware are more meaningful. Net Express, an Internet retailer of x86-based hardware, whose systems are "designed for scientists, engineers and the telecommunications industry," shows what results can be achieved with the proper operating system:
|Linux on a Pentium 133MHz||12.2|
|BSD on a Pentium 133MHz||9.8|
|Solaris 2.5 on a Pentium 133MHz||6.2|
|Solaris on a Sun Sparc-II Ultra 167MHz System||13.7|
|Solaris 2.5 on an Orion Pentium Pro 200MHz||13.5|
Perhaps an example of the performance advantage one could expect to find when choosing a UNIX operating system coupled with the Open Source (free) Apache Web Server can be found in an article by Sean Fulton that appeared in INTERNETWEEK on May 5, 1997, Towers of Power -- We test five musTowers of Power -- We test five muscular Web servers aimed at high-end intranet applications. For NT, the test results were pretty devastating:
"Telenet System Solutions produced the most surprises during our tests, with a BSDi-powered, single-CPU system that kept up with-and in some cases outperformed-twin-CPU machines running Windows NT.
While on the subject of Web Server performance, IBM has regained the title of fastest Web server with the introduction of its new 262 MHz PowerPC RS64-II microprocessor:
"The new processor will also make IBM's S70 one of the fastest Web servers on the market when used in certain configurations, according to a certain benchmark test selected by IBM. In a 12-way configuration, the S70 delivered SPECweb96 performance of 9,081 HTTP operations per second, making it the first system to break the 9,000 barrier, according to IBM.
For enterprise-level processing power, clustering wth Linux can produce awesome results at a modest price. In a recent report by Michael Stutz, NASA's Beowulf project sets an example for the the potential of such Open Source UNIX operating systems like Linux in the area of supercomputing:
"Enter Beowulf, a system that uses a parallel-processing architecture and off-the-shelf machines running the freely available Linux operating system. One machine is the server node, and distributes a processing job to all of the other machines, which are client nodes.
This topic is too vast and complex to be fully addressed in an article of this scope. Security is, however, very important. Jim Mohr points out some interesting facts in his article The Great Linux-vs-NT Debate on security. The following links are excellent starting points for comparing the security weaknesses of the various operating systems:
NT is a toy operating system
For an operating system that has evolved from a toy operating system, it offers some professional functionality. Although it does not scale very well -- performance goes down with more than 4 CPUs per server -- it has come a long way. Although I would not recommend it as the primary operating system in an enterprise environment, it should yield satisfactory performance for small businesses with fewer than 250 user accounts that do not run mission critical processes. Please keep in mind, however, that a single NT server will not be sufficient to service 250 users. The general recommendation is one PDC (Windows NT Primary Domain Controller) and two BDCs (Backup Domain Controllers). Having other server applications on the PDC is also not recommended. Should RDBMS, E-mail, Web, and other typical services be required, three NT servers will most likely prove to be insufficient.
By converting everything to Windows NT a company can eliminate the problems of a heterogeneous networking environment.
The first assumption here is that a heterogeneous networking environment is a problem. I once worked at a company where NT and Novell coexisted with very little conflict. As a matter of fact, the very reason for this coexistence was because Novell outperformed NT in the area of file and printer sharing services. With UNIX, one can create Microsoft-compatible file and printer sharing without the users ever knowing that these services emanate from a UNIX server. For all they know, it's an NT server. This functionality is provided for in Sun's UNIX operating system, Solaris. Linux can use a software package called Samba that ships with most distributions to achieve this. Samba is available for practically all UNIX operating systems. It has also been ported to VMS, MVS, OS/2, Stratus-VOS, Amiga, Novell, and MPE/iX.
Wrong! CDE (Common Desktop Environment) is a GUI desktop (Graphical User Interface: you use a mouse to point and click, or drag and drop on a colorful "desktop"; this is the basis for Microsoft's success.). CDE ships with most commercial UNIX operating systems: Sun's Solaris, IBM's AIX Hewlett Packard's HP-UX, DEC's Digital UNIX, to name a few. For around $90 you can get CDE for Linux if you happen to be dissatisfied with your choice of four GUI systems that ship with Linux: OpenLook, the GUI that Solaris used to use; FVWM, an Open Source (free) GUI that has many similarities to the Windows 3.1 GUI; or FVWM-95, another Open Source GUI that mimics the Windows 95 GUI (when looking at a single window, one can't distinguish between FVWM-95 and Windows 95). TWM is the predecessor of the various FVWM window managers which also ships with Linux. If you've never had the opportunity to sit at a computer running UNIX, here are some SCREENSHOTS of these window managers: Enlightenment, CDE, TED (TriTeal's CDE for Linux), KDE, FVWM 1.24, FVWM 2.x, FVWM-95, olvwm(OpenLook Virtual Window Manger). These are only some of the GUI interfaces available to UNIX users. Matt Chapman's Guide to Window Managers for The X Window System is an excellent resource on this topic. You will find many more screenshots on his site than I am able to list here. Keep in mind that almost all of these window managers are highly configurable; you shouldn't be surprised to see screenshots made of the same window manager which look completely different. As Matt states on his page, "Let's face it, people are different, and those that use computers use them in different ways for different tasks. So why do some think we should all use (suffer?) the same interface?" Ironically, it is Microsoft's graphical user interface that is lacking the features of customization.
As for the claim that UNIX is behind the times, it is still the operating system of choice for science, engineering, research, and higher education. Most engineers would choose UNIX over NT without hesitation. They are fully aware of its ability to be customized and its tuning capabilities for the optimization of specialized computing tasks. Readers' feedback to isd confirm this attitude:
"As we suspected, most designers are adamant: They want their EDA tools to run under Unix. What's more, they say that Linux is technically excellent by every measure, and NT simply isn't. Painfully aware that technical excellence doesn't guarantee market share, many readers say that this time it should.
Everyone is converting to NT anyway, we might as well gradually replace our UNIX servers with NT servers. It's the way of the future.
If you talk to MIS managers of some large corporations who had UNIX and Novell two years ago, and then replaced their Novell servers with NT servers, you'll find that none of them can manage without their UNIX servers. It seems that heavy processing is still better accomplished with UNIX servers. So far in my career, every Oracle server I've ever seen was running on a UNIX server. One IT professional, however, did send me e-mail saying, "I support several installations of ORACLE on NT. There are performance and functional issues that I encounter which I have never seen on UNIX (Pyramid)."
Robert Schindler, a mechanical engineer based in Florida who has been working for the past decade as a free-lance consultant for various Fortune 100 companies in the field of structural analysis, writes:
"It will be a long time before you hear me praise NT or any other MS product. I believe that Gates and his empire have done more to lower the standards of our society than anything else in my lifetime. If my product had the same quality as theirs, airplanes would be falling out of the sky hourly.
One professional who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job writes:
"At my day job I work at a big firm. It's one of the biggest of its kind in the world. We decided to go with a Network Monitoring and Management package from Cabletron. It's available on both NT and Unix. The people who would run it gave them a blank check for the system to be set up under NT because they were more familiar with NT than they were with Unix. About a year and a quarter million dollars later, they finally gave up on NT and did it over with Solaris. Why? NT just doesn't scale up.
Tim Newsham writes in response to this article:
"I develop software in NT and in UNIX. I despise NT. It is a horrid beast, it performs very very poorly and it is way too unstable. Some parts of NT are so broken that the majority of time porting software to the system involves working around microsoft bugs. It bothers me that so many people are migrating away from unix to NT. I can only imagine that eventually there will be a large anti-NT backlash as management types realize how much NT has hurt their organizations.
Joseph Day, a consultant in Chicago, replies to Jessie Berst:
"I do a lot of software development on both NT, and 95. I can't seem to understand why people are hyping up these platforms as being so great. . . . The support you get in the Linux community through netnews is far superior to anything that you will ever see with Microsoft products. . . . NT has a ways to go before it will reach the level of stability that Linux has.
Torsten Holvak, a systems administrator in Laramie, WY, replies to Jessie Berst:
"Jesse: I'm sure Microsoft, like IBM in the 60s, would love to have people believe that choosing something other than their products would be a career-limiting move. But it just ain't so! I'd fire an employee for putting mission-critical e-mail or Web server applications on an NT machine rather than a UNIX box. We use FreeBSD for everything and there is nothing more stable. Not only are free UNIX servers faster, more powerful, and more stable than NT, but the support is better, too. Just try to get an answer from a Microsoft tech without paying big bucks and/or waiting on hold. And consider yourself lucky if it actually solves your problem. I find it hard to believe that this story appeared on your front page. It's embarrassing. I sure didn't THINK you were into spreading Microsoft FUD.
Quinn P. Coldiron, Information Quinn P. Coldiron, Information Systems Department manager for the University of Nebraska Press, writes about his experiences with Novell, Windows NT, and Linux:
"After completing the morning duties, we normally run a complete Cats [an order fulfillment and inventory system] backup before we continue with closing which usually would take two hours to complete on the Netware server. The Linux machine was able to do the entire backup in 45 minutes, cutting a little over an hour off our closing time. This increase in speed came from a decrease in hardware because the Linux server was running only 32 MB in RAM and IDE hard drives where the Netware server had 64 MB in RAM and SCSI drives. The speed increase has been noticed in daily work also. I get almost daily remarks that the system seems to be running faster and more reliable.
On September 29, 1997 Nick Johnson writes in a Byte Forum:
"From an administrator perspective, I have a very difficult time taking an operating system seriously when it needs 128 megs of RAM, two 200-Mhz processors and 8 gigs of hard drive space just to run a small intranet web server, especially when the OS crashes and reboots from a simple, standard TCP packet. NT is just impossible to consider when reliability and speed are required. You could perform the same task I mentioned above on a 386 with 16 megs of RAM running FreeBSD, without paying the high Microsoft price tag.
Mike Hucka, a UNIX administrator and programmer in Michigan, writes:
"What boggles my mind is why people are investing so much in NT solutions when there is so much evidence that the UNIX solutions are more mature, stable, less expensive, and perform so much better? Why? What is wrong with people?
This is a new external section containing some of the best feedback I have received in response to the article.
The life-blood of the Internet is the Web. This is the face that the public sees. If your site is slow, plagued with technical problems, or inaccessible, this will surely have adverse effects. Since most large corporations are UNIX-oriented, they normally go with Web server software like Apache or Netscape-Enterprise. Apache was conceived with UNIX in mind. It is free and currently rules the Internet. Roughly half the Web servers on the Internet are running Apache (see the Netcraft Web Server Survey). Microsoft's IIS Web server software does not even amount to one-quarter of all Internet-connected Web servers. Apache is currently being used by Javasoft, The FBI, Financial Times, The Movies Database, W3 Consortium, The Royal Family, Oxford University Libraries Automation Service, M.I.T., Harvard University, and the University of Texas at Austin. Netcraft also mentions that "Virtual hosting company Rapidsite is now the fifth placed server in the survey. Their hosting system, running a personalised version of Apache, supports 44,280 domain names on 39,905 distinct ip addresses. An achievement, and probably the world's largest hosting system." You will recall that in the performance section of this article the UNIX-Apache marriage put the NT-IIS one to shame. Not only is Apache fast, it's free. Apache's rule over the Internet has also been recognized by IBM who now has a partnership with Apache:
IBM Teams Up With Apache
For the most robust Web server a corporation could ever need, Netscape-Enterprise is a great choice. Although it is not Open Source like Apache, it will meet the most demanding needs. Netscape-Enterprise is used by such companies as BMW, Dilbert, Silicon Graphics, Shell, Sun Microsystems, Sybase, Ferrari and The Vatican.
Microsoft's IIS is one of the few things that actually comes with Windows NT. It does not possess any special or unique qualities not already found in other Web server software. It excels neither in speed, nor in popularity, nor in the number of concurrent hits it can handle. It is currently being used by Compaq, Nasdaq, The National Football League, Exxon, and Tesco. Given the fact that Microsoft owes much of its success to lower priced PC hardware, i.e. Intel-based machines, you would think that this great Microsoft partner would be running IIS. Well, guess again! www.intel.com runs Netscape FastTrack Server. To further substantiate my claim that Microsoft IIS is not up to speed, while testing the validity of the links for the sites above, I discovered that Tesco was unable to service any requests between 00:02:53 and 00:53:07 GMT on Monday, 22 June 1998. Their Web server kept returning the message HTTP/1.1 Server Too Busy despite my repeated attempts from my own domain and from other domains I telnetted into. The Web server never did manage to deliver their home page. I simply gave up after 50 minutes of seeing the same error message from various clients in various domains. I have only ever seen this message from IIS Web servers. Tesco is running Microsoft-IIS/4.0. Telnetting directly into their Web server on port 80 revealed another unprofessional aspect of their site. Despite the wide availability of ntp servers the world over, their system clock was off by 8 minutes and 51 seconds.
For Windows 95 and NT users, one of the most popular places on the Web to get freeware and shareware is a site called www.windows95.com. Due to the immense popularity of the site it requires a robust operating system and performance oriented Web server software. Since all the software offered at this site is exclusively for Windows 95 or NT, and the overall flavor tends to be very pro-Microsoft, one would assume that NT servers running IIS would be the logical choice for their Internet solution. Well, here's a quote from one of their own Web pages:
What hardware and software is Windows95.com running on?Note: This quote is from February 1998. They recently changed their name from Windows95.com to WinFiles.com although they still have use of the windows95.com domain name. This change took place in March 1998.We use Pentium Pro computers running the BSDI UNIX operating system with Apache Web server software. Our servers are connected to the Internet via multi-homed T3 connections.
To verify what an Internet site is running at any given time, I have written a CGI script that will query Web Servers and Mail Exchangers for their currently loaded software type so that one can find out the truth about which of these two camps runs the Internet:
Ironically, it seems from the observations of experienced system administrators that UNIX would be the operating system of choice either for installations on a tight budget or huge corporations with a demand for high-powered multi-processor servers requiring a scalable operating system. Washington Post Staff Writer, Elizabeth Corcoran, provides us with a real-world example:
Cincinnati Bell Information Systems, for instance, has used Sun workstations and servers to process checks for several years. It recently bought several top-of-the-line Sun servers to handle the demands of a million bills a day. The choices, said James Holtman, CBIS vice president, were either Sun servers or IBM mainframes. Microsoft's technology "isn't quite there yet. It has a ways to grow to match those-size systems," he said.Provided that a company is small to medium-sized, has few mission-critical processes to be run, is willing to hire additional administrators for their Microsoft Exchange and Internet Information Server(s), and has a substantial budget for Microsoft's "per server" or "per seat" licensing scheme, then NT would be the operating system of choice. The AberdeenGroup has published an excellent case study on migrating to Windows NT.
NT is also an excellent choice for managers who need to show that they used up their fiscal year budget for hardware/software expenditures. Perhaps this is why it requires no prior purchase approval within federal agencies; "NT has become the 'unofficial' standard operating system for the federal government. Federal employees whose responsibilities include the acquisition of computer hardware/software require prior written approval from above before ordering a UNIX operating system or hardware which cannot run Windows NT. For Intel-based hardware or Windows NT, no prior approval is required." (as reported by a vendor of Sun solutions who wishes to remain anonymous)
For small shops or power users on a budget, or even medium to large businesses who are beginning to escape the antiquated mind-set that performance is best gauged by the last figure on the sales receipt, Linux or FreeBSD can easily exceed the performance and functionality of an NT solution, do it with inexpensive Intel-based hardware, and do it for $0.00, a price Bill Gates will find difficult to beat. Why invest in an operating system that will require expensive training and re-training with each new NT release? UNIX/Linux administrators are plentiful and generally more technically capable than their NT counterparts (most UNIX administrators have some coding/scripting skills seldom found among the new generation of "NT admins"). Why spend almost $5,000 for MS Exchange Server (this price only covers 50 client accesses), which in some companies, seems to only be able to handle the e-mail of a few hundred employees when you can use the built-in "Sendmail" mail server software that ships with Linux, a tried and proven application capable of supporting the e-mail demands of thousands of employees?
As to the actual overall features and performance of the two operating systems, it seems that UNIX wins hands down. It offers a variety of vendors (no threat of a monopoly), scalability, more efficient use of system resources, remote administration, remote computing, multi-user capabilities, large palette of (professional) software resources, vendor independent standards (POSIX), control of users' disk usage (unlike NT), and can't be crashed by viruses written 10 years ago for DOS computers. But the most important thing of all to remember from this article when trying to choose between Windows NT and one of the many UNIX operating systems is this:
A UNIX operating system will give you choices: any type of hardware, CLI or GUI, commercial or GNU, diverse choice of vendors. It is dynamic, i.e. you can build a customized kernel to fit the specific computing needs at hand.
Although Microsoft is not the only "restrictions-oriented" software vendor promoting its own closed, proprietary solutions, one would hope that organizations promoting open systems and solutions would prevail. Netscape is one vendor that promotes diversity and poi is not the only "restrictions-oriented" software vendor promoting its own closed, proprietary solutions, one would hope that organizations promoting open systems and solutions would prevail. Netscape is one vendor that promotes diversity and points out Microsoft's pro-restriction, anti-choice stance regarding various products:
[Our] strategy is in sharp contrast to that of vendors like Microsoft, whose business model depends on customers upgrading to the most recent version of each operating system. Consider that Microsoft's component model, ActiveX, and the underlying components are designed to run only on 32-bit Windows. Many Microsoft APIs also run only on 32-bit Windows. For example, an application that uses ADSI (Microsoft's API to access the LDAP directory protocol), will not run on existing Win16 clients, much less on Macintosh or Unix systems. Netscape's LDAP API is available on 17 platforms in C and many more in Java. In addition, Microsoft's future platform services like "Viper's" transaction processing and "Falcon's" messaging only runs on NT 5.0 - an Oracle database running on Unix, for example, is not supported. The difference is clear: with Microsoft, developers write to the Windows platform, with Netscape, they write to the Internet platform.
It would seem that the question of which operating system to choose would be academic at this point based on the information I have provided here, yet every day some highly-capable systems/network administrator somewhere is told by his/her manager that the company is switching over to NT. The administrator is left stunned and confused, for he/she already knows the information contained in this article. It is the management of your company who should be reading this. All too often management rocks the boat and disrupts the harmony of stable, economical, and technically superior implementations when they suddenly discover that an unapproved operating system has been in use for quite some time, based solely on political reasons:
"The corporate IT managers notice someday what is that box in the corner and they tell them that it's the departmental Web server that's been running for a year and a half, and by the way it's running Linux. One normal reaction is to upgrade it immediately to NT, but what happens is that they go back to Linux because the performance dropped.This very type of incident happened at Cisco Systems Inc. but despite the order from senior management to switch over to NT, they are still running Linux (get the details). Obviously, some of the technical staff refused to comply with this order. Why do you think that technical people risk losing their positions over this issue? I'll leave this question for you to answer.
If you are a manager, try to use this information wisely to enhance the computing environment at your facility. Talk to your technical people and ask them what works. Make the right decision. Don't be fooled by salespeople who use buzz words but can't explain them, let alone explain their pertinence to your company's computing goals. Seek out companies who have implemented both Microsoft and UNIX servers for the type of solution you are considering. Try meeting with their technical people to get objective, first-hand reports on the feasibility, difficulty of implementation, and initial+ongoing maintenance costs associated with your proposed solution.
Since NT is often chosen on the basis of cost-effective hardware solutions, Linux will be the UNIX system in this comparison, for it thrives on Intel hardware.
Note: Only the items/features that actually ship with each operating system are listed here. Perl 5.0, for instance, is available for all platforms, but Microsoft does not provide this with its operating systems. On the same note, most distributions of Linux ship with only about four GUIs (window managers) to choose from, yet you'll note from a previous section in this article, that this is only a small number of what is available for Linux, or any other UNIX operating system for that matter.
|Component||Linux||Windows NT Server 4.0|
|Operating System||Free, or around $49.95 for a CD-ROM distribution||Five-User version $809
10-User version $1129
EE 25-User Version $3,999
|Free online technical support||Yes, Linux Online or Redhat||No|
|Kernel source code||Yes||No|
|Web Server||Apache Web Server||IIS|
|DNS||Yes||Yes, though reports indicate that it is a broken implementation with limited functionality.|
|Networking||TCP/IP, IPv6, NFS, SMB, IPX/SPX, NCP Server (NetWare Server), AppleTalk, plus many other protocols||TCP/IP, SMB, IPX/SPX, A|