There are some arcane hybrids and do-it-yourself OS schemes around, but the OS choice you have at most hosting companies today is between Linux and Windows. Hosting companies don’t always clarify exactly why one might be better than the other for a particular customer or situation, leading some folks to conclude that there is really no difference at all. This is not the case. It does matter what kind of server you use, and there are clear differences between Linux and Windows.
Licensing costs money
All the various flavors of Windows, from the multiple versions of the new Windows 7 to the “enterprise” (server) packages, belong wholly to Microsoft, also known as the “Evil Empire” to the hackers and open source fans that prefer Linux. Linux, being open source, is free. This is the first major difference with important repercussions, since the hosting company’s costs for licensing Windows will be passed on to the customer (that’s you). Free, open source Linux means lower hosting costs all around, if only by a few dollars per month.
Getting a Windows hosting package is going to be a bit more expensive, but not so much more that you should make the difference a deal-breaker. Other factors — the make and model of the servers, company location, package offer details — can affect pricing as much or more, so make sure to get the big picture and don’t bog yourself down in an “OS controversy.” That said, you should know the operational, stylistic and tech-related differences between the two server types in order to make an informed decision.
Slow down and consider
Now, simply because you use a PC with Microsoft (MS) Windows, or even built your own Web site with it, doesn’t mean you have to have a Windows server. You will access your site through such tools as Web-based control panels and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) software, and can do so from a Macintosh running Mac OS X, a PC running Windows 7 or a homemade computer running Mandrake or RedHat (distributions of Linux). Some commands will differ, perhaps, but all the tools do the same thing, in much the same way.
Security and management
There have been some contentious arguments about the relative stability and security records of Linux and Windows server environments. Some computer professionals are simply knee-jerk anti-MS partisans, and there are also any number of MS fans that are anti-Linux (as well as anti-Mac). The fact that Windows is the most common OS in the world has both advantages and drawbacks. Millions of people are working on making it better, and just as many are trying to shoot it down in flames.
On the other hand, Linux is now most common server OS in use and hackers have had greater than expected success subverting it, too. The fact is that the platform in use is not as important to security as systems administration, attentive technicians and company management. If security is high on your list, you need to examine the company as much or more than the company’s equipment. Don’t take their marketing materials as a promise — do some due diligence here. It matters.
There is probably little difference in server performance because of the choice of OS. Again, it can come down to how the companies install their software and maintain their hardware — Linux just might be “faster” in some functions than Windows if, in fact, the Windows OS was installed in default mode and not “tweaked.” (This can be true of Linux installs, too, of course.) In the broadest terms, performance is comparable and you can have a fine, effective and efficient hosting experience with either kind of server.
The bottom line is that you should certainly consider the kind of server, particularly if you use MS technologies than need a Windows environment, but your search should be for a good host, not a good server. A company with the best equipment in the world will be no help to you if it is mismanaged, oblivious to security lapses and technologically out of its depth. With a rough equivalence in features, reliability, security and cost, a “winner” is impossible to choose beforehand. You can win — or lose — with any kind of server, so keep looking at the big picture and just make your decision.