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Microsoft Windows NT VS Linux Redhat

This article is meant to be a non-biased look at these two very good server operating systems. My perspective is that I am a college student, running a website, and need something with good speed, and easy to use features. Another factor would be that some common desktops tasks would be able to be accomplished on the machine, while the server is running.

Feature for feature, these two are very similar in the basic respects. The big difference is the price. Windows NT Server: $617.95 at BuyComp.com, Red Hat Linux: free for download.

Now, that difference right there is enough to make people look at Red Hat, or any Linux distribution out there. However, the best option for you is going to depend on what you are doing with your server, as will be explained.

The Aura

Recently, Linux has been gaining popularity because of its open source code and free price. Linux CDs can be obtained for cheap, and Red Hat sells their distributions with tech support. To be honest, if you need tech support for Linux, you should not be using it at all. There is great Linux documentation and books all over the place, and if you cannot find your answer there, there is none, in most cases.

Linux has been seen by the media as a competitor to Windows. The Windows they are talking about is Windows 98. If you think this, you are very wrong, Linux is strictly a server OS, and is only beginning to become a decent workstation OS. There is simply a lot of hype behind Linux that is misdirected, and it is going to make Linux look bad when it does not live up to the hype. It is just the way things are.

I chose Red Hat for this article because it is the most popular distribution. It is NOT the best Linux distribution, believe me. Everyone has a different opinion in the Linux world, and if a vote was taken in the "real" Linux world, Red Hat would not win. I say "real" because these would be the people that have tried the different Linux distributions, and know which works best for them.

Windows NT Server has gotten a bad reputation by some. However, the performance of Windows NT depends highly on who is administering it. Windows NT with a good admin running it can be excellent with what it is supposed to do. If you try pushing it, however, you may have some serious problems, and with that, comes the bad reputation.

The Install

Red Hat Linux

If you are looking for a Windows 98 baby installation, you have come to the wrong place. Both of these OSes can be a real bitch, and I have experienced the worst with both of these. However, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Red Hat Linux has a decent installer built in. It is not as good as the one with Caldera Open Linux 2.2, and some of the other new ones, but it tries its best to do the job and make it easy for you.

For my install I used a CD from Linux System Labs (LSL) I got for about $5 in the mail. I did not need tech support, so going this route was great.

One of the first things you have to do is create a Linux partition and a swap partition. If you are not careful, you might end up with several different Linux partitions on your drive, which I see unnecessary in most cases. Two is enough for me. Surprisingly, the installer works with Fat32 well, as Fat32 is a real bitch to work with, as it is not resizable unless you have some good software to do it for you.

The installer tries to recognize all your hardware, but usually, fails on a lot of it. The real disappointment with Linux is the lack of drivers for newer hardware, therefore causing difficulty on newer systems. Basically, if you want a full working Linux system, you have to build the hardware around the OS.

I was extremely frustrated with the Red Hat installer because it did not recognize my Linksys NE2000 compatible NIC. More on this issue later. However, installing on a separate machine with a 3Com card worked fine.

The installer lets you pick out some of the apps you want installed. I installed Apache, the HTTP server, and some other utilities, and Samba support. One thing I hate is how the Red Hat install automatically installs a bunch of other stuff by default. Looking at a fresh install of Red Hat is like looking at a big mess. Also, you cannot pick your Desktop environment, like KDE or GNOME, both get installed by default.

The installer goes on and you enter in your network settings and other basic setups. Last of all it ask you if you want Lilo for a boot manager. No matter what, you need to say yes to this for Linux to boot, unless you happen to have some other boot manager you can configure to use with Linux. I have not seen one, but I am sure they exist. There is many ways you can have some boot manager, and then have Lilo boot Linux if you don't install Lilo in the Master Boot Record (MBR). It takes some trial and error, and more errors, to get it right.

I left out that you set the password for the root account in the installer also. This is the big mama account, the same as Administrator under NT. You need to be sure to protect this account, as this account can do anything to the system, with no restrictions.

Windows NT Server

The reason why I had so much trouble with the Windows NT install was because I had Windows 98 with a Fat 32 partition on there previously. Let me tell you now that you need to put a silver bullet in this Fat32 partition before you move to the install. I actually had the partition come back to life and overwrite (Because Fat32 is not resizable) the NTFS (Windows NT) partition after I got NT all installed and setup! I was not very happy as you can imagine when I rebooted and had the Windows 98 screen flashing at me once again, after I hoped to never see it again. Further examination with Partition Magic revealed that, in fact, the NTFS partition was gone. There may have been some obscure way to recover it, but I know of none. I simply started over, making damn sure that Fat 32 had been deleted and that formatting a Fat16 partition on top of it got rid of it forever.

The hardware part of the install went good, just be sure you at least have an NT driver for your NIC on a floppy. Then you can download NT versions of all your other drivers. Also be sure to download Service Pack 5 to get support for the latest features (Including AGP with service pack >= 3), if Service Pack 5 is not already included. I had no problems with anything I expected to work, as far as hardware goes. NT drivers are readily available anymore for a lot of the decent hardware.

NT gives you an option list for software to install much as Red Hat Linux does. However, Windows NT does not install all the extra junk like Redhat does. The HTTP server that comes with NT is Internet Information Server (IIS). It does more than HTTP, however, it does FTP and much more depending on the options.

Of course, you will have to set an Administrator password, and be sure to protect it.

The Setup

Red Hat Linux

Remember I said that I could not get my NIC to work with the installer? Well I had to get this taken care of first so I could download. I had no luck with patching the kernel, and I ended up rebuilding an updated kernel I downloaded elsewhere. Building a kernel and putting it in place is a major task, and I was not happy about it. The Linksys website said my card works with the regular NE2000 PCI driver included with Linux. Well, I built my new kernel (optimizing it quite a bit too) and put it in place and got it ready for the reboot.

On the reboot, I still got red error messages saying that my NIC could not be recognized. This is where I gave up running Linux on my machine. The rest of my review comes from the other machine.

Red Hat give you GNOME as your default desktop environment, and it is not to my tastes. I setup KDE to my liking, and used the Linuxconfig to add users and make other changes. I still could not figure out how to easily delete GNOME, but it was not hurting anything being on there.

When using Linux, you can very easily tell how rough and antiquated the X-Windows base is for the Linux GUI. The GUI was not very responsive, and I have a decent Rage Pro AGP video card. Setting some windows to use semi-transparencies greatly caused lag. That was unimpressive. Many of the widgets are horribly ugly and sometimes cause problems in Netscape when viewing a web page because they are so big and ugly.

I also set my resolution to 1024x768 in the install, but it looked like it was running at 800x600. I spent a little time poking around to find the video settings, but soon gave up.

Beyond all that KDE is a good start on a desktop environment for Linux. It is easy to use, and has some good utilities. It is very configurable, but not as much as GNOME. That is a good thing.

I also used Linuxconfig to add a couple of users with restricted permissions. This was easy.

Apache was setup somewhat already, and there is a good configuration file to change settings. There is also Commanche that is a more visual Apache setup. An FTP and Telnet daemon were all ready to go for the most part. One nice thing is that user settings for Linux are carried over to the FTP and Telnet.

Installing apps is not as easy as NT, however. Most of the time you need to download a tarball, decompress, and compile it. I am sure this will change over time, however. App selection for Linux is not that hot for desktop apps. WordPerfect is good, but I cannot print from Linux with my HP printer, so what is the point?

Samba networking was pretty much all ready to go too, and not too shabby. It does the job, for transferring files. I am not sure about printing.

Overall, things were easy to do, just not pretty.

Windows NT Server

Things in NT are very consistent as far as the look and feel. I was able to accomplish almost everything without looking at documentation like I did with Linux. However, it was very apparent how impossible it would be to admin an NT server without a GUI, Linux is the opposite, as the command line is the best route to go, and it can all be done through Telnet.

There is a product called PC Anywhere that lets you use the NT GUI over a network on any other computer with PC Anywhere. It is pretty neat in its own right, but you need a fast connection and a monitor..and PC. Hell, with Linux you could admin your server through a Palm with a modem and a Telnet session if necessary! It would be akward though, but possible.

IIS was very complete with the setup on the install. Settings could be changed in the Internet Service Manager, which also has an HTML counterpart for remote access. This is easy to use also. Also, many things can be done in the file manager and right clicking on a file or directory and selecting properties. There I can change permissions and ownership, among other things.

User configurations is confusing in NT, because a user for the OS is not the same as a user for IIS. They can be added into IIS, however, or just be added in IIS. I am not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but it is confusing.

NT Server is great as a general use OS. It is very easy to use, and responsive. I have 64 MB of memory, and that will have to be upgraded soon, as when I have a lot of apps open, there is some paging to disk. The GUI is just like any other version of Windows, except there are more options.

Installing apps works like any other modern Windows OS, just use the install wizard. You cannot beat this. Not only that, I am able to use all the apps I am familiar with.

I used the regular Windows Networking and it worked well. I was able to pass around files and print over the network with relative ease and speed.

The Use

Red Hat Linux

Since I was not using my computer, I did not leave Linux on there very long. However, leaving alone for long periods of time while doing some moderate serving posed no problems. I have heard of Linux machines being on for years with no problems.

Using for desktop use while it while it was serving did not seem to lag it down that much. Compiling while serving seems to cause some speed problems at times.

The OS never crashed on me, and always recovered after slowing down.

Again, I felt very limited with what I could do without some of my favorite apps. I used a variety of popular Linux apps, and while they were free, they did not appeal to me very much. The Gimp, a graphic app, has some nice innovations, but the version I was using did not seem very intuitive, and efficient to use.

I liked playing around in the command line, however. There are some very neat things you can do in the command line that would be next to impossible in a GUI. However, the commands seem like gibberish sometimes and seemed impossible to remember.

Windows NT Server

NT Server remained responsive after installing many apps, even still running only 64 meg of memory.I did experience one crash and I was

impressed my the crash very much. Here is why. The OS saved everything in the RAM to hard disk before rebooting. I am not sure where it saved, but I bet I can find it if I looked around for a while.

Having a lot of apps open did slow down the web server quite a bit. Sometimes the OS does not seem to recover from this after shutting the apps down. Most of the time it does.

Letting the server run for several hours while doing moderate serving yielded good results, good speed and no crashes. I know of NT servers that have run for half a year with no problems.

Overall, I have enjoyed using Windows NT much more than Linux.

The Verdict

Red Hat Linux

Linux is coming along, but it needs a couple years yet before it will be satisfactory for the requirements I set in the introduction. However, this OS is great today for servers that need to be administered remotely. One excellent example of this is Cobalt's line of servers which can be easily administered over the web using a web browser, and are ready to go out of the box. There is even an LCD on the front for initial setup, no monitor needed. This is where Linux belongs today, in implementations like this.

You might also want to take a look at FreeBSD. The FTP install method is excellent, or a CD is available from LSL. FreeBSD is a true UNIX, and I like it even better than Linux. It can also run Linux binaries if the option is selected on install. Truthfully, I think that the BSD group of OSes have a better design than Linux, and that it is faster "out of the box". Some of the big websites use a BSD distribution, like Yahoo for their servers. FreeBSD is good enough that I cannot imagine that the others can be any better.

Linux has its place however, and has a better open source license than the BSDs do (until recently anyway), and that has been one reasons why Linux has taken off.

Windows NT Server

NT Server can handle most anything. This product is refined to Microsoft's tastes, and I like many aspects of it. However, you have to wonder how Microsoft is going to keep from dropping the price on it's Server OS line as time goes on.

For the requirements I set above, probably the best setup would be to use Windows NT Workstation running Apache. This is a good price and feature combo that would also do the job.

Between Windows NT Server 4.0 and Red Hat Linux 6.0, NT Server wins easily, but it should for being a $600+ product. I guess the logo I used at the top of this page for NT Server can justifiable have a checkered flag in it.

Eric Murphy
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