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Operating Systems

Both Windows and Linux, two operating systems that remain in current use in personal computing, emerged in the early 80s. In the case of Windows, it emerged in 1985 to address the growing interest in computing interfaces that were graphical rather than textual, and was produced by a small Washington-based company known as Microsoft. In the case of Linux, it emerged as the pet project of Finnish computer science student Linus Torvalds, who developed it as an open source alternative to AT&T’s Unix.

Over the succeeding years both have experienced many changes: Microsoft fought constant litigation and licensing hassle from Apple to keep the Windows program on the market throughout the 80s and early 90s. 1995 marked a turning point for the program, when it was released as Windows 95 and marketed as a true operating system – the veracity of that claim is disputed by many techno-pundits – rather than just a graphical shell for MS-DOS.

Succeeding iterations of the Windows operating system have sought to secure Microsoft’s standing in desktop software, with various extensions to its functionality such as Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player and the DirectX gaming API and changes to its core kernel to accommodate the various trends in desktop computing. Linux on the other hand evolved primarily as an experiment but under the principles of open-source development and public licensing and adhering to the standards of UNIX (despite not relying on any UNIX code whatsoever).

Linux’ evolution was accelerated primarily through the availability of UNIX-compatible software from the GNU Project. Many properties are believed to be behind the popularity of Linux – its low initial cost, flexibility, greater code oversight – but little consensus exists as to which is the overriding factor of its rapid adoption. That said, despite their disparate origins and designs, Windows and Linux are regarded by many as direct competitors in the world of desktop computing. (Petersen 2007, Watson 2008)

Comparing and contrasting Windows and Linux with one another, whether in terms of security, usability, or cost is difficult. As is the nature of computing, the highly specific nature of desktop or network configuration ensure that no two installations are alike. Furthermore, the personal preferences of individuals or the computing experience of various users vary wildly and therefore there is no single consistently reliable metric by which one can declare the superiority of one operating system over another.

Still, this paper attempts to elucidate on the various peculiars of each operating system, and assess their suitability to two kinds of users: casual users and technical professionals. This paper explores and compares the two operating systems in the dimensions of total cost of ownership (TCO), security, and user experience. The actual costs of using Linux or Windows are difficult to compare. The most obvious variables to compare between the two are their respective retail costs and licensing fees.

The various distributions of Linux vary in availability and cost, and their licensing fees are usually minimal at worst and nonexistent at best. As such, it would be easy to conclude that based on its initial investment, Linux is the more affordable option. However, such a shallow appraisal of costs obscures the myriad costs incurred in administration and support of either operating system. In a study conducted by the Robert Frances Group, Robinson (2002) observes that certain variables affect how much it costs to run either operating system in a business setting.

These include, but are not limited to, the experience of on-site IT staff, the function of the computers which said operating system is to be installed on and various soft costs related to support and trouble shooting. Robinson notes that while Linux has the advantage in licensing fees and retail costs, these costs do not account for the salaries of administration and support staff that are proficient with the operating system. Still, Robinson concedes that Linux has the advantage in that Linux administrators command larger salaries, but have a larger administrative capacity that offsets their pay.

Also, he reports that although Linux and Windows have near-identical figures in terms of server processing capacity, the costs per processing unit were far lower with Linux than with windows. Regardless caution must be exercised in measuring the cost-efficiency of an operating system and such assessments should depend on in-house expertise, long-term costs and company experience with the system. In terms of security, both operating systems possess many of the features considered essential to such matters.

These include authentication and access control, encryption schemes and protection profiles. Windows makes use of an open standard IP protection system that can detect modifications made to data during network transit. However, its API for cryptography can be easily compromised by one code key that would render the entire system vulnerable. Windows is at its most problematic with regards to applications and non-OS products. Many applications are legacy programs that contain security threats once considered trivial during initial release.

This is because the signature architecture of Microsoft programs mixes application code and data, making it possible for untrusted data from outside the system to activate code. Also, Windows approves digitally signed code even if it is supplied from outside of the system, which means that a system administrator must implicitly trust whoever has signed the code to have subjected it to appropriate code review. In essence, the problem with Windows security is that trust and certification is so decentralized as to deny systems administrators total control and authority over the trustworthiness of code.

By contrast, Linux is by design, a multi-user system and therefore operates on the presumption that the core system must be isolated from users that may or may not have the authority to invoke changes. Thus, the entire OS is modular by nature, and privileges to write to program data are controlled by the administrator. Furthermore, Linux permits the ability to install additional security mechanisms to the system without requiring that the kernel itself be patched. (Zhai & Li 2008, Hwi Lee, et al 2008)

In terms of user experience, both operating systems provide a graphical user interface (GUI) and a textual command-line interface. Historically, Microsoft has attempted to distance Windows from its textual MS-DOS origins, and as such, the graphical user interface is a central component of the OS incarnations of Windows. However, in the case of Linux, the GUI is entirely optional. This means that one can increase performance by running Linux servers without the GUI.

When administering a computer remotely, Linux wins in this fashion because control is more natural than attempting to do the same with a Windows GUI. Still, the fundamental shortcoming of Linux is that casual users have difficulty switching desktops due to the lack of GUI standardization. (Ritchie 2003) With regards to applications, the long-term market supremacy of Windows has translated to a vast software library available for Windows. Unfortunately, the proprietary nature of software under the Windows environment means that many of these programs incur additional costs.

Simply put, a Windows purchase comes with no programs save for the ones bundled into it by the desktop manufacturer or the Windows team. By contrast, Linux typically comes with freeware programs, many of which are considered equal to or superior to existing Windows equivalents. However, both environments have their market shortcomings: Windows often ships with dubious or antiquated software (if any at all). On the other hand, the installation of software under Linux varies… badly. Installation procedures are inconsistent and at times, counter-intuitive to the common sense established by Microsoft.

For the most part, these facts largely affirm the general consensus that while Windows suffers from security problems and massive costs, these are offset by user familiarity and general consistency of design. Linux on the other hand, faces a minor learning curve but is continuously being improved through peer review and open source tinkering and possesses a modular design that makes it a robust and stable operating system. In effect, the suitability of either operating systems for casual users or technical professionals is a largely gray area.

Still, if you want a casual desktop experience and have very little critical or sensitive tasks that need to be done on your computer, Windows is your best bet. If, like many server operators, need to purpose your computers towards critical tasks or require security and ease of maintenance, Linux is the way to go.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Petersen, R 2007, Linux: the Complete Reference, 6th, edn, McGraw-Hill Professional, New York, N. Y. Ritchie, C 2003, Operating Systems: Incorporating Unix and Windows, Continuum International Publishing, New York, N. Y.

Watson, J 2008, A History of Computer Operating Systems: Unix, DOS, Lisa, Macintosh, Windows, Linux. Robinson, C 2002, July ‘Total Cost of Ownership for Linux Web Servers in the Enterprise,’ Robert Frances Group. Hwi Lee, D, Myung Kim, J, Choi, K-H & Kim, K. J. 2008, August 30 ‘The Study of Response Model & Mechanism Against Windows Kernel Compromises,’ International Conference on Convergence and Hybrid Information Technology. Zhai, G & Li, Y 2008, December ‘Analysis and Study of Security Mechanisms Inside Linux Kernel,’ International Conference on Security Technology.

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