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Many hosts - particularly shared hosting providers - default to Linux for hosting packages, so it's by far the market leader. It's also the operating system used by Google to run its vast banks of servers: more than 15,000 and counting.

The History of Linux

The Linux operating system was forked from UNIX in 1991. Finnish system engineer Linus Torvalds worked on his creation as part of his computer science degree, and was named after him - albeit by someone else. Over the next few years, Torvalds' Linux became incredibly popular among the developer community. In 1996, it gained its famous penguin logo in homage to a penguin that bit Torvalds at Australia's National Zoo.

Over the years, Linux has been split, merged, reinvented, repackaged and forked again and again, and it owes its success to a massive user community that maintains and improves it continually.

There are various Linux distributions, and many of them are free, so you might see Linux referred to as CentOS, Fedora, Ubuntu, RedHat Linux and so on. This proves its huge following, but not everyone is a fan. Microsoft's Steve Ballmer notably referred to it as having "characteristics of communism" at a Seattle event in 2000.

Companies can adopt Linux and develop their own operating systems from it. Google's Chrome OS is effectively a version of Linux, and Android owes a lot to it too.

Microsoft has softened its views and now uses Linux on its X range of Nokia phones. Dell now sells laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed. Caconical - owners of Ubuntu - are marketing a Linux smartphone.

Why Choose Linux for Hosting?

Many people buy web hosting without giving much thought to the technical details. If you have a low cost shared hosting plan, chances are it's provisioned on servers running Linux. You benefit because:

  • It's secure, assuming it's kept updated, so you have fewer hacks to worry about
  • You can use industry standard web hosting software, such as the popular cPanel control panel, so moving host is less disruptive
  • It keeps costs down for the host, which allows them to pass on savings to you
  • The way things work is pretty standard from host to host

In modern web hosting, Linux is configured according to the LAMP standard. LAMP stands for:

  • Linux, the operating system
  • Apache, the web server application
  • MySQL, the Structured Query Language database application
  • PHP (PHP: Hypertext Preprocessor), a programming language that enables the development of dynamic web content

This standard gives you everything you need to run a perfectly acceptable, modern website. You need to learn about things like Linux file permissions, but there are plenty of guides on the internet to help.

Why Do Hosts Choose Linux?

Hosts like Linux because:

  • It's powerful
  • It scales well for most purposes
  • It's usually free
  • It's supported by a large user community
  • It can be used on old servers
  • It can be customised by the host
  • Control panels like cPanel hide the OS from the customer, so they don't mess things up quite so often

Additionally, many web hosting companies have invested heavily in Linux, making Linux administration a desirable skill for developers and technicians to have. There are certifications, like the RedHat Certified Engineer program, that prove the candidate's Linux ability, and hosts can focus efforts (like technical support) on just one platform that everyone in the company recognises.

Linux vs Windows

Not all popular scripts and languages require Linux. WordPress can be installed on a Windows server, as can Perl (via Strawberry Perl) and PHP. However, they aren't so well supported and may not be as stable in practice. Here's some information about WordPress on Windows vs Linux.

On the flip side, Linux servers don't support ASP, .NET and IIS, so that's a very good reason to choose Windows. Additionally, Windows is a good all-rounder, running most applications reasonably well and making it a practical alternative.

Linux Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Linux? Linux is a family of Free and Open Source operating systems. Linux is very popular in web hosting servers.
  • What is an operating system? The operating system is the underlying software that runs a computer. If you use a Mac, you have the Mac OSX operating system; if you are on a PC, you have a Windows operating system. Your phone might run on the Android operating system (which is based on Linux) or iOS if it’s an iPhone. The operating system defines how the software works on a computer and how it interacts with hardware.
  • What does it mean that Linux is Free? Linux is available at no cost (gratis) and is also available without restriction (libre). You can use it for anything you need.
  • What does it mean that Linux is Open Source? The source code for Linux is available for inspection and modification. Additionally, it is developed in the open by a community of programmers.
  • What does it mean that Linux is a family of operating systems? The defining characteristic of Linux is the “kernel,” a small core piece of code that manages input/output between the application layer and the machine layer of the computer. But a full-fledged operating system needs a lot of other features besides this: device drivers, language compilers, file systems, graphical user interface, and so forth. Linux is available in “distributions” that each provide a set of these additional core operating system features.
  • What are some popular Linux distributions? CentOS, Debian, Fedora, Red Hat, Ubuntu.
  • Does it matter which Linux distribution I have on my web hosting plan? Almost certainly not. The typical things done on a web hosting server — run Apache, build databases, deploy PHP applications — these all work the same way on all Linux distributions used by web hosting companies. To the average user, the biggest noticeable difference between on Linux distribution and another is the graphical user interface (GUI) on a desktop, but you never see this in web hosting; you interact with the server remotely via a web control panel or SSH.
  • Why is Linux so popular for web servers? There are several reasons. First of all, the cost (free). Next, Linux is a good fit for servers because it doesn’t need to be powered down on a regular basis. Have you ever noticed how the longer you leave your computer running, the slower it seems to get? That doesn’t tend to happen with Linux. Another reason is the extreme flexibility, which makes it a good choice for hosting companies that need to create special environments for hosting plans to work properly.
  • I tried Linux on my desktop once and it was really hard. Should I avoid Linux for web hosting? Not at all. The experience of using Linux as a desktop operating system is not at all like using it for a server. This is part of the reason that Linux powers the vast majority of web servers, but only 1% of the world’s desktop computers. Additionally, in most cases you won’t be interacting with the Operating System of your hosting account very much. Most web hosting account management is done through a web control panel (and the better ones only work on Linux), or through FTP and SSH (which are also both easier with Linux).
  • I use a Windows PC for my work or personal computer. Shouldn’t I use a Windows server? No, that is not needed. You can connect to a Linux server (via SSH and/or FTP) or access the host through a web control panel from a Windows PC with no problem. The only place where you might run into a problem (and this is very minor) — if you connect via SSH and access your hosting server from a command line interface (CLI), the commands are a bit different for Linux than they are at the Windows DOS prompt. (But you probably don’t use the DOS prompt that much anyway, do you?) At any rate, it is much easier to find CLI command help online for Linux than for Windows.
  • I use a Mac for my personal computer. Should I use a Linux server? It really doesn’t matter whether your desktop and web server run the same operating system. There is no specific advantage to it. However, Mac users will be pleased to find that Linux command-line usage and other aspects of the Linux operating system are familiar to them.
  • I want the best server available, not some free thing. I’m willing to pay for Windows. Was that a question? Linux is a serious, enterprise-level software. It is used by supercomputers, giant mainframes, embedded devices, and the vast majority of mobile phones on the planet. Free and Open Source does not mean sub-standard.
  • What are the alternatives to Linux? In a web hosting environment, the only serious competitor is Windows Server.
  • Why should I use Linux instead of Windows? The only reason to use Windows is if you have some specific need for it, in particular. Linux is the “default” choice for web hosting.
  • What are the reasons I would need to use Windows instead of Linux? If you need to use the .NET or ASP development platforms, these require Windows instead of Linux. However, this brings up another question — why should you use .NET or ASP instead of open source technologies like Ruby, Python, PHP, or Node.js? This is beyond the scope of this article, but you might want to think about whether vendor lock-in is worth whatever benefit you are getting from those tools.
  • Linux vs. Windows. Which is better? For web hosting? Linux.

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