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Operating Systems and Hosting

The operating system (OS) is the most essential, foundational piece of software on a computer system. It provides an interface between software programs (including both utilities and user-facing applications) and the underlying hardware.

Operating systems, and their component pieces (drivers) provide an abstraction layer between hardware and software, allowing the same applications to be run on different types of hardware.

Almost all computer systems have an operating system. Not just desktops and servers, but also devices, such as smart phones, consumer gadgets, media devices, and embedded hardware systems.

Should my hosting server be the same as the OS on my computer?

For the vast majority of users, it is not at all the case that you need to select your server’s operating system to match your local computer. Several factors explain this:

  • Most web hosting customers will never need to run their website’s software locally.
  • The most common website applications — CMSes like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal — are cross platform.
  • Most interaction with a web hosting account server will be through a browser-based control panel.
  • Any interaction that isn’t browser-based will be through platform-agnostic tools like FTP and SSH.

There are two exceptions to this rule, but they do not involve average web hosting customers:

  1. If you need to run Windows Server, it is probably because you are running it to take advantage of some specific business or enterprise application. This may involve additional Windows-specific software on your local computer. (However the dependency usually doesn’t wok int he opposite direction: having a Windows machine locally doesn’t tend to require having a Windows server.
  2. If you are doing new applications development, you may want to use the same operating system on your local development machine as you do on test and production servers. This does not apply, though, to people using mature, platform-independent applications like WordPress and Drupal — even if you are developing new themes and plugins for those applications using a local machine.

OSs Available for Web Hosting

There are a large number of Operating Systems available, but not all of them are commonly found in web hosting plans.

With shared hosting, you usually do not get a choice of operating system: it will almost always be Linux. Some VPNs will give you an option between one or two different Linux distributions, and others will provide Windows Server for an additional fee. With some VPNs and most dedicated server plans, you can install any operating system you want — whether Windows or any suitable version of Linux.

Unix-like operating systems

Unix was one of the first modern operating systems, and even though it was first developed in the middle of the 20th century, its core conceptual features and architecture are still present in its contemporary descendants.

Those features include modularity of design, multiples users, and clock-based time-sharing. These features have made Unix-style operating systems particularly well suited to server applications, where many independent users running many independent programs is a normal situation.

Linux — Sometimes called GNU/Linux, because because of the involvement of the Free Software Foundation’s GNU project in its development.

Linux was originally designed to be a Free and Open Source alternative to Unix. Its development was spearheaded by Linus Torvalds in the early 1990s. It merged with the GNU project, which had similar goals, and became a full fledged operating system. 

Because it has always been free and open source, it is an attractive option for academic use, which has spurred its further development. It is now the most widely used operating system in the world, and accounts for the vast majority of servers and mainframe computers.

Linux is highly modular, with the only “required” piece being the Linux kernal — a small piece of software that handles key hardware functions like memory allocation and CPU time-sharing. All other operating system functions, from file storage to graphical user interface to device drivers, are independent pieces of software. This modularity allows for the development of different distributions of Linux, each with a different approach to implmenting key OS features.

Distributions (“distros”) commonly used for web hosting servers include:

    • CentOS
    • Debian
    • Fedora
    • Gentoo
    • Red Hat
    • Slackware
    • Ubuntu

Differences between the various Linux servers

Unless you are going to be actively managing the server (as with a VPS or dedicated plan), you probably won’t notice the difference. If your only interaction will be with the control panel, it is going to look the same regardless of the type of Linux your server is running. That said, certain distributions offer advantages in terms of performance, management, support, etc.

If you’re managing your own server, CentOS and RedHat receive less updates, are generally more stable, and offer better support. Because RedHat is commercial software, it will require a licensing fee, but that also means it is thoroughly tested before each release and well supported.

CentOS is the free version of RedHat, and is also a well-tested, solid OS. Debian receives more frequent updates and offers considerably more packages; however, it does not have the same level of support.

Ubuntu is widely considered the most user-friendly Linux distribution, and is an ideal choice for anyone new to Linux. 

Fedora tends to focus on enterprise features and updating with the latest software packages. However, because Fedora is not as popular as other distributions, it may be harder to find pre-compiled packages for it.

BSDs — The Berkeley Software Distribution was a Unix derivative that was developed at the University of California Berkeley. It was based on the original Unix code from Bell Labs in the 1970s. The original BSD has not been under active development since the 1990s, but descendant operating systems continue in widespread use today.

    • Mac OS X — The operating system used on Mac desktops and laptops is a BSD derivative, and licensed UNIX operating system. It can be used for web servers, but this is very rare.
    • OpenBSDs — An Open Source BSD derivative with a focus on security. Often used for mail servers and firewall servers, but not often used by web hosting companies for main accounts.

Windows Server

Windows Server operating system is used primarily for web applications related to business and enterprise needs, such as productivity, collaboration, and ERP software. It can be used for basic content-based and e-commerce web sites, but there is usually no need to pay the additional expense for this. Therefore, most web hosting companies do not use Windows by default. Those that do offer it usually charge extra for it, because of the associated licensing fees.

Windows Server has had three major releases:

  • Windows 2003
  • Windows 2008
  • Windows 2012

Follow the links to specific operating systems for detailed information and compatible hosting plans.

More on OSs and Hosting

Choosing an OS

As mentioned above, Unix and Linux were the ideal choice for web servers, because they were designed to manage multiple users and programs, but that’s not the only reason Linux dominates the server world. The most obvious reason is cost. Linux, in most cases, is open source, so you won’t have to worry about licensing costs (Redhat is an exception to this rule, and is primarily used by enterprise clients).

Open source means it is also far easier to customize or create custom code for. And because Linux is based on modules, you only need to install the parts you intend to use, which helps preserve your server resources and increases overall performance.

As mentioned above, if you’re using your server for business-related applications, particularly those that were designed by Microsoft or built to interact with Microsoft desktop software, Windows is probably your best option. Additionally, if you plan to host a Visual Studios or .NET server for developing, you will need Windows to do so. 

Because Windows is a commercial OS, you will also receive a higher level of support, which can be particularly beneficial in a business environment. And, of course, there is your level of comfort to consider. If you have little to no experience using Linux-based machines (your phone doesn’t count), Windows will provide a more familiar interface, shortening the learning curve and making maintenance that much simpler. Since most modern web apps can be run on Windows or Linux machines, this might be a good choice, if you’re willing to pay the additional licensing fees.

If I start with one server OS, how hard is it to switch to another? Because most Linux software is compatible with any Linux distribution (though it is compiled differently) and file structures generally work the same way, moving from one Linux distribution to another is a relatively straight-forward process, and should be manageable without any loss of data.

Of course, before you do this, make sure to contact your host and verify that the change is supported, talk with the support team for the new OS, and back up everything.

If you’re making the switch from Linux to Windows or another type of OS, the file systems will be completely different, the database will likely be different, and you can’t expect the same simple transition. For popular applications, like WordPress, you will find plenty of guides available to assist you, along with warnings regarding what issues you may discover and how to resolve them.

It’s also important to keep in mind that some applications simply won’t be available on Windows (or on Linux if you go the other way), so you will need to find a suitable alternative. And, of course, before you do anything, make a complete backup of your original server. No matter how many guides you read, something will always go wrong. Hopefully it’s a small thing, but if not, it’s always best to be prepared.

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