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Most low cost hosting is provided on Linux servers, but a Linux set-up isn't suitable for everyone. If you design your site using ASP and .NET, you'll need a Windows host to properly support it. And there are some other good reasons to reject Linux hosting, too.

Let's get one myth out of the way: You don't need a Windows server just because you have a Windows PC or laptop. Web hosting is completely independent of your own set-up at home or in the office.

Choosing a new hosting plan is a complicated process. As well as different capacities and resource allocations, you'll also come across different platforms: Windows and Linux. There are various versions of both to choose from. Before signing up, you will need to decide whether Linux hosting will be the right option for your site, or whether you should invest in Windows hosting.

The majority of the world's websites are hosted on Linux servers. (Here's why.) While Linux is a great general purpose operating system, you'll need Windows for specific applications and technologies.

  • You'll need a Windows server for anything that requires the .NET framework. Specifically, Windows is required for anything written in ASP (which stands for Active Server Pages, so the clue is in the name) or ASP.NET.
  • You will also need a Windows server if you're working with Visual Basic (VB), ColdFusion or C#.
  • Windows is required if you need to hook into any products in the Microsoft stack, such as Exchange, or if you're working in SharePoint. This includes designing content in SharePoint Designer.
  • If you need to host legacy content built in Microsoft FrontPage, it is advisable to use a Windows server for this, as Microsoft will continue to support the required FrontPage Extensions until July 2015. Read more about FrontPage Extensions on our blog

When Windows Won't Work

If you need to use PHP, CGI, Perl or Python, Linux is a better choice because it's more of an all-rounder. And while WordPress can be installed on a Windows server, it's much wiser to go with Linux because there's far more support and documentation available to help you resolve any problems.

In terms of databases, check with your host to see what they offer. Linux tends to use MySQL, while Windows servers usually run MS SQL (and MS Access, to some degree).

If you know you'll need to SSH into your server, you will need to go with Linux hosting.

Control Panels

Hosting control panels vary from host to host, and we recommend sticking with what you know. If you know how to use Plesk, and you find it productive, you'll find that many Windows hosts support it (as will some Linux hosts). However, if you prefer cPanel and WHM and want to stick with those applications, you must host your site on a Linux machine.

There are some other control panels on Windows servers alongside Plesk. DirectAdmin is one of the more common.

One handy feature of Windows hosting is the ability to use Remote Desktop direct from your Mac or PC to your server. This is normally only allowed on dedicated server plans.

Pros and Cons of Windows Hosting

All web hosts will allow you to get a simple website online. However, we recommend that you choose Linux hosting unless you have a specific reason to choose Windows. Why?

On the plus side, Windows:

  • Is easy to use, and requires less interaction with the command line
  • Is arguably easier to manage and update than Linux, particularly if you're not experienced with hosting
  • Supports the specialized scripting languages we've already covered
  • Is just as stable as Linux, if managed correctly by the host

But beware of Windows hosting if:

  • The script you need is written in PHP; it's generally easier to use PHP on Linux boxes
  • You don't know your way around WordPress. Support for WordPress on Windows is not easy to come by, and it may require custom configuration
  • You want the cheapest shared hosting you can find. Windows is always more expensive, and a few extra bucks will quickly mount up over a monthly subscription
  • You want to stay loyal to particular hosting company. Not all hosts provide Windows hosting
  • You need Apache, or a specific Apache module
  • You want the flexibility to customize your server

For those willing to pay a little more and tinker a little less, Windows-based hosting provides a stable platform for building robust Internet applications and web sites.

Windows Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is Windows? Windows is an operating system developed by Microsoft.
  • Can Windows be used for a web hosting server? Yes. All computers, including servers, need an operating system. Many web hosting servers are running Windows.
  • I use a Windows PC for my home or business computer. Does that mean it would be better to also run Windows on my server? Not necessarily. You can connect remotely to a non-Windows server from a Windows PC with no problems. The only real reason that uniformity would matter is if you happened to be extremely knowledgeable about the Windows environment and wanted to have the same environment in both places. (Though it is worth nothing that the versions of the Windows OS used for servers are slightly different.)
  • Do I have to pay for Windows on a server? Ultimately, yes. Windows is not Free or Open Source, it is proprietary software sold by Microsoft. This means that if your server is running Microsoft, someone is paying for it. If you own your own server and install Windows on it, you have to have purchased a license. If you are using a hosting account from a web hosting company, and you are using Windows in that environment, the hosting company paid for it, which means that ultimately you paid for it, usually in a higher plan price.
  • Can I run Apache Web Server on Windows? Yes. Apache Web Server is Available for the Windows Server operating system.
  • Can I run any other web servers on Windows? Yes. Microsoft sells its own web server, called “IIS,” which runs on the Windows Server operating system.
  • Can I use cPanel or another web hosting control panel on Windows? CPanel is not available for Windows. There was a version of CPanel for Windows, named Enkompass, but this is no longer under development. ZPanel also supports Windows, but this project seems to be abandoned. The most popular control panel that is also available for Windows is Plesk.
  • What are the alternatives to Windows server? The most common operating system for servers is Linux, which is available in many distributions (Red Hat, Ubuntu, CentOS, etc.).
  • If Windows is proprietary and Linux is free, why would I choose Windows for my server? That’s a good question! The most common reason is that some specific server-side technology is needed which is only available on Windows. Microsoft develops a web applications development framework called .NET (say: “Dot-Net”), which is only available on a Windows server.
  • What is the advantage of the .NET framework over other web application frameworks? .NET is a platform as much as it is a framework. With .NET, you can write programs in a number of programming languages more typically used in desktop and embedded environments, like C++. Also, .NET’s common language runtime allows a program to be written in multiple languages. Because of this, one very strong reason to use the Windows platform is having a pool of experienced developers who already know those languages, but don’t have familiarity with more common web languages like PHP and Ruby.
  • Are there specific types of applications that work better in a .NET (or Windows Server) environment, rather than a Linux environment? Sort of. A lot of it has to do with what programmers are used to, and what tools are easily available, not what is theoretically possible. Most of the non-Windows web-focused frameworks (such as Zend or Laravel for PHP or Ruby on Rails) maintain a resource-oriented (or content-oriented) paradigm, where visitors request resources (a piece of content, a video, a blog post), which is then retrieved from a database and then returned. The program does not continue running between requests. These languages and frameworks (and ways of thinking about programming) are not well-suited to running a persistent process with a changing state. That is not to say that Linux servers are ill-suited for this — far from it. It is just that common ways of thinking about how to build web applications in a .NET environment are different than those for building in a PHP or Ruby environment.
  • Is there any other website technology that is only available on Windows server? Microsoft Silverlight is currently only available to run from a Windows environment. (The Linux port, Moonlight, was abandoned.) Silverlight is a rich media framework for building highly interactive and visually stimulating web applications. The most attractive feature of the Silverlight framework is the deep zoom, which can creating stunning effects that embed an unlimited amount of information into a visual frame (aside from this feature, there’s little to distinguish Silverlight from Flash). Unfortunately, like Flash, web browsers require a special plugin in order to view Silverlight content.
  • Are there any other technical reasons to use a Windows Server instead of a Linux server? If you are planning on running your own shared email, calendaring, a contact manager through Microsoft Exchange, you will need to run this on a Windows server. Depending on your business needs, it might make sense to run both Exchange and your website on the same web hosting plan, which would then need to be a Windows plan. Of course, some organizations run Microsoft Exchange on a physical server located onsite, and still use a web hosting company (running Linux) for their online properties.
  • Windows vs. Linux. Which is better? In the world of web hosting, Linux has become the industry standard. It is powerful and free. But Windows is sometimes the only option that will work for your specific situation. Our advice is to use Linux hosting unless you have a specific technological reason for using a Windows server.

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