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Server operating systems: history and today’s situation

One component in particular needs to be available so that application software can access a computer’s hardware resources: the operating system. No alternative exists that allows users to operate physical machines, as these serve as intermediaries operating between material resources, users, and their respective applications. In order to carry out this task, every operating system is composed of a series of programs that enable users to interact with and manage individual hardware components. These programs are made up of three fundamental elements:

  • The kernel,
  • the command-line interpreter,
  • and the file system

 The kernel, also known as the system kernel, constitutes the system’s basic functions and is responsible for tasks like managing storage as well as other individual processes. The command-line interpreter allows the computer user to communicate with the operating system with the help of commands, and the file system makes it possible to store files within a file tree. It’s clear that operating systems aim to achieve a diverse array of goals, and these have gone through some radical changes over the years. Protective functions, like distributing working memory or limiting user rights didn’t play any role whatsoever in the early days of developing operating systems; today, however, these features are key in helping to thwart both program and system crashes and preventing outside attacks.

In the early days, when computer systems started to become increasingly interconnected with one another, operating systems were needed to administer servers, like file, database, or web servers. Due to the requirements that such servers put on operating systems, some systems may be more suitable for these tasks than others, which is why these set-ups are often referred to as server operating systems. In the following paragraphs you’ll find out more about the origins of server systems, the first systems used in server environments, and which server operating systems dominate today’s scene.

From text-based user interfaces to complex program systems

In 1974 Gary Kildall released the operating system CP/M in floppy disc form. Given that Unix, which appeared a few years earlier, could only be used within specific environments (e.g. universities and research institutions), it’s widely considered to be the first PC operating system for home use. Originally an acronym for Control Program/Monitor, CP/M’s basic input/output system (BIOS) was a standardized hardware interface and could thus be used for different computers. With the help of the command line interpreter CCP (Console Command Processor), the system was able to receive and execute user commands. What’s more, CP/M is the only noteworthy disc operating system (DOS) that was available for microcomputers prior to 1980, making it the model upon which a concept that was to become the dominant administration solution was based.

It should be mentioned, however, that DOS didn’t present a unified operating system for quite some time; instead, it was more a concept that many different providers adopted and implemented in varying ways. In the end, the well-known MS-DOS by Microsoft, which played a fundamental role in further Windows versions (until Windows 98), was the model that caught on. DOS was to IBM computers as ‘System’ — which was renamed to Mac OS in 1996 — was to Apple computers. With the release of Apple Macintosh in 1984, users became acquainted with the company’s initial graphical user interface, which could be operated with the aid of a mouse. Apple had already released a similar operating system, called Lisa OS, a year prior to this point; due to its $10,000 price tag, however, this model proved to be more-or-less a flop.

Microsoft wins the race for the home PC while Linux conquers the server world

It wasn’t until 1993, with the introduction of the Windows Server operating system, Windows NT 3.1, that Microsoft was finally able to deliver its answer to Apple’s success. Up until this point, the software company had only been successful with the release of its Windows 3.0 graphical interface for MS DOS. Even if the NT system, which came in workstation as well as server varieties, never managed to quite catch on, Microsoft nonetheless used the kernel as the basis for most of its subsequent versions (2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10); the exception here being the Windows 9x series, which was also based on MS DOS and was the starting point for Window’s unparalleled success within the private sector. Further variants from this line include names like Windows 98 and the Millennium Edition, which simultaneously signaled the end to this range of products. 

In terms of server operating systems, another alternative began to meddle with things: Linux, a solution based on the pioneering operating system, Unix. Initially offered as a proprietary option, the applied Linux kernel was made available under the free GLP license in 1992, a move that generated considerable buzz among developers and sowed the seeds for the operating systems broad dissemination. When combined with utility software, various distributions, like Yggdrasil Linux or Slackware, emerged — these acted as complete software systems and, like the kernel itself, didn’t involve any additional costs. And given that they can be expanded and adjusted according to user demands, Linux distributions weren’t only free-of-charge: they were also highly flexible. The fact that Linux offered excellent options for system and rights management led to the operating system quickly becoming the preferred server solution for many administrators, especially for web development, a status that the open source options enjoys to this day.

Today’s server operating systems market: a bounty of choices

In the age of web 2.0, searching for the right server operating system is a public affair. While the web was once a place in which the majority of users only consumed available content, today’s internet landscape looks a bit different: it’s increasingly transforming into a reservoir of many different types of web projects; often these are actively generated and co-designed by the internet community. Whether this means running a blog, maintaining a standard web presence for a business or organization, or offering a web application, all of these projects rely on web servers, which are set up and managed by operating systems.

When setting up a web presence, a decision needs to be made as to whether putting together a hosting environment is a task that’s best delegated to others, i.e. a provider, or taken into one’s own hands. Whatever you decide to do, many choices await you once you’ve made a decision.

Even today, Linux plays a leading role: over half of all Unix-like systems, which according to W3Techs are used for roughly two thirds of all business projects, are Linux distributions (often referred to as distros). Debian and Ubuntu are especially popular distributions, as is CentOS; less frequently used models, but nonetheless equally noteworthy, are Red Hat, Gentoo, Fedora, and SUSE. Microsoft is the biggest competitor of software operating systems running on Linux and/or Unix. As a part of its NT series, the software giant has had the Windows Server Edition on offer since 2003.

The saga of Linux vs. Windows has mostly stagnated over the past few years, as there are hardly any more deciding qualitative differences between the two when it comes to operating server systems; most often a decision is made based on cost factors or personal preferences. The following tables provide an overview on some of the similarities as well as differences among the most popular server operating systems.

Server operating systems part 1:

 

Windows Server

Ubuntu

Debian

CentOS

Homepage

microsoft.com

ubuntu.com

debian.org

centos.org

Entwickler

Microsoft

Canonical

Debian project

CentOS project

Initial release

2003

2004

1993

2004

Foundation

Windows NT

Debian

Linux

RHEL

License

Microsoft-EULA

GPL et al.

GPL et al. (DFSG-compliant)

GPL et al.

Fee-based

Yes

No

No

No

Standard-UI

ModernUI

Unity

-

Gnome

Supported architecture

AMD64, IA-64, IA-32, x86

i386, AMD64, x86

Alpha, AMD64, ARM, HPPA/PA-RISC, i386, IA-64, MIPS, MIPSel, PPC, S/390, SPARC

AMD64, ARM, Intel 64

Update interval

-

approx. 6 months

approx. 24 months

6–12 months

Long-term support

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Standard packet management

OneGet (only newer versions)

Dpkg, APT

Dpkg, APT

RPM, yum

Versions

2016, 2012 R2, 2012, Essentials,2008 R2, 2008

Desktop, Server, Cloud, Core, Kylin (specifically for Chinese users)

-

-

Target groups

Users that favor Microsoft operating systems and typical software options, like Exchange or Sharepoint, and want to use Windows for server management.

Beginners and persons switching from Windows who also plan on using a Linux server OS.

As a ‘meta distributor’, Debian is an attractive option to both private individuals and professionals.

Anyone searching for a free-of-charge alternative to Red Hat Enterprises.

Server operating systems part 2:

Website

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)

Gentoo

Fedora

Developer

redhat.com

gentoo.org

getfedora.org

Initial release

Red Hat

Gentoo Foundation Inc.

Fedora-Projekt

Foundation

2002

1999

2003

Lisence

Red Hat Linux / Fedora

Linux

Red Hat Linux

Fee-based

GPL et al.

GPL et al.

GPL et al.

Standard-UI

Yes

No

No

Supported architecture

-

-

Gnome

Update interval

i386, IA-64, PowerPC, AMD64

Alpha, AMD64, ARM, HPPA, IA-64, M68k, MIPS, PPC, S/390, SH, SPARC, x86

i386, AMD64, PowerPC, ARM, s390x

Longterm support

6–12 months

weekly

6 months

Standard packet management

Yes

No

No

Versions

RPM, yum

Portage

DNF, yum

Target groups

Desktop, Workstation, Server

-

Workstation, Server, Cloud

 

Business clients wishing to use Linux for professional use.

Users aiming to individually customize their Linux systems.

Developers that always require the most up-to-date version of from their software.

As this table indicates, it doesn’t always come down to a simple choice between Windows and Linux. If you opt for the latter, there are many different distributions to choose from. For example, the Desbian derivative, Ubuntu, may not preside over the enormous range of functions that its predecessor does, but it’s precisely this trimmed-down approach that makes it easy to set up. What’s more, users making the switch from Windows or other competing operating systems will be greeted with lots of useful help settings. Debian itself, on the other hand, is much more flexible in its use and supports a wide range of architecture. As one of the pioneering distributions, it also features top support in the form of an active community.

Red Hat enterprise Linux (RHEL), the commercial system of the Red Hat developers, has been especially designed with the needs of businesses in mind; the system is also stable and enjoys the support of a diverse range of independent software developers. Unlike RHEL, Fedora and its derivative, CentOS, are both free of charge; however, they understandably don’t come with the same support found in other options. One of Fedora’s defining features is that it’s constantly being updated, a trait that makes it particularly popular among developers. Those aiming to put together their own individual Linux systems will appreciate Gentoo, another system known for pumping out update after update. Like Fedora, however, this server OS lacks long-term support, making it less suitable for projects that are to span over a longer periods of time.

Network Target Groups Open Source Operating Systems Windows Linux