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WH - 8. Choosing between Windows and Unix/Linux

One of the choices to be made when selecting a web hosting company will be whether the hosting companies’ servers run on the Windows or Unix/Linux operating systems. There are several factors involved in this choice - the type of site you will be running, how it was developed, any database used, and what, if any, extra features you need to use.

The first thing to say is that the type of computer you are using at home or in the office, whether it be a Windows-based PC, a Mac or a Linux-based computer, has no bearing on the choice you make. All of the above operating systems will allow you to upload files using an FTP program and to access the control panel that is used for basic site maintenance, such as setting up email boxes, or for accessing the various reports that are available on such things as bandwidth usage and number of visitors to the site.

For a simple HTML-based web site it will not matter which server operating system is chosen. Both Windows-based and Unix/Linux-based servers will give identical results for the end user. However, if you are planning to have any interactive content on your site then you will need to choose which way to go.

Interactive content relies on certain features being available on the server – called server-side programs. The most common ones are ASP, PHP and Perl. These are programming languages which allow the visitor to the web site to interact with the site, for example by entering a user name and password to enter a private area. Unix/Linux-base servers offer PHP and Perl, whereas ASP runs on Windows-based servers. It is possible to run PHP on a Windows-based server, or vice versa, but the results may not be what you expect. For the most compatibility it is best to use the operating system for which the language was designed.

The platform on which the web site was developed may play a part in the decision of which server type to use. If you have used a Microsoft program to develop your web site then you may feel more comfortable in choosing a host which offers Windows-based servers. Nowadays though nearly all Unix/Linux-based servers offer server extensions allowing them to host sites developed using Microsoft FrontPage, which was not always the case in the past. Also, if you are using scripts for interactive content, then you may find that testing and debugging them will be easier on a computer using the same operating system as the server.

The other factor that will affect your choice of server operating system is whether you are planning to use databases within your site. Windows-based servers use Access and Microsoft SQL for databases, whereas Unix/Linux-based servers use MySQL. Although MySQL will run on a Windows operating system, or indeed Access will run on Unix/Linux operating systems, the implementation of this is not 100%, and you may find you start to have problems. To get the most out of either program you should try to run it on its native operating system.

These are the most important factors to consider although there are some more minor points to make. There is a school of thought that believes that Unix/Linux-servers are faster, more reliable and more secure; however in actual everyday use any differences are marginal, at best. Any good reputable web hosting company will strive for the best performance on all of its servers. Also, since Linux is open-source software, whereas as Windows has to be licensed, the Linux option may be more economical. As I said, though, these are minor points, and should not affect your final choice – how you intend to use your site should be the key to making your choice.