NT v. UNIX

Several factors will come into play when deciding which platform you should use to build your companies intranet. You will have to consider everything from your company's existing systems to technical support issues and projected future needs.
Posted January 1, 1998
By

Rob Bilson



There is a battle going on behind corporate firewalls everywhere. It isn ot about which browser to standardize on, or who can and cannot have a home page. This fight is for your Intranet's operating system, and the stakes are high. The two main contenders, UNIX and Windows NT, are both vying for dominance in the multibillion dollar Intranet market. With both camps heavily touting their OS as the best solution, how do you decide?

Several factors will come into play when deciding which platform you should use to build your companies Intranet. You will have to consider everything from your company's existing systems to technical support issues and projected future needs. While by no means all-inclusive, lets take a look at what I consider to be the seven major areas that should guide you in making your decision: Existing infrastructure, in-house talent, ease of administration, price, scalability, security, and support.

Existing infrastructure

The first thing to consider is your company's existing infrastructure. If all of your machines are SPARC workstations, you probably are not going to want or need to install an NT based solution. Conversely, you probably would not want to install a UNIX box in an exclusively NT environment. "Yes," you may be saying, "but my present network is a mix of UNIX and NT machines, now what?". Now, you have to take into consideration what functions are being performed by which operating systems as well as the overall demands you plan to place on the Web server(s). This brings us to the next point for consideration, in-house talent.

In-house talent

Before you make the decision on an operating system for your Intranet, you need to consider the people who are going to administer and support it. This goes hand-in-hand with your existing infrastructure. Unless you are planning to hire new employees to fill the positions needed to maintain an Intranet, such as designers, system administrators, webmasters, programmers and graphic artists, you are going to have to evaluate the skills that your current IS personnel posses. UNIX is a great platform to launch an Intranet from... if you can support it. UNIX system administrators are in high demand, and the supply is limited. UNIX system administration is not a skill that you can pick up overnight either. There are quite a few flavors of UNIX floating around each with its own peculiar quirks. Someone who is familiar with SCO UNIX may not necessarily be as comfortable working with BSDI's version. In addition, UNIX uses an archaic command line language and several shells that can further complicate the process. NT on the other hand is based on that familiar look and feel that Microsoft (and Apple) has made famous.

System administration

System administration is a big part of maintaining an Intranet. Administrators are responsible for such things as adding new users, installing applications, maintaining security, and seeing to it that the Intranet is kept up and running. This in itself is often enough to justify a full time position. In this area, NT wins hands down. NT combines an intuitive GUI with powerful tools in an easy to use point and click environment. Installing new software on NT is a breeze and usually involves running a single setup program that guides the administrator through the setup process. UNIX on the other hand, can be a nightmare to administer (especially for those who are new to UNIX). Although some versions of UNIX have a GUI, most administration is done from the command line, making it difficult to visualize the process. Setting up software applications on UNIX can also be a real chore. Most software must be compiled on the machine that it is to run on, which can make for a big headache. I have had the pleasure of setting up software on UNIX machines before, and I can tell you from experience, it is not anywhere near as easy as it is on NT. I was attempting to install Perl on a machine running SCO UNIX and their version of a Web server. After downloading the necessary binaries, I went to compile the source code and proceed with the install. After typing the appropriate commands, I was dismayed to learn that the necessary compiler was not included with the system. After locating the compiler on the Internet, I downloaded it, and attempted to unzip it only to learn that there were no unzip utilities included with the system either. After locating an unzip utility, I was finally able to unzip the compiler. After trying to install the compiler numerous times to no avail, I finally gave up. You see, I was familiar with UNIX, I had been using it for years and was quite comfortable with it from a user's perspective, but when it came to administration, simple tasks such as installing software became a big hassle.

Cost

Another factor in NT's favor is cost. Because NT is relatively inexpensive, it stands to gain a larger market share than do more expensive UNIX operating systems. By the same token, NT is designed to run on inexpensive PC platforms while the majority of UNIX OS's are designed to run on larger and more expensive workstations and mainframes. Cost may not be an issue for larger firms like Sun and IBM, but for your average small to mid-sized company, the differences are important. This leads to another consideration, and that is, as more small firms try to establish Intranets, the need for cost effective solutions will increase. This seams to be where NT is positioning itself, and why I believe that NT will obtain for itself a larger share of the Intranet server market than will UNIX.

Scalability

When Windows NT first hit the Internet/Intranet server scene, there was a lot of concern that it was severely limited in its scalability and power. These concerns, for the most part, were unfounded. You should be able to scale an NT based Intranet just as well as a UNIX based network and, at a fraction of the cost. Processing power has also been a point of contention. It has been argued that NT lacks the necessary processing power to handle large scale usage on Intranets. This is no longer true as Intel based NT machines can now accommodate over 32 processors, keeping in stride with their UNIX counterparts. Take a look at some of the businesses using NT as the platform for their Intranet/Intranet servers. Companies such as General Motors, Lockheed Martin Corp., Gateway 2000, and NASDAQ are not going to make an investment in an operating system that does not scale well.

One area where UNIX still maintains a small advantage over NT is in database integration. UNIX servers have been maintaining extremely large relational databases for decades. It is not uncommon for UNIX servers to house databases in excess of 4 terabytes. In contrast, SQL Server for NT has a limitation of about 4 terabytes. This difference is negligible, however, when you consider that the response time for a query on a 4 terabyte database would be slow regardless of what platform the database is housed on. It must also be noted that database setup and administration are by far easier on an NT based machine than on comparable UNIX systems.

Security

Perhaps the biggest concern for companies wrestling with the task of choosing the operating system for their Intranet is security. Taking a gamble with confidential and/or proprietary data is not an option. Companies want a solution that they can rely on. The debate over which OS is more secure than the other is really a moot point. Depending on > how the operating systems are configured, the security of both UNIX and NT can potentially be as tight as Fort Knox, or as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Intranet security problems are more often a result of poorly designed or managed security policies than a flaw in the operating system. Both UNIX and NT employ authentication schemes, allow permissions to be set at the file, group, and world levels, and both have a number of third party firewalls and proxy servers available for use with their various servers.

In addition, a number of data encryption schemes such as SSL are available for use with both operating systems.

Support

The final point for consideration is vendor support for the operating system. An operating system can claim to be the greatest OS ever created, but if you can not get the applications, tools, and support for it that you need, then it will not be successful in meeting the needs of your Intranet. In this area, NT has more to offer than does UNIX. NT offers more "off the shelf" applications than UNIX. Although programs can be custom written in-house to meet the needs of either platform, the relative cost and development time often make this option unfeasible.

When all is said and done . . .

When all is said and done, there is no clear winner in the Intranet operating system battle. Both UNIX and NT are robust, secure systems with a lot of potential. NT retains a definite cost advantage that might prove to be the determining factor for a large number of small to mid-sized businesses. UNIX , on the other hand, has long been the workhorse in industry, and breaking its hold on the market could prove challenging for NT, especially where large databases are an issue. There is no all encompassing answer to the Intranet operating system question. The key is for decision makers to approach the task of evaluating and choosing an OS with an open mind. UNIX is by no means dead, nor is NT the solution for every operation. Companies need to be willing to use the operating system that fits their particular needs best, whether it be NT, UNIX, or both.


About the author:

Rob Bilson is WebMaster at Amkor Technology.






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