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The question involves key areas including cost of acquisition and implementation as well as total cost of ownership (TCO), performance considerations including security, reliability, availability and scalability, along with management and operations considerations. It's a pretty safe bet that no IT department is going to be standing still for too long, so the question is not so much whether or not to upgrade as whether or not Windows Server 2003 is the upgrade path to choose. Since the principal visible competitors are the flavors of *nix servers with Linux leading the field, that will be the primary comparate.
If the first part of cost, acquisition, marks the first battle, then Linux probably wins it quite handily. It is perceived as essentially free, which is a tough price to beat. There may be some costs associated with acquiring some particular distribution, but Linux is not typically burdened with the licensing costs that go along with Windows.
According to studies, however, that is where it ends and Linux appears to quite quickly become more expensive than Windows. Staffing surfaces as the main difference. Windows simply requires less, and requires less training.
Giga Research, a subsidiary of Forrester Research, ran an objective comparison and analysis of portal application development and deployment for .NET on Microsoft Windows and J2EE on Linux. Their report describes a "Total Economic Impact" (TEI) in which they conclude, "Microsoft offers a substantial cost advantage over J2EE/Linux as a development platform for the applications considered."
The cost savings occur largely as a result of Microsoft's tools that "simplified development" which then translates into "lower labor costs for development and administration of custom applications and a faster time to deployment." In some of their sample cases, twenty-five percent lower. Again it would seem that the savings in licensing costs are more than replaced by higher subsequent labor costs.
When it comes to performance, no guessing is required. There have been quite a lot of independent studies and tests on which we can base decisions. One such test, designed by Veritest and audited by Meta Group, studied IBM's claims about running Linux on their mainframes to consolidate Windows servers, especially for file serving and Web serving.
The test used SuSE Enterprise Linux 8.0 as the operating system, the VeriTest NetBench 7.03 benchmark against Samba for file serving, and the WebBench 4.1 benchmark against Apache for Web serving. The results demonstrated that "mainframe Linux performed poorly on standard file-sharing and Web-serving benchmarks -- between 20 and 300 percent below that of Windows Server 2003 on the VeriTest study."
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Also, according to Martin Taylor, Microsoft's General Manager, Platform Strategy, "Windows NT 4.0, a product that was released seven years ago, produces NetBench file-sharing results 20 percent below those produced by mainframe Linux. Windows Server 2003 performed over 150 percent better than Windows NT 4.0 on the same hardware, which we think attests to the advances that have been made in Microsoft server technology over that period." To me this would indicate that the smallest of shops could get a performance improvement by simply upgrading their OS and breathing new life into their servers.
Consolidating NT4.0 servers on a Windows server 2003 platform also utilizes the enterprise's investment in Windows expertise, requiring less retraining than does a change to a Linux platform. This particular point is a recurring theme in the various reports I have referenced here.
Another Veritest study compared the web serving performance on a variety of HP Proliant server hardware configurations between Windows Server 2003, Enterprise Edition, Red Hat Linux Advanced Server 2.1 and Red Hat Linux 8.0. The results of this study showed Windows delivered between 51 and 300 percent better performance -- more than enough to replace the six percent from the IDC study.
The familiar GUI and a comprehensive set of wizards make the setup of server roles a simple task. Similarly, routine management tasks are easy accomplished. Active Directory enhancements provide new flexibility to allow AD to change as your organization changes. Transition from NT4.0 domains is also simplified with new upgrade wizards. This ease of transition and management is a large factor in the lower Total Cost of Ownership that the analysts are reporting.
Microsoft has poured $200 Million into the security in Windows 2003 and the result is their most secure operating system ever. An interesting observation is that while the various worms and exploits that have attacked the Windows family of operating systems have garnered a great deal of publicity, largely because of being by far the most common OS, especially in private homes, Linux, it turns out, is the victim of more successful attacks (see http://www.enterpriseitplanet.com/security/features/article.php/3083791) First glance clearly doesn't tell the whole story!
Other noteworthy features include the Microsoft .Net Framework that, as an integral part of the Operating System, provides the basis for high-performance Web Applications. The shadow copy/restore feature provides a mechanism for users to easily recover their own files from previous versions without the intervention of IT staff. Scalability is provided through support for single processor through 64-way systems. High-availability demands can be met through the eight-way clustering in Windows 2003 Enterprise and Datacenter editions.
With this latest generation of the Windows Server family, Microsoft has demonstrated their commitment to provide a secure, available, scalable high-performance operating platform that is simple to implement and manage. Detailed studies have shown the true TCO/TEI advantages, so since we know that IT is not going to be standing still, the question becomes one of whether or not the enterprise could (or should) afford an upgrade path based on *nix.
The following links provide access to reports referenced in this article:
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 with Internet Information Services (IIS) 6.0 vs. Linux Competitive Web Server Performance Comparison (pdf)Discuss this article in the Enteprise IT Planet networking forum.
Microsoft Windows Server 2003 vs. Linux Competitive File Server Performance Comparison (pdf)
The Total Economic Impact? of Developing and Deploying Applications on Microsoft and J2EE/Linux Platforms (pdf)
Windows 2000 Versus Linux in Enterprise Computing (pdf)
Windows Server 2003: Mainframe Linux Benchmark Project (pdf)