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The foundational software on your server is the operating system (OS). Generally, it’s the basis on which everything else you use runs. Without an OS, your server is just a collection of electronics that doesn’t know how to communicate with the rest of the world.

Key takeaways:

  • Top operating systems
  • Choosing the best web hosting option
  • How to choose an operating system
  • Learn if there are alternatives to Linux and Windows

Web Hosting Basics

When purchasing web hosting space, you must decide which OS you will use. Choosing an OS for everyday computing differs from selecting the one that will run on your server when purchasing a web hosting package.

Not only are the options not quite the same, but you’ll also need to consider a different set of factors because you do not use a server like a personal computer.

What is web hosting?

When you purchase a plan from a web hosting company, you buy space on their server to store your website. Depending on what you have purchased, you have a small allocation of the server’s total resources available (such as with a shared hosting plan), or you have the entire server available (as in a dedicated server).

Types of web hosting

Between these two extremes, a continuum of options is available. Read about which hosting option is best for you.

Differentiating hosting types

The appropriate OS for you is based on the general plan you purchase. To that end, many web hosting companies loosely classify web hosting package types as follows:

  1. Shared
  2. Virtual private servers (VPS)
  3. Reseller
  4. Dedicated
  5. Cloud
  6. Managed

Are Servers and Hosting the Same Thing?

Occasionally the terms server and web hosting are used interchangeably, though there are variations depending on which plan type you purchase. For example, if you purchase a shared hosting plan, talking about a physical server might include more than you can access.

Which Operating Systems Are Available for Servers?

Regarding OS for web hosting servers, we can ignore Macintosh and focus on the Unix-like OS (most often Linux) and Windows. Before we dig into the main differences between Linux and Windows, let’s look at where Linux came from.

Unix-like operating systems

Unix development began in 1969 at Bell Laboratories (under AT&T ownership). Over time, the rights to Unix have been sold many times, and many have developed Unix-like variants — those based on the original Unix systems can be classified into branches and derivatives.

Unix branches

One of the most impactful branches of Unix was an OS called the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). Also discontinued was Apple’s macOS server, a derivative of BSD. Some derivatives of BSD are free and open-source (and therefore not proprietary like Macintosh), such as FreeBSD and TrueOS (discontinued).

Unix derivatives

The field of Unix derivatives is where things get interesting. One of the Unix-like variants commonly used on servers is Linux, a free and open-source OS alternative to Unix. It is sometimes referred to as GNU/Linux because many Linux distributions ship with numerous utilities and libraries. Many of these originate from the GNU project, a free software mass collaboration.

Linux Servers and Distributions

Linux has different distributions available (meaning variant in the Linux world). Though all are Linux, individual distributions can vary significantly.

Shared plans

If you purchase a shared Linux hosting plan, you probably cannot choose the specific distribution that runs on the Linux server hosting your website, but you are getting a Linux host.

VPS plans and dedicated servers

If you purchase an advanced hosting option, this affords you greater flexibility, so familiarizing yourself with the following could be beneficial:

  • The ins and outs of Linux
  • Linux servers
  • Linux web hosting
  • Other affiliated technologies, such as PHP

Linux longevity

There can be a lot of flux in the Linux world, so when choosing your OS “flavor,” look into how long current versions are supported. This support may sometimes last 10 years or more. In other cases, such support may only last six months.

Furthermore, a discontinued OS distribution might still be a good option. For example, Red Hat Linux, a variant of Fedora Linux, has been discontinued since 2004. Nevertheless, Red Hat is often used due to its military-grade security and is supported across physical, virtual, and cloud environments.

Windows Operating Systems

Servers that run Windows typically use some variant of the Windows Server OS, which differs significantly from the versions available for single-user workstations.

Increased costs of windows hosting

Generally speaking, choosing a Windows Server-based hosting plan costs more. This is a result of licensing fees involved with using Windows Server. It is not an issue when free and open-source Linux hosting providers are likely to pass the licensing cost on to you, the subscriber. You’ll also need licenses for any other Windows products you may use.

Other differences due to operating system choice

There are other differences when choosing a Windows server or web hosting plan. First, you will likely get a SQL Server database, or MS SQL Server, (instead of the more commonly used open-source alternative, MySQL).

Second, you will get support for Windows-friendly (or Microsoft-based) technologies, programming languages, and applications, such as the .NET Framework and ASP.NET.

Should you choose Windows?

Choosing a Windows-based hosting plan is not the default option for most users. Unless you have a compelling reason to do so, such as running applications built on Microsoft’s .NET Framework, you will likely be well-served with a Linux host. But you can run Windows Server if needed; you just might have high hosting fees monthly.

How To Choose a Hosting Operating System

While many different OS exist, not all are available on servers. Also, most hosting platforms don’t offer every option, but typically your options are Linux and Windows.

What hosting OS is used most often?

Generally speaking, the default OS for a server is some form of Linux/Unix. While there are practical reasons for this, such as its robust feature set, scalability, and robust performance history, there are also budgetary reasons. Linux, for example, is open source and, therefore, free to use.

Most web servers are running Linux. Commonly-used distributions by Linux hosts include Ubuntu, CentOS, and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Though exceptions exist, applications for one Linux distribution can be run using other distributions.

Is Linux hosting more complicated to use?

If you’re nervous about your ability to work with a Linux hosting plan, rest assured most shared hosting plans load their servers with user-friendly distributions, such as Ubuntu.

While the features and settings might be in a different location, the high-level organization and usage patterns are what you might expect from a Mac or a Windows PC. Some Linux distributions are closer to Windows, while others are closer to macOS. Yet in the decision between Windows and Linux, if you are doing something more specialized, such as running Windows web applications, go with Windows hosting.

What Are Control Panels?

Control panels are graphical user interfaces, such as cPanel or Plesk, that make it easy to work with your server (or server instance). Depending on the OS, your options are slightly different – for example, certain control panels are available only for Windows users, while others are only available on Linux.

If you are already familiar with a given option and are planning on switching OS, check for compatibility (unless you are open to choosing a new control panel).

Should Personal and Server OS Match?

Not necessarily, although this is dependent on your circumstance. Let’s look at a few areas where it might matter.

File compatibility

Generally speaking, you can transfer files from a computer running one OS to a server running another, assuming the file format is readable to both systems. With your website, this compatibility should be the case for most of your files — PHP, CSS, JavaScript, and HTML. Furthermore, the popular Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP (LAMP) stack bundles Linux with PHP but can be used elsewhere.

Remote access

It is unlikely you will need to run something you have on your server locally. If you need to use that product, the best action is to remote into your server and work there. This ability is not generally affected by the OS on your server or computer, though you may need to use a different application.

Cross-platform products

If you use a product that you need to run both on your server and locally, chances are that your tool is cross-platform. It would run on multiple OS, including macOS, Windows, and the more common Linux distributions.

Frequently Asked Questions About Operating Systems

If you are just starting with web hosting services, your options for the OS that runs on your server might be limited to Linux and Windows. But more premium packages give you greater flexibility in choosing an OS.

An Ubuntu server can be a good way to determine what works for you. It is a relatively inexpensive and easy product to find — good factors for testing. You can then decide if you need to move to a different distribution (or even Windows). The specific option that is best for you depends on your use case.

Are there hosts that provide Mac OS servers, and why would anyone use them?

Some hosts offer Mac OS. The main reason to sign up for a Mac server is for using it to develop applications for Mac OS or iOS. A Mac OS host is particularly useful if you have a team sharing in the development or sharing the development space. Also, Mac users like Mac products. If you can’t live without the OS X Launcher, a Mac OS server will provide a more familiar experience.

Do WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal work the same on a Windows server as on Linux?

For the most part. Since all of these utilize a web-based control panel, the user and admin experience will be the same, regardless of the server you’re using. It’s particularly true if you install them using a one-click installation program.

Subtle differences will exist in the way certain operations are handled. For instance, PHP handles mail differently on Linux and Windows. On Windows, it uses Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Thus, if you’re using an add-on that transmits mail (such as a feedback form), it may go a little slower on a Windows server. But you probably won’t notice.

What is the main purpose of an operating system?

Operating systems ensure a computer system performs well by managing its hardware and software and creating an environment for developing and executing programs.