What server operating systems are there? A brief history of server OSs

An operating system (OS) primarily serves as an intermediary between a computer’s resources and the running applications. Due to the requirements that servers put on operating systems, some systems may be more suitable for these tasks than others, which is why such setups are often referred to as server operating systems. Below, you’ll find out more about the origins of server systems, the first systems used in server environments and which server operating systems are the most popular today.

What was the first operating system for home use?

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 standardised hardware interface, making it possible to use it 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.

CP/M was the only noteworthy disc operating system (DOS) that was available for microcomputers prior to 1980, becoming the conceptual model that the dominant administration solution would be based upon.

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It should be mentioned, however, that DOS wasn’t representative of a unified operating system for quite some time. Instead, it was a concept that many different providers adopted and implemented in various ways. Eventually, the well-known MS-DOS by Microsoft was the model that caught on, playing a fundamental role in many other Windows versions (until Windows 98).

‘System’—which was renamed to Mac OS in 1996—was to Apple computers what DOS was to IBM computer of that time. With the release of Apple Macintosh in 1984, users became acquainted with the company’s initial graphical user interface, which could be operated using a mouse. Apple had already released a similar operating system called Lisa OS a year earlier, but due to its $10,000 (around £8,000) price tag, the model remained relatively unsuccessful.

When did Windows and Linux operating systems achieve success?

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 then, 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 variants, never managed to quite catch on, Microsoft used the kernel as the basis for most of its subsequent versions (2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10).

The only exception was the Windows 9x series (produced for private use), which continued to be based on MS-DOS and came with its own 32-bit kernel. The release of Windows 95 in 1995 marked the definitive beginning of the unparalleled success of Windows systems in the private sector. Other operating systems in this family were Windows 98 and the Millennium Edition, which marked the end of this system branch.

In terms of server operating systems, a new alternative suddenly emerged: Linux, a solution based on the pioneering operating system Unix. Initially offered as proprietary software, the 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 system’s widespread adoption.

Combined with utility software, various distributions such as Yggdrasil Linux and Slackware emerged. These served as complete operating systems and, like the kernel itself, didn’t come with any additional costs. And given that these operating systems could 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, which it continues to enjoy to this day.

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Our article on Unix vs Linux compares the two server operating systems and explains the key differences between the two.

Today, the internet is a reservoir of many different types of web projects, which are actively developed and co-designed by communities on the internet. Blogs, business websites and web applications all rely on web servers, which are set up and managed by operating systems.

When setting up a website, it’s important to decide whether you want to delegate the task of setting up the hosting environment to a professional provider or if you want to do it yourself. There are numerous options for hosting and Linux plays a leading role.

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Over half of all Unix-like systems, which according to W3Techs are used for roughly two-thirds of all business projects, are Linux distributions. Ubuntu and Debian are especially popular distributions, followed by CentOS. Less frequently used distributions, but still equally noteworthy, are Red Hat, Gentoo, Fedora and SUSE.

Microsoft is the biggest competitor of software operating systems that run on Linux and/or Unix. As a part of its NT series, the software giant has been offering the Windows Server Edition since 2003.

The saga of Linux vs Windows as web hosting solutions has stagnated over the past few years, as there are hardly any more decisive qualitative differences between the two when it comes to server systems. Most often, a decision is made based on cost factors or personal preferences. The following table provides an overview on major similarities and differences among three of the most popular server operating systems:

Windows Server Debian Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)
Website microsoft.com debian.org redhat.com
Developer Microsoft Debian project Red Hat
Initial release 2003 1993 2002
Foundation Windows NT Linux Red Hat Linux / Fedora
Fee-based yes no yes
Standard UI ModernUI - GNOME
Update interval - approx. 24 months 6–12 months
Long-term support yes yes yes
Standard packet management OneGet (only newer versions) Dpkg, APT RPM, yum

Windows Server

When choosing between Windows Server and a Linux-based server operating system, you’ll be confronted with some of the same considerations you would face when choosing between Windows and Linux as a desktop solution. Hardware drivers are generally more readily available for Windows Server than for Linux. However, Windows Server is slightly more susceptible to malware and other security risks. Another downside is that the desktop version of Windows Server 2022 only supports the x64 instruction set (also x86_64, AMD64).

Since Linux enjoys a higher market share among server OSs than desktop computers, the vast majority of server-relevant software packages are also available for Linux. The selection of available software packages is therefore less important when choosing between Linux and Windows Server than when selecting a desktop operating system.

In terms of the graphical user interface, Windows Server is very similar to the desktop version of the operating system. The server operating system is mainly aimed at users who prefer Microsoft operating systems and software and want to stick with Windows when it comes to server administration.

Debian

Debian is characterised as a server operating system above all by its stability and security. The security and stability requirements placed on both the operating system and its software packages are much higher for Debian than for almost any other Linux server operating system. For this reason, Debian is often used as the source code base for other Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu. However, the high demands placed on stability and security also mean that a lot of software packages available for Debian are already months or years old.

Debian is also up there when it comes to compatibility. The operating system supports many processor architectures, including x86, PowerPC and MIPS (all both 32- and 64-bit). In addition, ARM64, Armel, HPPA/PA-RISC and S/390x are officially supported. Debian uses Dpkg and the APT package manager (like Ubuntu) and is often referred to as a meta-distribution. As a meta-distribution, Debian is interesting for various target groups and for both private and professional use.

Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL)

Red Hat enterprise Linux (RHEL), the commercial system of the Red Hat developers, has been designed with the needs of businesses in mind. The system is stable and enjoys the support of a diverse range of independent software developers. RHEL is characterised above all by its support because every version of the server operating system benefits from more than 10 years of long-term support. In addition, Red Hat offers comprehensive support for its enterprise customers. RHEL supports both common and specialised processor ISAs, including x86_64, PowerPC, IBM Z and ARM64.

Tip

In contrast to most Linux distributions, you have to pay for RHEL. Users looking for a free alternative should check out CentOS, which is identical to RHEL in many ways.

What other Linux server operating systems are there?

There are numerous other Linux distributions that are also well suited for use as a server OS. While the Debian derivative Ubuntu does not have the extensive range of functions that its predecessor does, having fewer features makes it quick and easy to set up. Support is also provided to users switching from Windows or other third-party operating systems.

Unlike RHEL, Fedora and its derivative CentOS are both free of charge. However, they don’t come with the same support found with 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 its frequent updates. Like Fedora, however, this server OS lacks long-term support, making it less suitable for long-term projects.

Tip

Decided to go with Linux but don’t know which distribution to choose? You can find a detailed comparison of Linux server distributions in this article.