UNIX vs. Linux vs. Windows: How They Compare | Spiceworks

UNIX vs. Linux vs. Windows: How They Compare | Spiceworks

Microsoft Windows is defined as an operating system that features a graphical user interface and compatibility with a wide range of hardware and software, primarily for personal computers. UNIX is a multitasking, multi-user operating system developed for use on workstations, servers, and other devices for numerous applications, including database management, software development, and running networked applications. Linux is defined as an open-source operating system based on UNIX and is widely leveraged across various devices for its security, flexibility, and stability. This article compares these three operating systems.

UNIX, Linux, and Windows: An Introduction

Microsoft Windows is an operating system that features a graphical user interface and compatibility with a wide range of hardware and software, primarily for personal computers.

UNIX is a multitasking, multi-user operating system developed for workstations, servers, and other devices. Its numerous applications include database management, software development, and networked applications. Systems equipped with UNIX are preferred for their security, flexibility, and stability. This operating system is the basis for numerous others, including macOS and Linux.

Linux is an open-source operating system available free of cost and based on UNIX. It is widely leveraged across various devices for stability, flexibility, and security.

What Is UNIX?

UNIX was initially developed in the 1970s and was one of the first operating systems written using the C programming language. It is one of the most effective operating systems ever created, with numerous offshoots and a wide-reaching effect on the computing and electronics industries. Its main advantages include stability, interoperability, and portability across multiple heterogeneous environments and devices.

Today, UNIX and its variants are leveraged for multiple IT systems, including servers, workstations, mobile devices, embedded systems, and supercomputers. However, while Linux, macOS, and Android–arguably the most popular UNIX spin-offs–continue to maintain a strong presence in their respective markets, the demand for UNIX itself has declined. 

One reason for this may be users moving away from reduced instruction set computer platforms and adopting x86-based alternatives capable of executing greater workloads and delivering higher performance more economically.

Enterprises will likely continue to leverage UNIX for mission-critical workloads; however, the operating system may continue to see falling demand due to a greater focus on IT modernization and consolidation. Naturally, this isn’t happening immediately; UNIX is still the first preference for many IT teams regarding use cases such as vertical-specific software, cloud security, and data center application support.

Even if UNIX server sales drop in the future, its applications in the governance, telecom, and financial domains are expected to keep it alive and running. The complete abandonment of UNIX will likely be a long, slow journey.

What Is Linux?

Linux is a popular operating system that is preferred for its reliability and security, performing better than its competitors in terms of protection against viruses and malware. It is also resistant to slowed-down performance, crashing, and expensive repairs and users need not pay licensing fees as often as they do for other commercial operating systems. Linux features a zero cost of entry and can be legally installed on any computer without any associated cost whatsoever.

Apart from its cost-effectiveness, Linux is an open-source system. The Linux kernel is among the world’s most significant open-source projects, making it a boon for enterprises seeking scalable growth without ballooning software costs. Most, if not all, DevOps lifecycles in enterprises around the globe rely on open-source software to reach their development goals. For instance, Linux makes it easy for developers to combine smaller software components they create with other software for building full-featured supply chains.

One significant way Linux helps bolster enterprise scalability is through containers, a popular way to deploy scalable enterprise applications. Containers help host applications on third-party cloud platforms. They simplify the automation of application scaling and help ensure that resource consumption matches the demand for application bandwidth at any given time.

Linux is the backbone of container operations. Users of Docker and Kubernetes alike must be familiar with Linux. And this is just one of the many examples of Linux’s flexibility. Other operating systems often lock the user into using software the ‘right way’ (according to the company backing it). Conversely, Linux users can make almost any change they desire at the platform level, allowing them to achieve business goals flexibly, swiftly, and accurately.

There isn’t much that users cannot accomplish when they are familiar with Linux. This operating system grants access to thousands of tools and packages that support the development of robust services and systems.

What Is Windows?

Every computer user has heard of Microsoft Windows, with over 75% of desktop and laptop computers worldwide using this operating system. Available in 32- and 64-bit versions, Windows is a user-friendly operating system that features a graphical user interface (GUI), virtual memory management, support for multiple peripherals, and multitasking functionalities.

Windows provides both server and client versions. Popular client versions include Windows 98, ME, XP, Vista, 7, 8, and 10. Windows 11 is the newest version of this operating system, released in 2021. Server versions include 2000 Server, 2003 Server, NT Server, Server 2008 R2, Server 2016, and Server 2022 (latest version).

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UNIX vs. Linux vs. Windows: 4 Key Comparisons

UNIX, Linux, and Windows are all used to manage computer hardware and software resources. Each operating system comes with unique characteristics and is suited to different applications. Let’s look at the four key comparisons among them.

1. Development

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UNIX was born when Bell Labs (later known as AT&T), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and General Electric (GE) combined forces in an attempt to build the Multiplexed Information and Computing Service (Multics), an interactive time-sharing system. The goal of Multics was to give multiple users a platform for simultaneous access to a mainframe.

Original results were not promising, and Bell Labs pulled out of the project. However, computer scientists Dennis Ritchie and Ken Thompson from Bell Labs continued to work on the assignment, and their efforts culminated in the creation of UNIX.

Ritchie and Thompson teamed up with other researchers from Bell Labs to build a suite of components to create a foundation for UNIX. These components included a command-line interface (CLI), a hierarchical file system, and several small utility programs. Soon, UNIX also introduced the concepts of device files and computer processes.

Later, a self-hosting operating system featuring an assembler, shell, and editor was deployed. The scope at which UNIX originally operated was much narrower than the pioneering creators had aimed for Multics. However, this single-tasking system went on to gain multitasking capabilities later on.

Before 1973, UNIX was composed in assembler language. It was rewritten in C in the fourth edition, which was revolutionary for the time as experts generally assumed operating systems were too sophisticated and complicated to be written in a high-level programming language such as C. Once this feat was accomplished, UNIX’s portability across several computing platforms was enhanced.

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw UNIX amass a fan base in academia. Soon, notable commercial startups such as Sequent and Solaris Technologies began adopting the technology on a wider scale. By 1995, the University of California, Berkeley, had developed Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD), an early UNIX distribution that served as the foundation for numerous other UNIX offshoots, including Linux!

Linux was born in 1991 when University of Helsinki student Linus Torvalds developed a UNIX-based operating system for his personal computer. Soon after, it was made available to download for free. Perhaps unknown to him at the time, he had created one of the most effective operating systems and played a vital role in enhancing the popularity of UNIX offshoots.

Today, Linux is everywhere. Whether you use a smartphone, a modern car, a supercomputer, or even a smart home appliance such as a refrigerator or television, you’re using Linux! This operating system is prevalent in home desktops and enterprise servers alike, has a user base that spans the globe, and runs most of the top 500 supercomputers in the world and most global stock exchanges.

The development of Microsoft Windows has played a huge role in shaping the global IT landscape. Windows was introduced in 1983 by Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Its codename at the time was Interface Manager; however, it came to be better known as Windows as the name better defined the boxes (or ‘windows’) on the GUI of the new operating system.

Windows 1.0 was officially released in November 1985. Before this revolutionary release, users would type MS-DOS commands to complete computing tasks. Windows 1.0 changed that by letting users execute commands with simple mouse clicks. The drop-down menus, icons, scroll bars, and dialog boxes of Windows 1.0 were also much more user-friendly than the interface of the MS-DOS platform. Additionally, users could switch between programs without having to quit and restart each program.

The introduction of virtual memory enhanced the quality of graphical interfaces, while later versions brought built-in dial-up networking and internet support. Subsequent versions of Windows introduced desktop icons, enhanced memory, and the ability to download the operating system using floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and (more recently) even over the internet.

Useful native programs such as the Outlook email client and the Internet Explorer web browser, integrated networking, mobile computing features, and multimedia functions further drove the popularity of Windows. Plug-and-play hardware support and in-built system security updates were game-changers. Finger browsing and wireless compatibility brought the future to every home. Windows also offers seamless support for data storage on flash drives and even the cloud and data streaming compatibility.

Windows 11 is Microsoft’s latest desktop operating system. It represents a dynamic design shift, simplifying user experience and bringing about a ‘clean’ look. Some elements of Windows 11 are inspired by Windows 10X, the OS for touchscreen devices that Microsoft canceled. Windows 11 seems to be destined to become a powerful operating system for numerous device types and form factors.

While the layout of Windows 11 does not stray away from the basics (like some would say Windows 8 attempted to do), a few components have undergone significant redesigning. For instance, the new Widgets panel shows information such as the weather, news, and trading data. Snapping and grouping of open Windows have also improved, allowing users to focus on their tasks without the UI getting in the way. The version of Windows 11 for tablets is also enhanced, thanks to seamless support for gestures, a better on-screen keyboard, and support for Android applications.


2. Architecture

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UNIX architecture consists of three main components: kernel, shell, and applications and commands.

The shell interprets command line inputs and calls the relevant programs to perform functions. User commands are programs themselves, which means the command line returns to prompt and awaits more inputs upon task completion.

Several different shells exist, and the shortcuts and syntax among them vary. For instance, the ‘csh’ shell uses a syntax similar to that of the C programming language. Similar basic functions are supported by all shells.

The shell provides the kernel with user input, which, in turn, accesses the hardware to execute tasks such as file storage and memory allocation.

Linux architecture consists of four main components: kernel, shell, applications, and hardware.

The hardware layer includes all physical devices the system has access to. This consists of the hard disk drive, motherboard, and RAM.

The kernel is at the core of the Linux architecture. It can interact directly with the underlying hardware layer. Key Linux kernel types include monolithic, micro, exo, and hybrid.

The shell interface receives user inputs and converts them into instructions for the kernel. It is also responsible for transmitting kernel outputs to the output shell. Key types of shells include Korn, Bourne, C, and POSIX.

The application layer consists of utility programs running on the shell. Examples are the media player, web browser, and text editor.

Windows architecture consists of six main components: kernel, hardware abstraction layer (HAL), device drivers, system libraries, user interface (UI), and applications.

In Windows, the kernel serves as the core of the operating system. It manages the device software and hardware resources through task scheduling, input/output management, and memory allocation.

The HAL is a software layer between the kernel and the device hardware. It is responsible for providing a consistent interface that the kernel can use for hardware access, thus making it hardware-agnostic.

A device driver is a software program that facilitates communication between the operating system and a specific hardware device, such as a keyboard, network adapter, or printer.

System libraries include functions that grant the operating system and applications access to various services such as file I/O, networking, and memory management.

The UI is the component of Windows that allows interactions between a human and the device. It includes the desktop, taskbar, and start menu.

Finally, applications are programs that are executed atop the operating system and carry out specific user functions, such as media players, word processors, and web browsers.


3. Applications

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1. Datacenter applications of UNIX include supporting data center infrastructure and applications, virtual server deployments, distributed scientific computing, web servers, and databases. UNIX generally drives high-end server operations and other tasks that are invisible to end users.

2. UNIX variants can provide cloud support and feature compatibility with modern cloud infrastructure. The operating system is also helpful for enhancing cloud security as one can tailor it for enterprise cloud security compliance. Increased robustness, scalability, and reliability are the key advantages of UNIX for the cloud.

3. Boosting ease of use and interoperability for enterprise systems is a core capability of UNIX. Modern UNIX versions are hassle-free to install, lightweight, and provide simple troubleshooting for errors in real-time. This also makes UNIX-powered computers fault-tolerant.

1. Web servers are a core function of Linux. The reason Linux dominates the web server space is its low installation cost. Unlike UNIX systems, which are costly and need specialized hardware, Linux can be downloaded easily and operates on x86 processors. For instance, a company could set up a large set of low-cost Linux computers and use them as servers.

2. Linux is the operating system of choice for supercomputers, with most of the prominent global supercomputers running on a version of Linux. This is probably due to the same reason as Linux’s popularity for server applications–cost and compatibility with standard x86 hardware. Additionally, familiarity with UNIX among academics meant that researchers already had a basis for switching to Linux. 

A significant example of a Linux-powered supercomputer is the IBM Summit, which played a role in developing COVID-19 vaccines and tracking COVID-19 variants.

3. Linux is also the operating system of choice for single-board computers, such as Raspberry Pi. One reason is the ease of porting Linux to varying processor architectures. While Linux originally started on the Intel 80386, it has been ported to almost every CPU configuration, including the ARM chip that the Raspberry Pi uses. Linux, being ideal for both powerful supercomputers and simple single-board computers, is a testament to its flexibility.

4. Finally, Linux is a useful system recovery solution that can instantly fix common booting issues such as damaged partition tables and forgotten admin passwords. These tools are also useful for copying important data from a failing hard drive or SSD into an external drive. One example of a Linux tool that is capable of system recovery is SystemRescue.

1. Running programs: Windows is known for compatibility with various software programs, including productivity tools and entertainment software, such as games.

2. File management: The Windows user interface helps organize and manage files. This makes accessing data simple.

3. Internet access: Windows includes built-in, user-friendly support for internet access, allowing users to engage in web-based activities such as streaming, emails, and so on.

4. Multimedia: Windows is perhaps the most widely used operating system for multimedia applications such as videos, music, creating and editing documents and presentations, and so on.

5. Device connectivity: Finally, Windows supports connectivity with other devices such as hard drives, printers, scanners, and so on using wired as well as wireless technologies.


4. Cost

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UNIX is a proprietary operating system, and not all versions are freely distributed. However, specific UNIX versions are free for development use. Linux is free of cost for all users and is an open-source system. Corporate support can cost a nominal fee based on the use case and distro. Windows is a commercial operating system that users need to purchase before use.

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UNIX, Linux, and Windows are well-known operating systems with their own strengths. UNIX is a robust, flexible platform with a long history of academic and enterprise applications. Linux is a free, open-source operating system preferred for its customizability and community support. Windows is a user-friendly operating system in most personal and business computing use cases. Each has its benefits, and choosing the best one depends on the specific deployment and configuration.

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