Server Operating Systems: An Overview
Server operating systems (OSs) are the foundation for most business IT infrastructure today. They run business-critical applications like databases, file servers, mail servers, web servers, and more. Choosing the right server OS can impact performance, scalability, security, ease of use and total cost of ownership. This blog provides an overview of server operating systems – what they are, their key features, types of server OSs, their pros and cons, and some frequently asked questions.
What is a Server Operating System?
A server operating system is an OS optimized to run applications and services for multiple remote users and computers simultaneously over a network. The key difference between a server OS and a desktop OS like Windows or macOS is that server OSs are designed to handle multiple users concurrently, high network loads, parallel computing tasks, system stability, reliability and security.
Some common examples of server operating systems include Linux distros like Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES), Ubuntu Server, Debian; and Windows Server versions like Windows Server 2022, Windows Server 2019 and Windows Server 2016.
The main roles of a server OS include:
- Handling requests from many users and computers on the network concurrently
- Managing access and connectivity of devices, applications and users on a network
- Hosting and running critical business applications and services like databases, web servers, email servers and file servers
- Ensuring high availability of services and data
- Enabling remote access, administration and management of servers
- Providing platform for server virtualization and automation capabilities
In summary, server OSs are optimized to deliver applications and computing services reliably and efficiently to distributed clients over a business network or the internet.
Key Features of Server Operating Systems
Because server OSs host business-critical infrastructure and services accessing by many remote users simultaneously, they need robust features focused on:
Performance and Scalability
Server OSs are designed to distribute workloads optimally across CPU cores and hardware resources to ensure high performance even under peak loads. They also allow easy scalability when more hardware resources need to be added.
From data encryption to access controls to hardened kernels, server OSs provide layers of advanced security to protect business data and applications. Security features like LDAP, Kerberos, SMB signing help control user access while intrusion detection, SELinux policies harden servers.
Reliability and Availability
With advanced clustering, load balancing and virtualization support, server OSs maximize application, data and service availability across both planned outages and unplanned downtime. Features like live kernel patching further bolster reliability.
Easy remote administration with advanced management tools allows IT teams to control server infrastructures efficiently. Automation capabilities make management at scale easier.
With native capabilities or optimizations for hosting databases, web/app servers, collaboration suites, ERPs and more, server OSs deliver tailored support for running custom business applications.
A server OS allows developers to build custom applications with access to frameworks like .NET or Java EE and tap optimization, scalability, security and other enterprise-level capabilities.
Concept of Server Operating Systems
Server operating systems are built differently from their desktop counterparts in some fundamental ways that make them suitable for hosting server workloads:
Heavier Resource Demands
A server OS expects to deal with several concurrent requests for shared resources like processors, memory and storage. So highly efficient and threaded resource management is a basic requirement.
Prioritizes Uptime and Stability
Unlike desktop OSs focused on user experience, a well-configured server OS runs quietly in the background with maximized uptime. So the kernel and systems are engineered for stability and security over bleeding edge updates.
Supports Multiple Users
A server OS suports granular control of permissions across individual user accounts and groups. Access policies, user quotas help manage shared access to files/apps.
Most enterprise server operating systems have strong virtualization capabilities for running virtual machines and containers. This supports flexibility, efficient use of hardware resources and scalability.
Advanced Clustering and Load Distribution
Clustering features let workloads be distributed intelligently across nodes. If one node fails, the application can failover to another for high availability. Load balancing optimizes performance.
Streamlined Interface and Footprint
Server OSs optimize available resources on the system for applications and computing rather than fancy desktop interfaces. They have a smaller footprint while still offering enterprise-level capabilities.
Supports Automation and Infrastructure-as-Code
Server automation helps replicate environments easily and scale management. Many server OSs natively integrate with popular configuration management, infrastructure-as-code and containerization technologies.
Types of Server Operating Systems
The two main classes of server operating systems are Windows-based offerings from Microsoft and UNIX/Linux-based OSs like Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Linux Enterprise, Ubuntu Server. Let’s take a closer look at some major options:
Microsoft’s Windows Server OSs make up a large chunk of server installations, especially in Microsoft-centric enterprise environments. The core components provide enterprise must-haves like server management, virtualization, clustering, networking, storage, security, application platform capabilities and tight Windows client integration.
Editions Offered: Datacenter, Standard, Essentials
Pros: Tight integration with Active Directory and Windows ecosystem; easy migration path for Windows-based infrastructure; built-in support for .NET applications and development
Cons: Costly licensing structure depending on features; hosting non-Windows workloads involves increased complexity and potential overhead
Red Hat Enterprise Linux
RHEL is arguably the most popular enterprise Linux distribution with a strong focus on stability and performance. Its life cycle ensures long term application stability which is crucial for business servers. Rich virtualization and containerization capabilities provide a flexible cloud and datacenter backbone.
Editions Offered: Server, Workstation, Edge, CoreOS, etc.
Pros: Robust platform for hosting Linux-based workloads; cutting edge support for virtualization, containers; optimized performance for scalability; tight security controls and access policies
Cons: Steeper learning curve for Windows admins; advanced features involve increased licensing costs
SUSE Linux Enterprise Server
SUSE focuses on modular, heterogeneous infrastructure, with native support for running mixed workloads across virtual machines, containers and bare-metal. Enterprises can build tailored stacks mixing capabilities like database servers, container management, analytics, etc.
Editions Offered: Standard, Premium; Extended Support Packages
Pros: Supports wide range of enterprise workloads; built-in flexibility to customize system to unique needs; independent vendor supporting open ecosystem
Cons: Smaller market share means access to fewer pre-built modules or templates compared to RHEL
Ubuntu Server LTS
The long term support releases of Ubuntu Server make it popular for lean, efficiency-focused environments. Tight integration with complementary open source technologies provides complete infrastructure building blocks. Ansible automation makes deployment and day-to-day ops easier.
Editions Offered: Standard
Pros: Streamlined, resource efficient OS ideal for containers/cloud deployments; leverages Debian package management ecosystem; avoid enterprise Linux licensing costs
Cons: Limited native support for non-open source enterprise apps compared to RHEL/SLES; less extensive certification testing
Pros and Cons of Server Operating Systems
Server operating systems offer higher performance, scalability and flexibility compared to desktop operating systems for business needs:
- Optimized for maximum computing capacity for business workloads and high concurrency
- Built with enterprise hardware compatibility, failover and clustering support
- Advanced controls and efficiencies for RAM, disk and I/O usage
- Easy systems management at scale through automation
- Expanded security capabilities like advanced authentication protocols and access controls
- Application server technologies enable rock-solid hosting of SQL, NoSQL datastores
- Near 24×7 uptime availability with clustering, fault tolerance and redundancy
- Flexible delivery mechanisms — on premise, private/public cloud, hybrid, hyperconverged
- Cost efficiencies from improved utilization of server infrastructure
There are some downsides to weigh when considering server class operating systems:
- The advanced features mean server OSs come with steeper learning curve for new sysadmins
- Licensing models can impose significant costs for proprietary commercial distributions like Windows Server or RHEL add-ons
- Require more planning with controlled change management due to focus on stability over bleeding edge updates
- Overhead from security, availability features draw system resources from workload applications
- Scale-up multiprocessing architectures limit agility compared to scale-out cloud models
- Upfront investment needed for transfer or re-platforming from existing environment
- Vendor dependence risks from lack of portability between platforms
Evaluating the pros and cons in context of business needs help map the optimal server OS choice. Open source distributions allow exploring server capabilities without significant licensing fees.
Selecting server infrastructure forms the digital backbone empowering how modern businesses deliver applications and services. Server operating systems translate raw hardware into managed, efficient engines tailored to reliably sustain mission critical enterprise workloads securely while costing justifying the capabilities.
Factors like virtualization trends, scalability needs, application ecosystem support and IT skill investments help determine what class of server OS best supports hosting the in-house app portfolio and charting future plans. While earlier trends focused on consolidating servers, emerging software defined, hyperconverged patterns allow flexibly spreading capabilities across environments.
RHEL continues holding significant footprint given stability guarantees and extensive workload support. SUSE modular OS provides independent alternative for heterogenous Linux environments. Ubuntu Server and Windows Server continue popularizing for leaner open source and Windows houses respectively. Kubernetes container orchestration is emerging as the modern OS for truly distributed cloud scale application delivery built atop server OS foundations.
Evaluating key architectural constraints and growth trajectories help categorize where in the spectrum between bare metal and fully abstracted infrastructure environments a business needs live. This clarifies priorities whether maximum configurability, turnkey application runtimes or automated lego-style composability is paramount. The diverse choice across commercial and community backed server OS options empowers tailoring the base platform to unique needs.
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