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October 6, 1999

A look at Microsoft's 'Linux Myths'

This week Microsoft took the gloves off and put up this page about "The Five Linux Myths." It would appear that the long-awaited Microsoft counteroffensive has begun. This is certainly not the last that we will hear from them.

The document makes a number of points, some of which are better than others. Let's look at a few of them.

On performance:

The Linux community claims to have improved performance and scalability in the latest versions of the Linux Kernel (2.2), however it's clear that Linux remains inferior to the Windows NTŪ 4.0 operating system.
They cite the June PC Week benchmarks which did indeed show NT performing better. They also fail to note that a number of the performance problems found then have since been fixed. Some of those fixes have been put into the latest 2.2 kernels, and are thus widely available; others remain in the 2.3 tree. For now it is true that mainstream Linux contains some performance problems.

Microsoft does not address performance on lower-end hardware.

It is also worth noting that other benchmarks have produced very different results.

Linux only supports 2 gigabytes (GB) of RAM on the x86 architecture, compared to 4 GB for Windows NT 4.0. The largest file size Linux supports is 2 GB versus 16 terabytes (TB) for Windows NT 4.0. The Linux SWAP file is limited to 128 MB RAM. In addition, Linux does not support many of the modern operating system features that Windows NT 4.0 has pioneered such as asynchronous I/O, completion ports, and fine-grained kernel locks.
Linux can support 4GB with a commercially-supported patch. The file size limit is real (on 32-bit systems), and is a bit of a thorny problem - the 2.4 kernel will not fix it. The swap file limit claim is simply false as of 2.2.0 (and even with previous versions one could use multiple swap files). Asynchronous I/O is being worked on, and can also be done now via threads - there is disagreement over whether other approaches such as completion ports truly provide better performance. Locking in the kernel is increasingly fine grained, though there are limits to what can be safely accomplished via that path.
The Linux community continues to promise major SMP and performance improvements. They have been promising these since the development of the 2.0 Kernel in 1996. Delivering a scalable system is a complex task and it's not clear that the Linux community can solve these issues easily or quickly.
2.2 delivered quite a few improvements; 2.4 will deliver quite a few more.
The Linux community likes to talk about Linux as a stable and reliable operating system, yet there is no real world data or metrics and very limited customer evidence to back up these claims.
This seems a little strange, given the large number of high profile, Linux-based web sites out there.
Linux lacks a commercial quality Journaling File System.
True - for now. Shortly Linux will have three such file systems, however. Microsoft also claims that Linux high-availability and clustering are "immature," which has a certain basis in truth. Linux clustering is also highly successful in many situations.
The Linux community will talk about the free or low-cost nature of Linux. It's important to understand that licensing cost is only a small part of the overall decision-making process for customers.
The free (beer) side of Linux is compelling, but is far from the most important feature of the operating system. Nonetheless, it is important. Not only for the reduced direct costs, but also the elimination of the (many) hassles of dealing with proprietary software licenses. Microsoft's claims of lower cost of ownership for NT fly in the face of the experience of large numbers of system and network administrators.

Microsoft, of course, completely avoids the issue of freedom, since they have no answer to that one.

The very definition of Linux as an Open Software effort means that commercial companies like Red Hat will make money by charging for services. Therefore, commercial support services for Linux will be fee-based and will likely be priced at a premium.
...as opposed to the wonderful free support services for Windows NT...
Linux is a higher risk option than Windows NT.
This is the NT that is years late? The one with more than 30 million lines of new code? NT looks pretty risky to many of us.
All systems are vulnerable to security issues, however it's important to note that Linux uses the same security model as the original UNIX implementations- a model that was not designed from the ground up to be secure.
One could also argue that Window - even NT - was not designed for multi-user environments and the the need to protect users - and programs - from each other.
Linux security is all-or-nothing. Administrators cannot delegate administrative privileges: a user who needs any administrative capability must be made a full administrator, which compromises best security practices.
There is some truth here. The "superuser" model has a number of problems, and utilities like "sudo" are a sort of fragile kludge made necessary by this model. The Linux kernel has increasing support for capabilities, which provide the sort of fine-grained privileges needed, but support for capabilities at the user level will be a while in coming. Access control lists (ACLs) are also in development and in a testing mode.
Linux system administrators must spend huge amounts of time understanding the latest Linux bugs and determining what to do about them. This is made complex due to the fact that there isn't a central location for security issues to be reported and fixed.
They must sign up for their distribution's security announcement list, and apply the updated packages when they are released. The time gets significant when there are large numbers of systems to update, but that is true of NT "service packs" as well. Microsoft makes no mention of the difference in turnaround times - Linux bugs are fixed much more quickly.

We also humbly suggest the LWN security page as a central place to look to keep up on security issues.

Linux as a desktop operating system makes no sense. A user would end up with a system that has fewer applications, is more complex to use and manage, and is less intuitive.
Many users find a Linux desktop to be most sensible, and many more will with each new release of the system. The number of applications does not matter - it's whether the particular applications needed by the user are available that makes a difference. For some users, Linux will make a better desktop, for others it "makes no sense."

As can be seen, Microsoft's document is partially truthful, partially not. It is not, in general, blatantly dishonest. It points at places where work needs to be done. There is little here that is not well on the way toward being solved. Given the pace of development in the Linux world, Microsoft's document will be obsolete very soon.


Thanks to Lenz Grimmer, Andi Kleen, and Raymond Ingles for suggestions that have improved this page.

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