The Hostway Blog

Windows Web Hosting Part 1: Overview

When choosing a server for your Web site, one of the biggest decisions you have to make is which operating system (OS) to run it on. If you opt for a shared hosting plan, most hosts offer a choice between Windows and Linux.

In a previous series of articles, we looked at Linux. In this series, we’ll be looking at the Windows OS offerings. We’ll cover how they were developed, why Windows is so popular as a Web hosting platform and the scripting languages and database solutions it supports. We’ll also discuss Microsoft's current position in the server OS market and its plans for the future.

Introduction to Windows

Without an operating system, a computer could only run one program at a time. It would have to be rebooted before loading another program into memory. In fact, that’s how the earliest computers worked, before the development of the UNIX kernel in 1971.

Where Linux evolved from the UNIX kernel, Windows is based on the DOS kernel created by Tim Paterson for the Seattle Computer Products (SCP) 8086 computer kit in 1980, and licensed by Microsoft for release in IBM Personal computers the same year. In fact, the original Windows version 1.0, released on November 20, 1985, was not an operating system, but a Graphical User Interface (GUI) or "operating environment" that ran over the top of the DOS OS. With each iteration, Windows became more of a fully-fledged OS, but along the way became separated into two distinct threads.

The Windows 3.1x thread that became Win95, Win98 and then the Win ME OS was based on the original and aimed at the consumer market. Where Linux was inherently Internet aware, designed initially as a multi user environment with networking, Windows was initially designed around consumer use, with standalone PCs.

Windows for Workgroups (WFW) added Internet and networking capabilities, as well as introducing 32-bit disk access. WFW, which morphed into Windows NT then Windows 2000, was aimed at the commercial market. These were based on the NT kernel, a product of collaboration between Microsoft and IBM on the OS/2 platform. The two product lines were re-integrated and marketed for home use in Windows XP, Vista and now Windows 7.

Windows' Rise in Popularity

Microsoft Windows accounts for around 80% of desktop PC market, but only 40% of server market. According to Netcraft, a site that monitors Internet usage, Windows Internet Information Server (IIS) is the second most popular Web server, though it still lags behind Apache. Microsoft Web servers make up 23-25 percent of Web servers, but across the top million busiest sites, that drops to around 17 percent. This suggests that Microsoft servers are most popular at the smaller end of the market. Some reasons for its popularity include:

  • Familiarity
    Since 80% of desktop PCs run on a Windows OS and the vast majority of users will be exposed to them; the learning curve is less, with no new OS to get to grips with. Amongst SMEs with IT staff familiar with Microsoft technologies and no separate dedicated Web team, this alone could be a deciding factor.
  • Commercial Support
    Although Microsoft licensing fees can be hefty, the software comes with extensive vendor support. Having the ability to turn to certified trained professionals when something goes wrong can make administering a Web server for the first time less scary.
  • Proprietary Software
    Although the situation is changing slowly, for a long time developers using FrontPage who wanted to make use of FrontPage extensions had little choice but to host on a Windows server. Similarly, users running Active Server Page (ASP) scripts, wanting to connect to a backend Access database, use Open Database Connections (ODBC), SQL Server or Microsoft Exchange Services, were similarly tied to the proprietary Windows Platform.

The downsides to hosting on a Windows platform have traditionally been in loss of performance, since the OS itself is resource heavy, and more prone to crash than its Linux counterparts are. Issues of security stemming from the different ways permissions are handled, (with Linux permissions have to be explicitly assigned whereas in Windows the default user "administrator" is created by default with no password) have also led to Windows OS being the main target for malicious programming.