Linux vs. Windows NT and OS/2

We continue to see media blurbs and ads for both Microsoft's Windows NT and IBM's OS/2. Both promise to be the operating system that we need and to take advantages of the capabilities of the Intel 386 and beyond. In the mean time, development and use of Linux, another system that takes advantage of these capabilities, lumbers along. In this article, Bernie Thompson explores these as three alternat
The Foundations

When it comes down to it, an operating system is just a foundation. Choose the foundation that supports the features you need and will need in the future. But be aware of the high price in memory, storage, and performance that these features exact.

Linux, like OS/2, is designed and optimized to run on Intel 386 and compatible CPUs. By contrast, Windows NT is designed to be ported to many different CPUs. NT is currently available for MIPS, DEC Alpha, and Intel 386. This independence from Intel is an important advantage for NT, because users have more hardware choices.

All three systems support multitasking, which is the ability to have many programs running simultaneously. For example, it is possible to format a disk, download a file from a BBS, and edit in a word processor, all simultaneously. You can't do this using a system like MS DOS, which doesn't support multitasking.

NT supports multiprocessing, which means using more than one CPU in a single machine. An NT PC could have 2 or more processors, all working together. Again, this means more hardware possibilities for the NT user.

NT and Linux both support dynamic caching. Caching stores recently used information in memory, so it is readily available if needed again. OS/2 sets aside a pre-determined chunk of memory to do this (typically 512K to 2MB), whereas Linux and NT will dynamically use as much spare memory as possible. The result is much faster disk access for Linux and NT, because the information is often already in the cache. OS/2's inflexibility causes memory to be wasted when not used, and memory to be used poorly when it is scarce.

Linux, unlike OS/2 and NT, has full multiuser support. Local users, modem users, and network users can all simultaneously run text and graphics programs. This is a powerful feature for business environments that is unmatched by OS/2 or NT.

Table 3. Memory Required

Linux has security systems to prevent normal users from misconfiguring the system. Although Windows NT isn't multiuser, it has security checks for the individual using the machine. It is safe to have a Linux or NT machine available for use by many people, whereas an OS/2 user could (mis)configure the system software.

Linux's security and multiuser features are so well developed because they are traditional features for Unix. Since Linux is “Unix-compatible,” it supports these same powerful features.

Table 4. Applications Supported

The Costs

Every feature supported will tend to make an operating system larger, consuming more memory and storage. Larger systems are also slower than smaller systems when memory is scarce. So the size of a system is an important issue.

NT is the largest of the three systems. NT's support for portability, multiprocessing, and many other features is the cause of its large size. Given a powerful enough machine, NT offers a set of features that is very compelling.

Linux with X/Windows is the next smaller system. Linux itself is very miserly, but X/Windows puts a burden on the system. For most the graphical interface will be worth the cost in resources.

OS/2 is smallest of the three when using a graphical interface. This is the attraction of OS/2. A user need only upgrade to 8MB of RAM to use an object-oriented interface and have a good platform for multitasking DOS, Windows, and OS/2 programs. OS/2 is the strongest of the three for backward compatability with DOS and Windows. OS/2 has sold several million copies in the last two years, primarily because of these strengths.

Linux without X/Windows is the smallest of the three. This is a great sacrifice for many, running without graphical windows. But by jettisoning expensive graphics, the system is smaller and faster than OS/2 or NT will ever be. 4MB RAM, the standard configuration for a DOS/Windows PC, is plenty for most tasks. So Linux can make good use of a low-end 386 PC with little memory, where OS/2 or NT either would not run, or not run well. Systems with lots of memory will be able to use Linux's dynamic caching to achieve unusually high performance. With 16MB RAM, almost 12MB remains to be used for caching and running applications.

In general, the issue of size is a great strength for Linux. Linux was designed to be as small and efficient as possible. NT's most important criterion was portability, and OS/2's was backward compatibility. The result is Linux is the most efficient of the three. And because a company or individual has access to the Linux code, it can be optimized and scaled to suit the hardware and needs of the user. OS/2 and NT do not have this flexibility.

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