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Linux, OpenBSD, Windows Server Comparison: Niche Area Support

The greater diversity of applications available on Windows platforms means that Windows has support for more niche areas than any other OS. The niche area statement can also be turned on its head to say that any product that only runs on Windows systems is by definition a niche product. If a product ran on Windows, Solaris, AIX and HP-UX, it would by no reasonable definition be a niche product. The absence of such a product on Linux would suggest a weakness in Linux, but today, nearly all vendors that support more than one UNIX variant, include Linux as a supported platform.

I believe a fair generalization is that there are more Windows products, including server products and discounting those whose sole purpose is to fill a weakness in the Windows OS, than any other OS including Linux. There are however enough high quality server products for Linux, as long as you remain open to different brand and implementation choices, to meet all but the most specialized requirements. If your requirements are sufficiently specialized, none of the systems under discussion, Windows servers, Linux or OpenBSD may meet your needs. It's possible only a high end UNIX solution will do the job. Generally, however, applications are much easier to move from the commercial UNIX variants to Linux and OpenBSD than to Windows.

There is enough diversity in both the Windows and Linux families that specific products may not run across the entire family. In other words a product that runs on 98 may not run on 2000 or one that runs on Red Hat may not run on Debian. Also with any OS, a product that runs on a specific version of any OS may not run on a different version and that this may work in either direction. Newer systems tend to support more products but not necessarily all old products. Generally any open source application that does not have ready made binaries on a specific Linux distribution, can with little difficult be built, and then run on that distribution. Commercial (proprietary) applications are more likely to be distribution dependent.

OpenBSD Security Applications and Compatibility Modes

So far I've said little about OpenBSD. Generally there are a lot less third party products, both desktop and server, for OpenBSD than either Windows or Linux. On the other hand, out of the box, it includes all of the traditional UNIX servers (daemons or background jobs). If you are willing and able to deal with the issues administering text versions of products like Sendmail (SMTP) and Bind (DNS) servers, then it includes all the common servers and all are up to commercial standards. If you need specialized products there is a good chance that you won't find them for OpenBSD.

OpenBSD includes compatibility modes with several other OSs that run on Intel compatible hardware including Linux, Solaris and FreeBSD. There is a good chance that binary executables for the Intel versions of these other operating systems can be made to run properly on an OpenBSD system. Set up of such products may be a significant technical challenge. The point of this is not to suggest that you can run a lot of Linux products on OpenBSD. If you want to run mostly Linux products, you should be using Linux. Instead, if your server needs are relatively straightforward and OpenBSD comes close to meeting them, then the compatibility mode may be a viable option to fill a specific gap while staying with OpenBSD and not introducing a new OS into your environment.

Just because OpenBSD has less applications (software servers) available than Linux or Windows does not mean it may not be a suitable as a standard server OS or as the server OS of choice for specific functions. If an environment does not have need of very diverse server applications, OpenBDS's superior security and other characteristics discussed below and later might make it suitable as a standard server OS.

Many open source applications have never been run on OpenBSD. Generally any open source application that does not rely on OS specific features, which are few in all the open source systems as all are modeled on UNIX, can be built and run on OpenBSD.

OpenBSD's strength is its security that includes not only its high quality code base, secure by default stance but also the inclusion of strong encryption products and a superior IPSEC implementation. It's firewall, IP Filter has also had an excellent reputation but recent license issues have caused it to be replaced by a product called Packet Filter or simply PF. This is functionally identical to IP Filter. Given OpenBSD's traditional concern with quality and that PF will apparently be maintained as part of the OpenBSD audited core, there is no reason to expect any decrease in quality.

Some argue that OpenBSD, as it's distributed, can be used to build VPN solutions as good as any commercial offerings. Given the costs of commercial firewalls and VPNs and the fact that even commercial offerings cannot be used securely unless staff have a good understanding of the products, OpenBSD may be the best perimeter technology for some companies, even if another OS is used as a server standard on the inside. The more points of contact with the Internet, the greater the opportunities for savings, at least up to the point that the lack of built in, centralized management features becomes a significant issue.

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