If you were to design your dream enterprise server OS from scratch, what would it be like?
Without knowing exactly what it would be used for it's hard to get too specific, but in general terms you'd probably want an OS with the following attributes, in no particular order:1. Free (as in beer): Why pay for it if you don't have to?
2. Open source: Why not choose to have access to the source code? You may wish to adapt it, or inspect it -- but even if you don't, others probably will. What's more, you can benefit from their work.
3. Runs on a wide range of hardware: The wider the choice of hardware you can use, the better. That way you can configure a system that exactly meets your needs, taking advantage of any components you want.
4. Runs as wide a range of software as possible: It doesn't make sense to have it any other way.
5. Secure: No one wants to run a system that makes it easy for hackers.
So how do the enterprise OSes that are currently available match up to this shopping list of ideals?
What's pretty clear is that Linux scores very highly: It may not quite be the perfect OS -- but it's certainly close. It fits the bill as far as points 2 thru 5 are concerned, but it stumbles on point 1. That's because many organizations end up paying for maintenance and support. Thus, although it's technically free, there is certainly a total cost of ownership. Still, four and a half out of five ain't bad.
After Linux, proprietary UNIX probably comes in second and Windows third, thanks to an embarrassingly poor security record. The relative positions of the two are fairly subjective, but they certainly score less than Linux because in both cases the source code is closed.
What's startlingly clear from this little exercise though is how dismally Apple's operating systems match up to this list of ideals. Quite simply, OS X Server doesn't tick any of these boxes at all. If Linux is the closest thing to a dream OS, then OS X is without doubt an OS nightmare. Think, being chased by monsters, your teeth falling out and finding yourself naked in public all rolled into one.
Let's take a closer look at Apple's OS X Server:
Free? Absolutely not. If you're an OS X user and you want the latest release, you'll be expected to line Apple's pockets for the privilege.
Open source? Forget it. With Apple you get what you're given, and if the OS doesn't do what you want, then you'll just have to hope the next version will. Inspect and modify Apple's code? You're having a laugh.
What about running OS X Server on a wide range of hardware? Now, this is where Apple really starts to fall down. Its hardware range is so limited it beggars belief in this day and age. If you decide to try to run OS X on any other hardware that better meets your needs, then you'd better get a lawyer because Apple will sue you. Humiliatingly for OS X users, Apple forces them to modify their needs to suit the narrow range of boxes on which it allows its OS to run.
Software? The Apple mentality -- as the AppStore demonstrates quite clearly -- is to restrict, control and sometimes reduce software choice because doing so benefits the company. The customer's needs? Irrelevant. As yet, Apple's erratic and unpredictable behavior in the mobile computing market hasn't moved over to the server or the desktop, but OS X users should be looking on aghast.
Security? So far, Apple has gotten off lightly, as few hackers have bothered attacking its operating systems. But some that have tried have found it pretty easy to exploit, and Apple often takes months to fix vulnerabilities once they are known.
When you put it like that, it's not surprising that the growth of Linux in the server room is as strong as it is, or why the number of enterprises running OS X Server is negligible. After all, which would you prefer given the choice -- a Linux dream or an Apple nightmare?
Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.