A Comparison of Linux and Windows for Networking

By Doug Lowe

If your only networking experience is with Windows, you’re in for a steep learning curve when you first get into Linux. There are many fundamental differences between the Linux operating system and Windows. Here are some of the more important differences:

Linux is a multiuser operating system. More than one user can log on and use a Linux computer at the same time:

  • Two or more users can log on to a Linux computer from the same keyboard and monitor by using virtual consoles, which let you switch from one user session to another with a special key combination.
  • Users can log on to the Linux computer from a terminal window running on another computer on the network.

Most versions of Windows are single-user systems. Only one user at a time can log on to a Windows computer and run commands. (Windows Server can be configured as a multiuser system with terminal services.)

Linux doesn’t have a built-in graphical user interface (GUI) as Windows does. The GUI in Linux is provided by an optional component called X Window System. You can run Linux without X Window, in which case you interact with Linux by typing commands. If you prefer to use a GUI, you must install and run X Window.

X Window is split into two parts:

  • A server component — X Server — manages multiple windows and provides graphics services for application programs.
  • A UI component — a window manager — provides user interface (UI) features, such as menus, buttons, toolbars, and a taskbar.

Several window managers are available, each with a different look and feel. With Windows, you’re stuck with the UI that Microsoft designed. With Linux, you can use the UI of your choosing.

Linux can’t run Windows programs. Nope, you can’t run Microsoft Office on a Linux system; instead, you must find a similar program that’s written specifically for Linux. Many Linux distributions come with the OpenOffice suite, which provides word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, graphics, database, email, calendar, and scheduling software. Thousands of other programs are available for Linux.

Windows emulator programs — the best-known is Wine — can run some Windows programs on Linux. However, the emulators run only some Windows programs, and they run them slower than they would run on a Windows system.

Linux doesn’t do Plug and Play the way Windows does. Major Linux distributions come with configuration programs that can automatically detect and configure the most common hardware components, but Linux doesn’t have built-in support for Plug-and-Play hardware devices. You’re more likely to run into a hardware-configuration problem with Linux than with Windows.

Linux uses a different system for accessing disk drives and files than Windows does.

Linux runs better on older hardware than the current incarnations of Windows do. Linux is an ideal OS for an older Pentium computer with at least 32MB of RAM and 2GB of hard drive space.

If you’re fond of antiques, Linux can run well on even a 486 computer with as little as 4MB of RAM and a few hundred MB of disk space.