Editors Note: This story is Part 1 in a series of three stories about Microsofts Linux and open-source lab.
Microsoft Corp.s Linux and open-source lab on the Redmond, Wash., campus has been running some interesting tests of late, one of which looked at how well the latest Windows client software runs on legacy hardware in comparison to its Linux competitors.
This may seem strange, given Microsofts desire to upgrade every possible customer to the latest version of Windows, often resulting in a forced hardware upgrade as well. That strategy, however, is far more effective in the developed world than among developing nations, Bill Hilf, who is director of Platform Technology Strategy at Microsoft and runs the lab, told eWEEK in a recent interview.
The tests, which found that Windows performed as well as Linux on legacy hardware when installed and run out-of-the-box, were done in part to give Microsoft the data it needed to effectively “put to rest the myth that Linux can run on anything.”
“It also shows us what applications can run on those machines and software, helping us better identify the needs and challenges of the public sector in those countries,” Hilf said.
There was this pervasive belief that Linux could run on older PCs and that Windows could not, he said, adding that Microsoft thus decided to test this premise by installing Red Hat Enterprise Linux, SUSE Pro 9.2, Mandrake 10, Linspire 4.5, Xandros Desktop 3.0, Fedora Core 3, Slackware 10.1, Knoppix 3.7, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 out of the box on older hardware to see what happened.
“Quite simply, I wanted to examine this factually, using real customer scenarios to test this hypothesis: Can Linux run on older hardware than Windows? In many developing countries and public institutions, such as a local library, they typically dont have deep technical staff, so they need to use software without lots of modification and customization. This is why our testing focused on installing modern distributions of Linux and modern versions of Windows out of the box—simply putting the CD-ROM in and installing—on the legacy PC hardware in our lab,” Hilf said.
Asked why he believed there is such a pervasive belief that Linux can run on older hardware, Hilf said the technical capability to modify Linux, to strip it down to run with a minimal set of services and software so that it can run on all sorts of hardware devices, has generated that larger assumption that any type of Linux distribution can run on all sorts of hardware devices.
Users Modify the OS
“But the average customer is not a technical expert or a Linux developer, so they do not have the skill, or more importantly, the business need, to modify the operating system this way. You could argue that this is why Red Hat and Novell SUSE exist—to provide preconfigured and tested stacks of open-source software so their customers dont need to modify their systems at that level. Thats the value proposition of these companies,” he said.
“There has always been and there will always be a class of technical user that wants to do this level of modification to the operating system—and its worth noting that, with the right amount of configuration, Windows CE can also run in much the same way on all sorts of small and old devices,” Hilf said.
But Charlie Ungashick, the director of product marketing of Linux and open source at Novell, disagreed, saying that customers did not move to Linux not because of its performance against Windows on hardware.
“Its about a more adaptable support model, the flexibility you get from choosing your own distribution, and being able to customize the technology based on your needs—not just the ones Microsoft provides for. A benchmark which compares a standard installation of an operating system on bare hardware is not reflective of how servers and desktops are used in real-world IT,” he said.
Its a fact that in most environments, IT will customize any operating system—desktop or server—for deployment in order to maximize the value of that operating system on the hardware they have, he said.
In the tests run in its lab, Microsoft found that most modern commercial Linux distributions could be installed successfully on systems with a Pentium processor, with 64MB of RAM and a minimum of 2GB of hard disk space.
“Memory prevented the successful installation on a typical 1997 system, as 32MB of memory is not enough to install most Linux distributions or to run desktop applications with acceptable performance. A memory upgrade could prolong the life of such hardware, but the cost and effort of locating old memory and installing it onto all corporate clients significantly reduces the potential savings,” Hilf said.
Minimum requirements for office productivity performance on a Linux system were any Pentium II (PII) system with at least 64MB of RAM, he said, adding that playback of sound and video would typically require a PII 400 or better.
“This corresponds to an average PC issued between 1998 and 1999,” Hilf said.
If Linux was installed on an older system, such as an average PC of 1997, then the desktop performance falls below what is typically acceptable for a common user, he said.
These results were necessary because one of the most frequently asked questions Microsoft gets from customers, particularly in the emerging market and public sectors, is what hardware they need to run operating systems.
“As a part of this conversation, one of the misperceptions we run into is that Linux can be easily configured to run on older hardware,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is that if you look at popular desktop Linux distributions from Red Hat or Novells SUSE, they match or exceed the system requirements of Windows XP. For example, Novell Linux Desktop 9 requires a minimum of 128MB physical RAM, which is identical to the requirements of Windows XP. If you compare OpenOffice 2.0 to the system requirements of Microsoft Office and again they are identical,” he said.
As such, Hilf said he was not surprised that the minimum requirement for installing and using Windows XP out of the box was much the same for any other out-of-the-box modern commercial Linux distribution.
“Windows XP Pro compares well to any of the current commercial Linux desktop systems and outperforms their competitors on hardware compatibility, desktop and multimedia performance,” he said.
While Novells Ungashick agreed that, as a comparison of “out of the box” functionality and resource requirements of modern operating systems, what Microsoft claimed may well be true, he noted that on the desktop, Linux is far more modular and customizable than Windows, allowing it to run on a broader spectrum of hardware.
The Novell Linux Desktop can easily be customized and deployed as a thin client, operating on older hardware with much greater efficiency, he said.
Since the actual computing happens on the server, this drives down client-side resource requirements, giving IT a completely standardized desktop image that could be centrally managed: one impervious to Windows viruses, he said.
“With Microsoft, you would need to buy additional flavors of Windows XP and server-based terminal services software to do this. The incremental license fees and migration drive up overall costs compared to Linux. Also, Linux includes OpenOffice.org, which drives down the costs for businesses who want basic office functionality for desktop users,” Ungashick said.
Linux is also easier to customize for server workloads like file servers and Apache Web servers, while with Windows, there “are hundreds of dependencies which drive up the amount of software needed to run a bare server: You need Internet Information Server, .Net framework, Windows Explorer and so on. This drives up resource requirements. Unlike Windows, Linux can be easily configured to meet the specific need of the workload at hand,” Ungashick said.
With all the recent hype about low-cost PCs, such as the $100 PC and the much-speculated-about Google PC, a question that begs to be asked is whether this changes the scenario for people in developing nations or people in the developed world.
Also, more importantly, would the applications and software those users need be available and run on these machines? And would they not cost more than the hardware itself and thus blow the benefits of cheaper hardware out of the water?
Asked about this, Hilf would only say that “this is precisely the challenge Microsoft is working with the industry to address.”