One of the first decisions you need to make if you set up your own web server is “which operating system do you want to run?” The answer is dependent upon a number of variables, possibly the most important of which is “which one do you and your staff know?”

Nothing can start a “religious war” faster than the discussion of the merits of Windows NT verses Unix (or, more generally, any operating system verses another). You want to start a flame war, just drop into the alt.www.webmaster newsgroup and post something saying Windows NT is better than Unix. Add an insulting remark and watch out for what hits the fan.

Windows NT offers many features, and starting with Version 4.0 Service Pack III is has become very stable. The development suite of tools in Visual Studio 6.0 is excellent, and ASP pages are extremely powerful. You can use a number of languages such as Visual Basic, Visual C++ or Visual J, and IIS 4.0 is one of the better web servers available.

Many webmasters complain that Windows NT is not reliable. However, my experience is that if you give Windows NT sufficient resources and keep up-to-date on the patches and service packs, it is extraordinarily stable. Another common misconception is that Windows NT web servers are inherently easy to hack. This is only true if you ignore the checklist on setting up a secure server.

On the other hand, many webmasters prefer Unix. Here’s one person’s comments from a newsgroup post.

Windows NT, on the other hand, is very pretty, but stinks. Even simple tasks are made indecipherably complicated. Things that I can do in seconds on Unix, like set up directory passwords via .htaccess or set permissions via CHMOD, are an exercise in frustration with NT. However, NT looks really nice, with lots of nice push buttons, pretty colors and online “help” files.

Unix offers open source (Windows NT is very closed), PHP, Perl, MySQL and other tools. Unix is also an older operating system, more mature than Windows NT. One webmaster’s opinion is “Unix is not pretty but it’s very stable and once you get the hang of it, very powerful.”

Linux offers many of the same features as straight Unix but is more broadly supported and perhaps more reliable.

One of the primary disadvantages (in my humble opinion) of Unix is that there are so many variants. The open source means there are literally hundreds of flavors, each different than the other, yet all basically the same. There are advantages to open source (it tends to be cheaper and it fosters change), but to my way of thinking I like the solid control that Microsoft has placed on Windows NT.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending Windows NT over Unix or Linux. In fact, each operating system has it’s strengths and weaknesses, and generally any major one will work well if you read the instructions and follow the directions. My advice is to read up on the literature, ignore the hype and hyperbole, and make a rational decision based upon your needs and knowledge.