Rumors of Windows server platform “failure” slightly exaggerated

This article which made it to Slashdot recently and the linked postback from CNN/Money could use an application or two of Occam’s Razor. It stipulates that the MSFT bid for Yahoo is prompted by an internal recognition that the Windows server platform has failed. The company having seen the light, according to this commentator, is going after systems built on the Linux/Apache platform instead.

“Microsoft runs on the Windows platform and it has proved inadequate to run big Internet companies. There is not one big Internet company – and I mean “BIG” like Google Inc. (GOOG), Yahoo, Inc. (AMZN), eBay Inc. (EBAY) and such – that runs on Windows besides Microsoft. Its software platform has been a disaster supporting its search engine, email and other free services.”

It only takes a second to recognize this as uninformed drivel: Hotmail/Windows Live Mail is the world’s largest email service period. Passport/Windows Live ID is the largest online authentication system. When it comes to instant messaging, MSN/Live Messenger is not to far behind Yahoo and AIM– never mind the branding confusion between MSN verses Live. All of them run on W2K3, IIS , SQL Server and the accompanying much criticized baggage. It’s not a recent phenomenon either: in the late 90s MSR built TerraServer— long before viewing satellite imagery was an everyday activity– to showcase the scalability of a massive data warehouse running on Windows.

Yet the quote above does raise an interesting question about why more large scale web services are not built on top of Windows. The obvious reason is easy to shoot-down: the difference between shelling out $$$ for W2K3/W2K8 or getting Linux for free. It’s true that a single license for server can run into the hundreds of dollars depending on the particular SKU and thousands of dollars for the more esoteric 64-bit variants. This is why hobbyist sites, non-profits and small-businesses (as well as the virtual hosting companies catering to them) are more likely to prefer open-source software, because of the extreme price sensitivity in the market segment. Assuming that the distribution of internet facing websites has a very large tail fitting that category, this would explain why Netcraft surveys continue to show Apache leading IIS 50% to 35%, in spite of huge jumps in April ’06 and September ’07 that narrowed the gap from previous 3x difference.

But in the enterprise context, the gating factor becomes recurring costs for running a data-center: all of that IT staff, leasing the space and power used adds up. The upfront purchase price of hardware and software is dwarfed by operational costs– and that’s one reason why Windows server platform continues to make inroads into this segment, joining Linux in slowly chipping away at the market share of the more expensive UN*X variants that once dominated the server business. Nowadays it is not rare to see entire IT infrastructures of companies run on Windows and developed using .NET programming models.

What about large scale Internet services? This is the mystery: the existence of very large-scale (in at least two cases cited above, the largest period) services running on Win32 and Win64 proves it can be very competitive. In that case the nagging question remains, why are there are so few examples outside Microsoft?


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