Innovations like cloud computing and containers make it easier for MSPs who specialize in one type of operating system to work with others.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

January 24, 2018

4 Min Read
Software Engineers Working on an Office Project Together

Once upon a time, most MSPs specialized in one type of operating system, usually Windows or Linux. That has changed. New technologies and trends make it much easier for an MSP to work competently with multiple operating system platforms today.

Until about five years ago, specializing in one type of operating system made sense.

From an architectural as well as a business perspective, Windows is a very different beast from Linux. That’s why most MSPs specialized in one or the other.

Even for MSPs who knew Linux well, branching out into other operating systems that are similar to Linux in a technical sense, such as BSD systems and macOS, wasn’t always feasible.

The underlying design philosophies of these systems are more or less the same, but the tools you use to manage them are often very different—and tools matter much more to a successful MSP business than architectural philosophies.

Why the Operating System No Longer Matters for MSPs

Today, you don’t necessarily need to have years of experience with a particular operating system in order to manage software that runs on that operating system. This is true thanks to several new trends.

Windows-Linux Convergence

Windows and Linux remain very different types of systems. However, they have converged in interesting ways in recent years.

Microsoft has made some of its flagship products, such as SQL Server, compatible with Linux.

Redmond also now supports what it calls the Windows Subsystem for Linux, which lets you install and run all of your favorite command-line Linux tools on a Windows system.

What this means is that, to a certain extent, you can now work effectively in a Windows environment even if you come from a Linux background, and vice versa.

Cloud Computing

One of the many innovations that result from the cloud computing revolution is the ability to spin up a virtual server in a few seconds and have it run virtually any type of operating system.

You don’t need to know much about Windows to launch a Windows-based EC2 instance. Nor do you need to be a Linux guru to create a cloud-based server running Ubuntu, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, CentOS or whichever type of Linux distribution you like.

In other words, the processes of installing and configuring operating systems, which used to take a long time and vary considerably depending on which system you were dealing with, have been transformed into extremely easy affairs by the cloud.

Containers

Containers make it easy to deploy software without having to worry much about the underlying operating system.

In a containerized application, virtually all of the configuration variables that matter to the application are set within the container. (Settings related to persistent storage are the only major exception.) As long as the host operating system has a container framework (like Docker) installed, you can launch the container on it.

There are some limitations on the ability of containers to cross the operating system divide. Containers run only on Linux and certain versions of Windows. Using containers requires learning a new stack of tools.

Still, containers eliminate much of the operating system-specific knowledge that has traditionally been a requirement for deploying and managing software.

Cross-Platform Applications

In the past, it was common for an application to run only on one type of operating system. Developers might choose to support only one system because it made their work easier, it helped their companies achieve a competitive advantage or it kept their partners happy.

Today, the winds have shifted. The clear trend is toward cross-platform applications.

All of the top 10 programming languages on the TIOBE Index are cross-platform, including .NET, which used to be Windows-only but now runs on Linux.

An application written in a cross-platform language won’t necessarily work on a different operating system from the one it was designed for. Some changes may be required.

In general, however, a cross-platform programming framework makes it easy to move an application from one operating system to another.

This means that if your clients’ applications currently run on Windows but you want to move them to Linux (or vice versa), you can probably do that.

Conclusion

The operating system still matters for MSPs, but not as much as it used to. If you’ve thought of yourself as a Windows-only or Linux-only shop in the past, it may be time to branch out.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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