Which operating system (OS) is best for DevOps engineers to use on their workstations?
That’s a weighty question. Talk about which OS is “best” for any purpose is always controversial.
I’m not going to stick my neck out by saying that one OS is definitively better than others when it comes to doing DevOps work. But I would like to consider the strengths and weaknesses of each of the major desktop operating systems—Windows, Linux and macOS—for performing DevOps work.
Statistically speaking, Windows is the OS that most people use. By extension, it’s the OS that most DevOps engineers probably use. (I can’t confirm that fact, because I’ve yet to see a study of which OS DevOps engineers actually use.)
As I see it, Windows has two main advantages from a DevOps perspective, including:
- Popularity. This is a strength because DevOps is all about having freedom to pick and choose which tools to use. Given that Windows is so popular, almost everything is compatible with it. OS compatibility problems, therefore, don’t get in your way of doing DevOps as you see fit.
- The Windows subsystem for Linux, which lets you run some Linux CLI tools on Windows. This feature is handy if you need to do DevOps work for both Linux and Windows server environments.
The main drawback of relying on Windows is that, well, it’s Windows. Compared to Linux, Windows offers very little opportunity to customize, and that restraint can be a drawback from a DevOps perspective. When it comes to core tasks, such as working from the command line, you’re stuck with the tools Microsoft offers you. And you can’t do very much to harden your Windows system for security purposes.
For my money, Linux is the best OS for DevOps. But I say that only because I’m a die-hard Linux lover and I tend to think Linux is the best for everything.
But even if you are not a Linux fanboi, you have to admit that it has certain advantages for doing DevOps work:
- Linux is ultra-customizable. You can choose to set up your system in whichever way works best for your workflow. You can use a wide array of tools. You can make lots of changes to add extra security. Given that DevOps values choice, this is a big benefit.
- In many cases, DevOps engineers are supporting software delivery pipelines that deploy to Linux server environments. Being able to work from a native Linux environment can make it easier to do things such as test and stage those applications on your local device when it becomes necessary to do so. You could, for example, spin up a Linux container on your local machine, which you couldn’t do with a Windows or macOS workstation.
- On most mainstream Linux distributions, installing all of the DevOps tools you need is extremely fast and simple using repositories and package managers. It’s not exactly difficult to install most DevOps tools on other systems, either, but I don’t think any OS can beat the package management systems used by Linux distributions.
Linux’s major limitation is that learning it takes some time, particularly for DevOps engineers weaned on Windows. You also run the risk of needing a tool that doesn’t support Linux, although I’m having a difficult time thinking of any DevOps tools that doesn’t work on Linux systems.
Last but not least is macOS. Overall, I don’t think macOS is ideal for doing DevOps work. The only strength I can think of is:
- It gives you a native Unix-like environment. You can’t run your Linux containers directly on a Mac, but you can at least use some native Unix tools.
Drawbacks for macOS are many. It’s not very customizable. It lacks compatibility with some applications and tools. It comes with its own learning curve if you have never used a Mac before.
Does OS Choice Even Matter?
Now that I’ve weighed the pros and cons of Windows, Linux and macOS as operating systems for DevOps engineers, let me state the obvious: It’s 2019, and in many respects it no longer really matters which OS you run on your local machine. Lots of applications—including key DevOps tools, such as IDEs—now run in the cloud as often as not. Plus, there are a plethora of hardware virtualization tools out there that will let you run virtually any OS in a virtual machine within another type of OS. You can run Linux and Windows side-by-side as virtual machines on your Mac, if you want.
Still, not everything runs in the cloud, and having to switch between virtual machines is not always practical. It’s therefore worth thinking hard about which desktop OS will best serve your DevOps needs and making that the one that controls your bare metal.