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Is Linux A More Secure Option Than Windows For Businesses?
There are many factors to consider when choosing an OS, security being among one of the most critical. The general consensus among experts is that Linux is the most secure OS by design - an impressive feat that can be attributed to a variety of characteristics including its transparent open-source code, strict user privilege model, diversity, built-in kernel security defenses and the security of the applications that run on it.
The high level of security, customization, compatibility and cost-efficiency that Linux offers make it a popular choice among businesses and organizations looking to secure high-value data. Linux has already been adopted by governments and tech giants around the world including IBM, Google and Amazon, and currently powers 97% of the top one million domains in the world. All of today’s most popular programming languages were first developed on Linux and can now run on any OS. In this sense, we’re all using Linux - whether we know it or not!
This article will examine why Linux is arguably the best choice for businesses looking for a flexible, cost-efficient, exceptionally secure OS. To help you weigh your options, we’ll explore how Linux compares to Windows in the level of privacy and protection against vulnerabilities and attacks it is able to offer all businesses and organizations.
The Open-Source Advantage
Because Linux is an open-source OS, the level of security it offers is greatly enhanced by the involvement and support that the open-source community provides. Linux source code undergoes ongoing, thorough review by passionate user-developers worldwide who are deeply invested in their work both for their own benefit and for the benefit of the community. As a result of this scrutiny, Linux security vulnerabilities are generally identified and eliminated very rapidly - often before attackers have had the chance to exploit them. As of August 2020, Linux has over 20,000 contributors and one million commits. Google and The Linux Foundation recently announced that they are funding a pair of top Linux kernel developers to focus on security, demonstrating that even some of the biggest, most influential members of the open-source communities are highly committed to Linux security.
Superior Security through Strict User Privileges
Linux greatly restricts root access through a strict user privilege model. In this model, the superuser owns all the privileges, and ordinary users are only granted sufficient permissions to accomplish common tasks. Because Linux users have low automatic access rights and require additional permissions to open attachments, access files, or adjust kernel options, it is more difficult to spread malware and rootkits on a Linux system than on a system running another OS.
Although it is possible to implement least-privilege administration models on Windows systems, organizations rarely take this precaution and, in reality, “everyone is an admin” on most Windows systems. As a result, malware and viruses spread far more easily on systems running Windows than on systems running Linux.
Security through Diversity
There is a wide selection of distributions (distros) available to Linux users, which feature different system architectures and components. The high level of diversity possible within Linux environments as a result not only helps satisfy users’ varying needs - it also makes Linux a less attractive target among attackers, as the diversity present in Linux environments makes it difficult to efficiently craft exploits that can be used against a wide range of Linux systems.
Although Linux is regarded as a highly secure OS, various specialized secure Linux distros exist for individuals with advanced security and privacy concerns such as pentesters, reverse engineers and security researchers. These distros place an intense focus on protecting the user’s privacy and anonymity online.
Linux Kernel Security
The Linux kernel offers some excellent built-in security defenses including the UEFI Secure Boot firmware verification mechanism, the Linux Kernel Lockdown configuration option and the SELinux or AppArmor Mandatory Access Control (MAC) security enhancement systems. By practicing Linux kernel self-protection through enabling these features and configuring them to provide the highest level of security, administrators can add a valuable layer of security to their systems.
There are far more configuration options on Linux than on Windows, many of which can be used to enhance security. For instance, Linux Kernel Lockdown is a configuration option that prevents the root account from modifying the kernel code by strengthening the divide between userland processes and kernel code. In the event that a root account is compromised, having Lockdown mode enabled will make it far more difficult for an attacker to compromise the rest of the OS. Lockdown has two modes: integrity mode and confidentiality mode. Enabling Lockdown in integrity mode will block kernel features that allow user-space to modify the running kernel, while enabling lockdown in confidentiality mode will block user-space from extracting sensitive information from the running kernel. It is generally advised to use integrity mode, and to only use confidentiality mode for special systems that contain sensitive information that even root shouldn't be permitted to see. Using confidentiality mode blocks access to all kernel memory, preventing administrators from being able to inspect and probe the kernel for troubleshooting, development and testing purposes.
SELinux and AppArmor are two security enhancement systems that can be used to lock down Linux systems with Mandatory Access Control (MAC) security policies, offering administrators granular control over the security of their systems and protecting against server misconfigurations, software vulnerabilities and zero-day exploits that could potentially compromise an entire system. Smack (Simplified Mandatory Access Control Kernel) provides another means of implementing MAC policies on Linux. This simple Linux kernel security module protects data and process interaction from malicious manipulation using a set of custom mandatory access control rules.
Although there are fewer MAC options on Windows, the OS does offer Mandatory Integrity Control (MIC) as a mechanism for controlling access to securable objects in addition to discretionary access control. MIC uses integrity levels and mandatory policy to evaluate access against an object’s discretionary access control list (DACL).
Secure, Cost-Efficient Hosting
Linux hosting has gained immense popularity among resellers due the high level of security, cost-efficiency, compatibility and customization that the OS offers. Linux is free, and web-hosting service providers do not bear any subscription charges or per-user license fees as they would with Windows - a benefit that carries over to the consumer. Linux supports the majority of key programming languages used worldwide including Python, MySQL, PHP, Ruby and Perl, and Linux based hosting is ideal for dynamic websites that experience heavy data traffic such as online shopping, ticketing or healthcare provider websites. Linux hosting also delivers a user-friendly tool absent in Windows hosts called cPanel, which assists in website management and maintenance. These benefits have created great demand for Linux reseller hosting.
How Does Windows Security Compare?
Due to its immense user base, its “hidden” source code and the homogeneous monoculture of the OS, Windows is a far more attractive target among attackers. Although Linux malware attacks have become more frequent in recent years, Linux is still a relatively small target, with 96% of new malware targeting Windows in 2022.
Microsoft has traditionally employed a method known as “security through obscurity” in an attempt to secure Windows source code. In this approach, source code is hidden from outsiders in an attempt to conceal vulnerabilities from malicious actors. While this may initially sound like a good idea, in reality security through obscurity negatively impacts security by preventing outsiders from reviewing source code and reporting flaws before they are discovered and exploited by cyber criminals. When it comes to finding security bugs, the team of Microsoft developers responsible for reviewing Windows source code is certainly no match for the “many eyes” of the global open-source community backing Linux.
That’s not to say that Microsoft doesn’t recognize the inherent benefits of Linux and the open-source development model it is based upon. With services such as Windows Subsystem for Linux v2 (WSL2) and Azure Sphere, Microsoft too is a Linux distributor. Linux developers have acknowledged the tech giant’s growing commitment to Linux security, and have admitted Microsoft’s Linux developers to the closed linux-distro list.
Final Thoughts on Linux vs. Windows for Businesses
Choosing Linux over Windows equips businesses with a secure foundation on which to build their digital security strategy. Linux has security built into its design, and its relatively small user base makes it a comparatively small attack target.
While your OS is the most critical software running on your computer and selecting a secure OS is a great start in improving your business’s cybersecurity posture, it is crucial to keep in mind that your OS alone is not enough to safeguard your users, your data and your reputation. Security is all about defense in depth, and the security of your networks and your servers is greatly impacted by server administration, employee behavior and the environment in which your servers are run. Linux servers must be properly configured, monitored, and maintained and run in a secure environment in order to be truly secure. Safe online behavior and the implementation of general security best practices is also extremely important.
It is also critical to bear in mind that security is all about tradeoffs - both between security and usability and between security and user-friendliness. Administrators should configure their systems to be as secure as is practical within their environment. In regard to convenience, Linux has a bit of a learning curve compared to Windows, but also offers significant security advantages.
The bottom line: Are you looking to improve your business’s digital security? If so, choosing Linux is an excellent start.