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They of course use firewalls and antivirus tools. They probably spend a lot of time monitoring their networks, looking for telltale anomalies that could indicate a breach. But how many have given much thought to one of the cornerstones of their digital operations: Was security even a factor when the desktop OS was selected? This raises a question that every IT person should be able to answer: Which operating system is the most secure for general deployment?
We asked some experts what they think of the security of these three choices: One reason enterprises might not have evaluated the security of the OS they deployed to the workforce is that they made the choice years ago. Go back far enough and all operating systems were reasonably safe, because the business of hacking into them and stealing data or installing malware was in its infancy. Few IT organizations would want the headache of moving a globally dispersed workforce to an entirely new OS. Heck, they get enough pushback when they move users to a new version of their OS of choice.
Still, would it be wise to reconsider? Are the three leading desktop OSes different enough in their approach to security to make a change worthwhile? Certainly the threats confronting enterprise systems have changed in the last few years.
Attacks have become far more sophisticated. The lone teen hacker that once dominated the public imagination has been supplanted by well-organized networks of criminals and shadowy, government-funded organizations with vast computing resources. Like many of you, I have firsthand experience of the threats that are out there: I have been infected by malware and viruses on numerous Windows computers, and I even had macro viruses that infected files on my Mac.
More recently, a widespread automated hack circumvented the security on my website and infected it with malware. For one thing, a breach these days is more likely to come about because an attacker probed your users, not your systems. And no matter which platform you choose, one of the best ways to keep your system secure is to ensure that you apply software updates promptly. Once a patch is in the wild, after all, the hackers can reverse engineer it and find a new exploit they can use in their next wave of attacks.
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Teach your users how to pick really good passwords and arm them with tools such as 1Password that make it easier for them to have different passwords on every account and website they use. Because the bottom line is that every decision you make regarding your systems will affect your security, even the operating system your users do their work on.
Would we be more secure if we moved away from Microsoft Windows? To say that Windows dominates the enterprise market is to understate the case. But the popularity of Windows is a problem in itself. The security of an operating system can depend to a large degree on the size of its installed base. Plus, newer cloud technologies, such as serverless computing, make the operating system disappear entirely, at least from the user's perspective.
Is OS X more secure than Windows?
Indeed, today, having expertise in one type of cloud platform--such as AWS, Azure or Rackspace--is arguably more important than being an expert in a specific type of operating system. The operating system story is somewhat more complicated with Docker containers. Originally, Docker ran only on Linux. That was one key distinction between Docker containers and traditional virtualization. In addition, Docker now works natively on certain versions of Windows.
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By and large, then, specialization in one type of operating system is much less important today than it was a decade ago. Understanding how to manage popular cloud platforms and virtualization tools is more useful for IT pros than knowing how to compile a Linux kernel from source or resurrect an ailing NTFS file system.
That said, there are still reasons why you might want to invest in gaining expertise in certain operating systems. If you are a mobile app developer, or you administer mobile software, you'll find that the divide between iOS and Android remains stark. These operating systems are designed quite differently, their management tools are quite dissimilar, and the programming languages used on each system are different in most cases.
Operating system differences still matter on desktops, too. Mac acolytes might be loathe to admit it, but the fact is that Windows continues to dominate workstations in most businesses. If your job involves administering workstations, you'll probably need to learn a lot more about Windows in particular than you would if you handle servers or cloud-based applications. Many security breaches remain OS-specific.
Understanding the nuances of various operating systems--how they handle security updates, which tools are available to help mitigate the risk of buffer overflow attacks, how you can lock down access control for users and file systems, and so on--is still essential if your job is to help defend against cyberattacks. For most of us, becoming gurus in one type of operating system or another is no longer as important as it once was. But it still matters a lot in certain lines of IT work. If you want to pursue specific types of positions, taking the time to teach yourself the ins and outs of particular operating systems might be essential.
While organizations used to have to make a Windows vs. Linux vs. Mac vs.
Windows vs Mac OS X vs Linux: Which is the most secured operating system?
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