One of the many advantages of GNU/Linux systems, and probably *NIX in general, is that they can run on older and lesser hardware than the children of Microsoft can, i.e. has lower "system requirements". A similar sentiment about Linux is expressed in this question.

It seems reasonable to think that power cosumption and even wear of the hardware is lower in *NIX compared to Windows. Is this true or at least plausible? I'm also interested what other effects there may be. In fact, I found one article that says Linux servers on average run twice longer (~6-8yrs) that Windows ones (~3yrs).

Or, if this is a more viable/correct question: Is some software more sustainable than other for the same task?


An interesting question you pose.

I'm writing my answer via a computer that is 7 years old and has been using GNU/Linux for 3 or 4 years. The battery or battery charger no longer works, but everything else does, and everything else is original.

When I got this computer, new, it run Windows NT. After about 3 years it was virtually unusable due to the Microsoft ladened crud that it had acquired over time that was slowing it down and causing it to crash. I've never had a similar issue after I replaced Windows NT with the Ubuntu distribution of GNU/Linux.

Three or four years ago I seriously considered replacing this computer with a new one because of the issues I was having. Replacing Windows with GNU/Linux not only saved me money but also reduced my environmental impact on the planet.

For some people this is not an option due to the reasons they use computers and the software they use. There are a lots of applications written for Windows that cannot be used on GNU/Linux because they are either proprietary or they haven't been converted. If you use computers to play games check what is available on GNU/Linux, it's limited compared in Windows.

For other types of applications: media players, office suites, photo editors there are applications in GNU/Linux that are as good, and in some cases better, than similar applications used by Windows. Research is required before adopting GNU/Linux.

As a side note, most of the world's super computers, Internet servers and servers operated by larger corporations, internationally, run GNU/Linux. It's extremely stable, cheap and generally doesn't need to be rebooted after an update or upgrade.

Concerning the sustainability of software, recently I saw an application that was written more than 20 years ago still being used by a corporation - colored text on a black screen with no graphics and no mouse; the TAB key was used to navigate around the screen.

There is lots of legacy scientific and engineering code written in FORTRAN and commercial/corporate code written in COBOL. Both these languages were introduced in the 1950s. Some legacy code has been re-written in C or C++, but most is still in its original, old format.

Recently I came across an article that discussed how the computing system used for a pension scheme in one of the Balkan countries badly needed to be replaced with something modern but it was such a large and complicated undertaking no-one is prepared to commit to change. There is no desire to disrupt people's pensions during a transition period. One of the issues is when the system was devised in the 1970s it was modern for the time but it used a programming language called PL/1, which was popular then but very few people know that language now.

What makes software sustainable is people wanting to learn a particular computing language so that software can be maintained. There must also be a need for keeping the software.

  • Gaming is not very sustainable altogether, haha :-) However, I managed to run one (very) old RPG in Wine alright. Thanks for your answer. Can you pls explain you point about the ancient programming languages? I didn't quite follow the logic. Do you mean that whichever code is written in a modern and widely used language (and therefore maintainers don't have to learn a language just for that soft) is more sustainable? Nov 15 '15 at 3:17
  • Programming languages have evolved since the 1950s when the first ones were developed. Each language caters to a different need, but is never ideal, so new one keep developing and older ones stop being used. The logic expressed within code doesn't become irrelevant because of age. To maintain legacy code some programmers will still need to learn the old languages so the old code can still be used in its original language because of the large amount of code that exists. Not all if it will be able to be converted to new languages. If it could be converted, that would be better.
    – Fred
    Nov 15 '15 at 7:34
  • I feel like this question is asking the wrong question. It's like asking "What is more sustainable? Driving in UK or US?"
    – Aron
    Dec 2 '15 at 5:12

Definitely YES.

As currently supported versions of MS Windows (7,8,10) now will have problem to run on older machines with RAM under 500MB and CPU under old Intel Core2/CoreM, you can find plenty Linux distributions with equivalent functionality, which are supported and will run on even lover configurations.

Therefore some platforms as RapsberyPi was developed, which are energy effecient with equivalent functionality.

Carefully, not all linux distributions are memory or energy effeciient. But you have the choice. MS Windows have less options.

Same with MS Windows, which would possible run on more efficient Rapsberry Pi 2 (we had first look on early beta in 2015), but in version Windows for IoT, which has limited functionality.

Update: Let's define "sustainable OS", there are 2 viewpoints:

  1. It spends less hardware (has lower HW needs) for same/equivalent operations, thus better performance and you can keep to use longer your old computer (consider that creating a new computer and put it to your desk cost a lot of energy).
  2. It spends less energy for same/equivalent operations, thus lower energy consumption and you spend less energy with the very same hardware.

Update: Sources of energy consumption in the computers.

  • CPU
  • Chipset and rest of the board
  • Videocard (some modern cards are computer in computer)
  • RAM Memory
  • HDD or some storage
  • Communication ports (USB, network etc.)

Generally is possible to say, that energy is consumed for

  1. Keep the information in the component - this consumption is somehow fix, does not matter how much information is stored in the component.
  2. Communicate the information to other component or outside the computer - this consumption is growing with amount of information transferred. And this is the key point for next step - what is the difference in Linux distributions. Usually more memory taken by running software means more CPU operations, more disk operations, bigger graphic patterns means more GPU calculations (for 3D), etc.

Update: Difference between Linux distributions has few viewpoints as well:

  1. Difference between core distributions of linux - means what services are running out of the box, how they are configured, etc.
  2. Difference between windows managers - each windows manager is different

There is good source which can help you to make the decision of what is good enough for your needs and but better in sustainability: http://distrowatch.com/

From my personal experience, the Ubuntu, Xbuntu, Lubuntu distributions has following hardware needs because of the windows manager from high > to low: Unity > XFCE > LXDE. I personally do not know the other distributions...

  • Thanks. It would be very cool to have some figures -- maybe you know some? I think we all had this experience of reviving old machineth with the good *nix spirit. But I'm also wondering if there's a more or less objective measure. E.g., running some task and measuring power consumption. Or if anyone cared to look how long the same laptop lasts when Win and when a Linux is booted. Actually, I still have not taken Win down on a couple of dual boot laptops -- I should experiment before windows goes. Dec 1 '15 at 0:16
  • And also, do you know anything specific about how to know which distros are more efficient than others? From a very impressionistic experience, Ubuntu (and even ALTLinux?) are heavier than Arch. But then it depends on the window manager and what not. Dec 1 '15 at 0:19
  • 3
    I revived a 1998 HP Notebook with the Ubuntu-based WattOS (see distrowatch.com or directly www.planetwatt.com) for details. It claims to be an energy-efficient Linux distro. By the way, power consumption translates to battery endurance, should be easy to measure. Jan 7 '16 at 0:16

I will address just a tiny part of your (great) question. It seems to me that a key factor is the simple fact that Microsoft is a huge corporation, who delivers a software used by hundreds of millions of computers, tablets, smartphones. It's deeply entangled with a whole industry based on fashion, software/hardware obsolescence, status symbols. It's literally one of the main actors in that industry.
While Linux, even if it has companies like Canonical or Red Hat, it has a different philosophy, and profit it's not the main goal of many developers who write it. This is not more environmentally friendly per se, but I think it's reasonable to assume that indirectly it produces less externalization on the environment.
It's not directly related to the sustainability of the software, but in my opinion is something worth noting from an ecological point of view.


I'm not so sure. If you do a Google search for "Microsoft sustainability," you will find that they are doing quite a bit in terms of creating sustainable solutions.

Sure, the fact that UNIX operating systems can run on older systems is a plus for Linux's sustainability, but there are versions of Windows that will run on very low powered devices as well.

Your question is a complicated one, and it is important to take all of the various factors into consideration. Those factors include, but are not limited to: public pressure on the company to be sustainable, government pressure on the company to be sustainable, the company's ability to increase profits through sustainable practices.

I am no expert, but I would venture to guess that Microsoft is just as sustainable as Linux.


  • 1
    I believe OP is asking more about the software itself than the company (as in, "all other things being equal, is Windows or Linux more sustainable to run?"). But you raise a good point. One factor you don't mention is that Microsoft is a for-profit company developing closed-source, proprietary software. *nix is an ecosystem of open-source software developed by a mix of individuals, not-for-profits, and for-profit companies which adapt the code for their purposes on condition they release the source. So it's an apples to cucumbers comparison.
    – LShaver
    May 12 '17 at 15:58
  • Thanks, that's an interesting point indeed. But I completely agree with what @LShaver says in the comment. May 13 '17 at 12:39
  • My point is that there are a million other factors that need to be considered when answering the question, "Is Linux more sustainable than Windows?" However, if you are looking strictly at power consumption of the OS, there is a lot of evidence showing Windows is more efficient than Ubuntu. Of course, a non-GUI Linux distribution is going to consume less power than a GUI version of Windows. If you are not looking strictly at power consumption (and OP is not), then there are a million other factors to consider in determining sustainability.
    – user4539
    May 14 '17 at 13:29

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