At my work we are given a computer to set up at home so if we ever feel like working from home we can do so.
The thing is that whenever it comes to developing for java I always prefer using windows or linux as long as it is not mac(it is just preference choice, I do not have a valid reason for liking it except that mac is slightly unfriendly when it comes to java).
And at my work everyone does use Windows OS for development (we have a super almost unpenetrable firewall and half the websites are blocked with baracuda). However for home computers we are forced to use a Mac. When I asked why not windows, I was given an explanation that if I want to connect to my work servers or if I want to access my remote desktop then it is safer to do so using a mac, and that it is much more difficult to infect a mac.
Now I am not a security expert nor am I aware what are the downfalls. So might anyone give me some good pointers if their claim is true, and if so what kind of virus might I get on windows that I can't get on Mac given that I will be using work computer purely for work purposes, which includes going on programming websites only, and sshing to work and also using remote desktop.

If you do not have a valid reason and post for preference then please do not post anything here. I simply would like to know if there really is that much of a security hole in windows where using it at home without a good firewall and protection is unsafe in comparison to mac.

  • 1
    It is interesting that they don't seem concerned about the friction caused by differing OS and productivity apps between home and work. That historically has caused a lot of Mac home users to switch to Windows because Office documents are never as portable as marketing wants you to believe, for instance. Of course, most Java IDEs are aggressively platform portable and a lot of productivity app really live in the cloud, so its possible that I'm just an old-timer worrying about nonexistant issues...
    – RBerteig
    Oct 29 '13 at 20:50
  • If that's the case, why don't they just replace all the work computers with Macs? Nov 6 '13 at 2:08
  • Their reasoning is that all the work computers are protected by their network, so therefore since we are developing applications for windows computers then we should develop on windows. But at home our computers are not protected by their network, therefore in order to avoid anything foreign getting into their network or any data being stolen we are forced to use macs.
    – Quillion
    Nov 6 '13 at 14:31

It is unquestionably less likely that a Mac will be infected by any sort of virus. There are two reasons which have nothing to do with the baseline security of the OS:

Reason 1: Low interest
The first, and most commonly cited, is the lack of interest on the part of attackers. Mac malware is rare because its market share is small. Malware authors want high distribution, and since the Windows share is many times larger than all competitors put together, the target decision is pretty clear.

Reason 2: Herd Immunity
But the second factor is easily as important, though it stems from the same root. Many types of malware (and in particular the type that this company would worry about in this context) use infected machines to attack other machines, targeted at random. This creates a network effect such that more potential hosts there are for an infection, the easier it is for the infection to spread. Unless the vector can effectively target both Windows and the alternative OS, the large population of immune Windows computers would block transmission, conferring a sort of herd immunity protecting the smaller OS.

Since OSX represents such a tiny percentage of the total installation base, not only are there fewer possible targets to choose from, but there are fewer possible sources of infection. A single infected host may never find another to which to transmit its malware, so the threat can't spread.

Combining these together means that the proability of infection on OSX is vanishingly small, well within the noise. If you switch to an even less popular OS, such as Linux, the effects compound further, making your chance of infection effectively nil.

But note that OSX and Linux are not soft targets, as was otherwise suggested.

While these Linux and BSD (the base OS of OSX) are not as popular on the desktop, they're significantly more popular in server and high-security environments. Your "unpenetrable firewall" -- yep, it runs Linux.

So while these are rarely attacked in the context of user-interactive environments, Linux and BSD are constantly under attack in a automated/headless context. These OSes are battle-hardened and constantly vetted by the best eyes the industry has to offer, with many businesses sinking millions or more into their security. And since in this context (as opposed to desktop usage), security matters more than convenience, features, and ease-of-use, this means that when a security-related trade-off is presented, the builders of these OSes more frequently choose security at the expense of other usability points.

A good example of such a trade-off is Microsoft's insistence on doing font rendering in the kernel. The reasoning is that it makes display updates faster, a fact which technically remains true today, but which was much more important back in the '90s when the decision was initially made. As a result, Windows has been subject to numerous privilege escalation vulnerabilities, the latest of which was patched only weeks ago. Windows still does font rendering in the kernel, and will almost certainly see another related vulnerability again in the future as has happened so many times already.

So are you safer with OSX or Linux?

Yes. You could argue about why you're safer; whether it's market share, design, target preference, or any other aspect. But the fact that you're safer is a given. You're less likely to be attacked, you're less likely to be infected. And even the most successful malware would have trouble tearing through the OSX or Linux desktop community because targets are few and far between.

  • 3
    While servers running Linux is a good argument to explain why, say, the TCP/IP stack of Linux is quite robust, it says very little about the security of desktop environments; and most virus/malware on other platforms infects the machine through the dreadful combination of "convivial desktop applications" and the human user. We may also note that Windows' own TCP/IP stack is actually a BSD import (originally), so the argument turns into the idea that Windows is not a soft target either.
    – Tom Leek
    Oct 29 '13 at 20:18
  • 1
    @TomLeek certainly windows is not a soft target either; it's gotten significantly better since the ol' XP days. But the security of the OS is stuff like TCP/IP stack and firewall; but more so DEP, ASLR, privilege separation, access control, automatic updating, stuff like that. That's what the OS is. Desktop apps like Chrome are common to both venues, so that factors out.
    – tylerl
    Oct 29 '13 at 22:06

Besides the bear's points note that Microsoft Windows has been a target for a substantial amount of years for malware developers, whereas OS:X wasn't but is getting more and more malware targetted to its machines.

Now Windows is like an army base under constant attack, they have experience. Whereas OS:X only has limited battle experience. So if you ask me in what basket I would put my eggs, it would be Windows.

  • A very valid point :) I like it
    – Quillion
    Oct 29 '13 at 15:38
  • linux, too, is [unfortunately...] getting more-and-more targeted (especially in its "android" [many] forms... but they try to find exploit working on all incarnations...). On linux and MacOS, rootkits are the worst kind, as they hide very well and require a complete reinstall (from known good sources) to get rid of. Oct 29 '13 at 18:38

Roughly speaking, number of virus and other malware running around for a given OS tends to correlate with the market share of the said OS. Malware writers get interested in OS that many potential targets use. Windows market share is still in the 90% or so, hence a lot of virus. Whereas Linux is below 1% (for desktop system), and MacOS X is in-between.

Of course, there can be variations depending on the OS details. Unix-like systems have never been in the habit of executing files obtained from the network (emails, Web...), mostly because executing binaries does not work well with heterogenous platforms, whereas Windows has a long history of doing things like that (e.g. ActiveX controls). This makes it slightly easier to infect a Windows machine than a Unix machine. MacOS X has a heavy Unix ancestry (when Apple rewrote MacOS between versions 9 and X, they reused FreeBSD for the core OS) so it can be argued that it should have less virus than Windows, all other things being equal. But, of course, other things are not equal, in particular market share, so this argument is not utterly valid.

Out of personal experience, I find that using MacOS X is not that hard a transition from Linux. You could also run Linux from a virtual machine on the Mac (VirtualBox is convenient for that), or even install Linux directly on the Mac hardware (e.g. see this).

  • wow this might work. If I can install linux on macbook this will be great. My biggest concern is that mac has poorest support for the gui when it comes to java, and developing applications for clients that use anything but a mac is a nightmare. Thanks :)
    – Quillion
    Oct 29 '13 at 15:20
  • Sorry Tom I was going to accept your answer, but Lucas did give a valid argument that I might need to switch over, if all else fails I am going to be installing linux on my dreaded mac.
    – Quillion
    Oct 29 '13 at 15:39

There's an important question that the other answers (so far) haven't raised: what's your threat model? In other words, what kind of attacks are you worried about?

If you're just worried about the standard you're-on-the-internet-therefore-you're-under-attack stuff (botnets looking for new recruits, etc), then the fact that OS X and linux get attacked a much much less frequently means they'll almost certainly be more secure choices than Windows.

On the other hand, if you have to worry about targeted attacks -- an attacker who's after you specifically, and willing to invest the effort to adjusting their tactics to whatever OS you're running -- then the fact that Windows has more battle experience (as Lucas Kauffman puts it) becomes an advantage instead of a disadvantage. All that experience means that a lot more of Windows vulnerabilities have been found and patched.

(On the third hand, Windows popularity with attackers also means there's a lot more experience on the bad guys' side -- more extensive toolkits, more known attacks, etc.)

Net result: if you aren't expecting targeted attacks, I'd go with OS X or linux. If you are worried about being targeted, Windows is probably the better option (and in this case you'd better spend some time learning to lock down your system, and how to use it securely).

  • 1
    @GordenDavisson I think the threat model here is "corporate network doesn't want malware on VPN, therefore, no Windows for you". Sadly, that's not an unreasonable stance.
    – tylerl
    Oct 29 '13 at 22:20
  • @tylerl yes that is exactly the problem, and the fact that I am expected to develop windows application on mac isn't making life any easier.
    – Quillion
    Oct 30 '13 at 12:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.