Microsoft's Linux moves could be canny

Under the glare of Microsoft's historic Linux kernel code submission this week is the fact that the software giant on many levels still lives in a community of one much more so than a community at large.

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Experts agree Microsoft is finally coming to grips with Linux, open source and its development model as evidenced by its virtualization device driver contribution to the Linux kernel and commitment to a GPLv2 license, which Microsoft has long lambasted.

That's the community at large that Microsoft knows it must respect as users live more and more in mixed environments.But Microsoft's Linux surprise clearly represents a shrewd, tactical move to position itself in high stakes markets where it sees huge growth.

"This move is not so much about doing something specific to control the growth of Linux as much as it is to put Microsoft in a position that is strategically more important long term," says Al Gillen an analyst with IDC.

Those long-term goals, and mighty revenue opportunities, are focused on taking a dominant role in virtualization and cloud computing markets.

That's the community-of-one talking.

"Why should Microsoft let a religious distaste for Linux get in the way of making a lot of money on Windows Server 2008 being the hypervisor under all those Linux servers," says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research. "That is a sign of the opportunity they see here."

Microsoft's open-source virtualization device drivers offer performance and storage enhancements to any distribution of Linux running on top of Microsoft's hypervisor - Hyper-V.

But lest anyone believe Microsoft is somehow completely transitioning to an open source way of thinking, there is more evidence to consider.

The company's Linux kernel submission, which was followed a day later with a second open-source contribution using GPLv2, is contrasted by the company signing just a week earlier yet another cross-patent licensing deal, this time with Melco Holdings.

Such deals, which Microsoft began signing in 2006 starting with Novell, protect partners against lawsuits over 235 patents Microsoft claims it holds on technology found in Linux. Partners pay Microsoft royalties and customers get indemnification, an intellectual property mindset that is the polar opposite of open source.

Bottom line: Microsoft's kernel submission points to positives for both Linux and Windows.

Linux gets a boost

Linux benefits from the fact that the code contribution validates the open source development model and the GPLv2 licensing model used throughout the kernel.

"Microsoft is publicly stating that GPLv2 is a valid development license and something that is acceptable for contributing code…that makes me very happy,” says Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Linux driver project lead and a Novell fellow.

In the past, Microsoft has said the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property (IP) of any company that uses it, that GPL is a cancer that attaches itself to IP, and that the license equates to anti-capitalism.

Beyond validating GPLv2, the code submission could motivate those that have not yet embraced Linux development."All remaining holdouts will have to change their ways," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

The Microsoft code consists of four drivers that are part of a technology called Linux Device Driver for Virtualization and that was first introduced as the Linux Integration Components for supporting Novell's SUSE Linux and Red Hat’s Enterprise Linux on Hyper-V. The ongoing maintenance of those drivers will be done by Microsoft, making it an active member in the Linux community.

Sam Ramji, who runs the Open Source Software Lab for Microsoft and is the company's director of open source technology strategy, says the code is available to any Linux distribution, commercial or otherwise, without requiring any relationship with Microsoft.

Those are words Ramji needed to say to the Linux faithful who more often than not think Microsoft has something up its sleeve, including those this week who were already screaming online, "it's a trick!"

But while Ramji has become a credible and trusted liaison to the Linux community, his most important Microsoft-centric trait is that "he is savvy about how Microsoft needs to go about competing in today's world," says Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata.

And in that regard, Microsoft's nod to Linux last week could have many ramifications for the vendor's future.

Toward the cloud and virtualization

"It is safe to say that getting in Linux and broadening support for Linux definitely has to be a key part of their virtualization and cloud strategy," says Chris Wolf, an analyst at the Burton Group.

On the cloud side, Microsoft's kernel drivers give the company's emerging cloud infrastructure the ability to support any Linux distribution with consistent performance and storage capabilities, much the same way Amazon EC2 provides multiple platform support.

On the virtualization side, Wolf says new alliances are rungs on the competitive ladder.

"If you are looking at the [virtualization] market in terms of vendor alignment Microsoft has been closely aligned with all the major Xen vendors; their virtual disk format is fully compatible across the Xen and KVM communities, as well as, Microsoft hypervisors; and so you have this community of vendors not named VMware rallying with this interoperability story against VMware," Wolf says.

There is other evidence of Microsoft's strategic tip-toeing in the fact that the code submitted via GPLv2 licenses is not inter-twined with other Microsoft code, which makes dabbling with the GPLv2 license more strategy than risk.

The Linux device drivers are a standalone piece of code as is the plug-in Microsoft made available via GPLv2 last week to link Microsoft Live@edu collaboration tools with the open-source course management Moodle platform.

"This is self-contained code that Microsoft was able to put in the communities lap," IDC's Gillen says.

"All of this represents an investment," he says. "That is what Sam Ramji's charge is all about. He has to develop strategy and a product plan to try and make sure Microsoft can leverage open source where it makes sense and interoperate where it makes sense and where it is a positive for Microsoft. If there was no positive here for Microsoft, they would not be doing this."

This story, "Microsoft's Linux moves could be canny" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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