Microsoft Follows Oracle In Tighter Linux Embrace

Agrees to back use of SUSE Linux with Windows, plans joint work with Novell

Microsoft Corp. last week announced a deal to promote the use of Novell Inc.’s SUSE Linux operating system alongside Windows in mixed server environments — a move that came just a week after nemesis Oracle Corp. significantly tightened its embrace of Linux.

Microsoft isn’t taking as big a leap into Linux as Oracle, which plans to clone Red Hat Inc.’s market-leading version of the open-source operating system and offer technical support to users at what it described as discount prices relative to what Red Hat charges.

Under its deal with Novell, Microsoft doesn’t plan to sell or support SUSE Linux. Instead, it will recommend the software to Windows users who want to add Linux systems. It will also purchase from Novell and then distribute about 70,000 coupons annually that entitle users to a year’s worth of maintenance and support on SUSE Linux. The two vendors said they will do joint development work in several technology areas, including virtualization of Windows on SUSE Linux and vice versa.

Sherwin Lu, director of application infrastructure at Le Petite Academy Inc. in Chicago, said Microsoft’s work with Novell might encourage his company to eventually move to Linux. The preschool chain runs mostly Windows on its back-end systems now, although it has installed some open-source applications — most notably Red Hat’s JBoss application server — on top of Microsoft’s operating system.

Increased interoperability between Windows and Linux would help IT departments overseeing mixed environments by reducing the need to hire and maintain separate teams of technical staffers with different skills, Lu said.

Getting in the Game

Microsoft has taken steps toward Linux and other open-source software before, but the tie-up with Novell is its strongest admission thus far of the increasing popularity of those technologies, said Andi Mann, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. “Microsoft recognized that if they didn’t play nice, they might not be able to play at all,” Mann said.

However, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at a press conference in San Francisco that Microsoft isn’t embracing Linux wholesale. The deal with Novell “gives customers greater flexibility in ways they certainly have been demanding,” Ballmer said. But, he added, “if you want something, I’m still going to tell you, ‘Windows, Windows, Windows.’”

Jeremy Garcia, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based systems administrator at a telecommunications company that he asked not be identified, said before the deal was announced that Novell — not Red Hat — was the biggest loser from Oracle’s announcement a week earlier.

Oracle’s Unbreakable Linux plan further validated Red Hat’s Linux distribution as “the enterprise standard,” said Garcia, who also runs the Web site. “I think that will likely make selling non-Red Hat solutions more difficult,” he added.

The Fine Print

Microsoft and Novell said they plan to do the following:

•  Do joint development on virtualization and management of mixed Windows and Linux environments.•  Work to improve the ability of Office and OpenOffice users to share documents.•  Sign covenants not to sue each other’s users for patent infringement.

Red Hat said in a statement that with Oracle and Microsoft each increasing its focus on Linux, “the world is moving technologically in our direction.” The company added that it thinks middleware and service-oriented architectures will be the key technologies going forward, not Linux itself.

Iain Gray, Red Hat’s senior director of global support, claimed separately that the threat posed by Oracle is overstated. Users who run Oracle’s databases, applications or both don’t dominate Red Hat’s customer base, Gray said.

Although some open-source advocates voiced strong concerns about Microsoft’s ultimate intentions regarding the technology and users of open-source software, Linux creator Linus Torvalds was sanguine about the deal with Novell.

“I prefer to be an optimist and will happily take the option that not everybody needs to be enemies,” Torvalds said via e-mail. “Let’s see how it all pans out.”

Robert McMillan of the IDG News Service contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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