November 12, 2014

What Does Microsoft's Love Mean for Linux?

Love HeartLast time I checked, which was not long ago, oil and water did not mix; they still don’t. Microsoft’s love for Linux is no different from oil’s tendency to separate from water. We were all taken aback when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said ‘Microsoft Loves Linux’ during an event in San Francisco.

The image of a tender heart between Microsoft and Linux appearing on the same stage where the Microsoft CEO was delivering his keynote may have looked like a scene from a science fiction movie. Similarly, it seems unreal that Microsoft will open source all of its .NET server stack and make it available on Linux and Mac, as the company announced today. But if we look deeper at the changing market, it makes perfect sense for a company which is finally ready to evolve and adapt - to survive.

Quite a lot has changed since Steve Ballmer called Linux a cancer. The company has a new leader who, unlike his predecessors, can see the changing landscape of the IT world, who knows where to place his bets, who is ready to give up on old fights and is willing to embrace what was once untouchable for the company.

Commenting on this change, Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical told me, “Companies are in a sense more adaptable than people because their leaders change, their staff change over time too, and we would do well to recognize when that happens.”

This is not love at first sight. Modern IT is powered by Linux and Open Source technologies. If Microsoft wants to be part of this world it has to play nice with technology beating as the heart of the world. Nadella admitted it to Wired, “If you don’t jump on the new, you don’t survive.”

It’s all about cloud?

Nadella is driving Microsoft in a new direction with his ‘mobile first, cloud first’ strategy. Cloud is pretty much owned by Linux and Open Source technologies. Giants like Amazon and Google not only run on Linux/Open Source, they also offer these shared technologies as PaaS or IaaS services. Other players are betting big on other open source technologies like OpenStack and Docker. Contrary to the rest of the market, Microsoft’s own cloud platform - Azure - is purely proprietary. Microsoft has to play nice with Linux if they want to become a cloud player. The Windows maker admits that “1 out of 5 Virtual Machines on Azure are running Linux.”

Microsoft can’t tell enterprise customers ‘my way or the highway’ the way they could back in the 90s. Today it’s either the ‘Linux’ way or the highway. They have no option but to embrace what customers use - Linux and open source.

To better serve their customers, Microsoft needs to work with leading Linux providers. The company has signed deals with two major Linux players: Canonical and SUSE/Novell.

Shuttleworth says, “The Azure team at Microsoft have made a genuine commitment to creating a high performance open cloud platform, we have found them excellent counterparts for optimization of Ubuntu on Azure and for handling joint customer questions and issues.”

Kristin Kinan, Director, SUSE, Microsoft Global Alliance, says “SUSE and Microsoft partner to engineer solutions and deliver SUSE support to enterprise customers. The key areas of engineering collaboration since our partnership kickoff in 2006 include virtualization and system management. Now we are focused on bringing those solutions to the Microsoft Azure public cloud, with premium support for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server. Customers call one number and are directly supported by an enterprise support organization from SUSE.”

However Microsoft is keeping one player at bay - Red Hat - which is also their arch rival. While Microsoft supports CoreOS, CentOS, OEL SUSE, and Ubuntu RHEL is nowhere in the picture.

When a journalist asked about the absence of Red Hat, during the Q&A session of the same event where Nadella declared Microsoft’s love for Linux, Microsoft executives didn’t have any specifics. Nadella stepped in and vaguely said, "We’d welcome Red Hat in our cloud.”

We don’t know what is stopping Microsoft from offering Red Hat, because both companies are not ready to talk about it. John Terrill of Red Hat sent me the following response by email, "While we can imagine that a partnership, which respects each party’s business model and open source, could be possible for Red Hat technologies on Azure, we are not able to comment publicly on the topic. Red Hat does have a partnering arrangement of substance with Microsoft - certifying and supporting Red Hat Enterprise Linux running on Hyper-V, and Windows Server running on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization.”

It’s unclear who is unwilling to work with the other, even if it makes no sense for either companies.

CentOS is now part of Red Hat, so the two companies will have to find a way to work together sooner or later. Microsoft can’t afford to leave their Azure customers to deal with RHEL or CentOS on their own. At the same time, Microsoft can’t remain an outsider for the technologies that its business heavily relies on. It makes perfect sense for Microsoft to get involved with at least those open source projects which their customers need.

Mark Coggin, Senior Director, product marketing in the platforms business unit at Red Hat, said, “We’ve long understood the transformational power of open source. It has demonstrated an ability to drive better technology innovation via collaboration, identify more relevant market-driven product requirements, and also give users freedom of choice. We have embraced and nurtured Linux since its earliest days, and we’ve extended that embrace for open source well beyond Linux and into countless other upstream communities. Open source is leading the way in so many areas of technology - from cloud computing and big data to mobile, so it is not surprising to us to see companies that once shunned it starting to embrace it. While it may be surprising for some to see Linux and open source embraced by some of these companies, we welcome contributions to upstream open source communities from others. Frankly, it’s hard for other companies to not get involved because customers “en masse” are demanding open source solutions. As we’ve previously noted, a rising tide lifts all ships when it comes to open source awareness and adoption.

Does it matter to Linux?

The Linux and Open Source community may not fully trust Microsoft given their embrace, extend and extinguish strategy in the past, however, Nadella has made some decisions which Bills Gates or Steve Ballmer would never approve of. A less hostile Microsoft is certainly good news for Linux. The statement that ‘Microsoft loves Linux’ is certainly a milestone in the Linux-Microsoft relationship.

Shuttleworth says, “I think the greatest impact of this statement will be inside Microsoft itself. It takes firm, consistent, loud messaging from the top to move a large organisation, and this slide was one of many that I think are aimed as much at Microsoft ears as those of the development and enterprise markets.”

When I asked Kinan whether Microsoft’s newly found love for Linux change anything for Linux’s growth she said, “The diversity of enterprise solutions are no longer constrained by a platform. Growth will be dynamic for all.

If it’s a change of heart..

It’s quite obvious that it’s more about Microsoft needs Linux vs. Microsoft loves Linux. If they do love Linux, we will see them doing more ground work than just sending flowers.

Coggin says, “We are hopeful that Microsoft’s recent embrace of Linux represents more than symbolic contributions, instead representing an expanded commitment to bringing more choice to the marketplace.”

The Linux community would assume that the new lover would end all legal threats of patent infringement. We would not be seeing Brad Smith bragging about yet another patent deal with some Linux player, instead we would see him blogging about Linux Defenders.

The power of love would make Microsoft join organizations like OIN and ensure their love interest that there is nothing to fear because ‘I love you’. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them working towards dismantling the patent troll Rock Star Consortium which was created from the ashes of Nortel to mainly combat Linux and Open Source.

We would also see a ‘Microsoft in love’ joining the Linux Foundation to ‘foster’ the growth of their love object.

If we see any of this happening before we meet aliens, we will know that Microsoft does love Linux, otherwise that heart is just a sugar coating around the word ‘need’.

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