Wim Coekaerts vice president of open source at Microsoft and Jim Whitehurst CEO of Red Hat on stage at LinuxCon 2016 in Toronto Aug 23 2016 Photo and caption by Libby Clark and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License

Wim Coekaerts, vice president of open source at Microsoft, and Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, on stage at LinuxCon 2016 in Toronto, Aug. 23, 2016. Photo and caption by Libby Clark and licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Microsoft at LinuxCon: Building Open Source Cred One Conference at a Time

"I joined Microsoft exactly five months ago today."

The speaker was Wim Coekaerts, giving a keynote address on Tuesday at LinuxCon 2016 in Toronto in his role as Redmond's corporate vice president of enterprise open source. Three or four years ago, making such a statement at a major Linux or open source event would be akin to speaking the prerequisite intro to a personal testimony at an AA meeting. "Hello, my name is Wim Coekaerts and I'm a Microsoftie." Not any more. At least in the enterprise, Microsoft has been rapidly gaining respect.

"To be very honest, a year ago I would not have considered it," he added. "And three years ago, I have absolutely no idea if I would ever even want to talk to them."

Like most Microsoft speakers at open source events, he came to the podium with a lot of Linux and open source in his background. He spent 21 years at Oracle -- certainly not known as an open source friendly company -- but Coekaerts served part of his tenure there as the senior VP of Linux and virtualization and was responsible, among other things, for Oracle Linux. He's also a bone fide member of the Linux community. From 2007 until earlier this year he served on the board of LinuxCon's host, the Linux Foundation.

"I certainly had a different sentiment many years ago about what Microsoft was doing, certainly around the open source space. But in the last several years the company has changed."

This is the sort of opening that all of the well known open source devs who are now Micosoft evangelists use when speaking before an open source audience. They were once skeptics too, but now they're convinced. They've checked the facts and Microsoft has changed.

To say that Microsoft and open source have a rocky history would be an understatement. This is the company that once famously called Linux "a cancer" and had been in the habit of attempting to discourage enterprise adoption of Linux with not-so-veiled threats of patent litigation and by sowing what the open source community came to call FUD, for "fear, uncertainty and doubt." There are many who remember the bad ol' days and still aren't ready to greet Microsoft with open arms. More and more, however, they're in the minority.

Times have changed. Important open source companies -- Red Hat, Canonical and others -- have worked side-by-side with the company on important projects and have come to trust Nadella when he claims the "new" Microsoft is not the same as the old Microsoft. Indeed, in the opening keynote of the morning, Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat, spent some time using glowing terms to describe his company's work with Redmond.

"It was kind of cool for Jim Whitehurst to be on stage," Coekaerts acknowledged. "Red Hat and Microsoft…that's a big difference from many years ago." He laughed at that, a little nervously and somewhat self-deprecatingly. Although he was there to sell Microsoft as an open source player, he wasn't going for the hard sell. He was just another DevOps geek who firmly believes in the open source development model, offering the audience his view of Microsoft from the inside. 

Coekaerts came to Microsoft after some off campus meetings at a Redmond area Starbucks with Scott Guthrie and Mike Neil, two vice presidents with the cloud and enterprise group, who convinced him that "open source is very important to Microsoft."

Upon taking the job, he says, he quickly learned exactly how much it's changed from the Microsoft of old. The company not only embraces Linux and open source publicly, but has adopted open source within the walls of the Redmond campus as well.

"Microsoft actually uses a lot of Linux in-house," he said. "A lot of services that are being deployed in Azure actually run on Linux, not just Windows. Within the company there's no longer a 'it has to be on Windows.' When engineers are discussing building new services or creating new products, it's like whichever OS works best for what we need to do…that's the one we pick. That's a huge difference from two, three and certainly more than that years ago and it's actually very exciting to see."

Methodically, he went through a list of some of Microsoft's contributions to open source, starting with with the porting of the Hyper-V drivers in 2009 and ending with Redmond's announcement earlier this year of plans to port a crown jewel, Microsoft SQL Server, to Linux and last week's alpha release of PowerShell for Linux after a partnership with Canonical brought the bash shell to Windows.

"And why is that?" he asked. "Because Linux is very important. Because customers are using Linux. Customers are using open source. Customers have a choice, and then the company reacts to that. It's another testament to how Linux has really sort of taken over a lot of the market."

It's no secret that much of Microsoft's commitment to open source is motivated by the company's success with Azure. With one out of three of the virtual machines being spun-up on its cloud being Linux, Redmond is now in the business of selling the open source operating system. In a way, it is now one of the biggest Linux vendors on the planet. Coekaerts said that Nadella has been very clear that when it comes to Linux on Azure, it can't be a second class citizen.

"We're not in an environment anymore where somebody at Microsoft would say you can't work on that feature because it would have an advantage of Linux over Windows," he explained. "No one's saying that. If we end up writing code that makes it better, it'll be better. Then the other guys have to make sure their stuff works better. It's a very equal environment that we now work in, which again is a very cool change in the company."

In addition to Linux, Microsoft now produces code for various open source projects. Sometimes supplying code for these projects can enter into grey areas where open meets closed or where OSS meets proprietary. An example would be Cloud Foundry, an open source SaaS platform owned by Pivotal, which also markets a commercial version which includes proprietary tools not found in the free version. In these grey areas, Microsoft follows what Red Hat might call "the open source way."

"We do work with Pivotal and others that have commercial solutions, but the way we contribute is upstream. We don't build proprietary extensions, we work upstream and the other vendors can take it and do whatever they want with it, but customers have the choice to go to Cloud Foundry and download their own version and it will all have the stuff that we've worked on."

Redmond has made great strides in its quest to become a card carrying member of the enterprise open source community. It's not quite there yet, as evidenced by Coekaerts' tone, which was at times apologetic for the past, at others like a kid explaining to his father that he's being good now and is no longer misbehaving. But the company's leadership seems to have brought something else new to Redmond's table: patience and perseverance.

Four years ago, when Ross Gardler tried to make the case that "Microsoft is more open" at the first All Things Open convention, hardly anyone showed up at his presentation and no one took his words seriously. The silence when he called for questions afterwards was embarrassing. But last year when Mark Russinovich spoke for Microsoft at the same conference, and perhaps moreso when Coekaerts spoke on Tuesday at LinuxCon, the talks were not only well attended, but well received. 

"In the next year we want to really show that this is for real, that it's not just me here on stage talking about it," he concluded. "But we have to show the code, because that's ultimately what it comes down to. So you'll see a lot more actual work happening. It's a different company than it used to be."

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