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Open Source and Windows Server’s Direction - 27 Feb 2008

Institutionalizing interoperability

Executive Summary:

Linux competition had nearly paralyzed Microsoft when the company hired Bill Hilf, who previously led IBM’s Linux/open-source software (OSS) technical strategy. Hilf’s open-source background has helped Microsoft gain new direction, as a “platform” company with a compatible set of end-to-end technologies.

The unfortunate tagline for the launch of Windows Server 2003 was “Do more with less.” Microsoft never comprehended the irony of that tagline— but it strikes me as fitting the company’s mood five years ago. Competition from Linux had Microsoft nearly paralyzed. The company seemed to be desperately seeking direction. Now, in 2008, Microsoft has found a direction— thanks in large part to the people the company hired away from the Linux world.

In February 2004, Microsoft hired Bill Hilf from IBM. According to his official biography, Hilf “led IBM’s Linux/Open Source Software technical strategy at a world-wide level for the Emerging and Competitive markets organization.” Hilf’s mission at Microsoft was to establish a Linux lab. Starting as one server under Hilf’s desk, the lab has flourished and expanded—and Hilf’s Microsoft career has rocketed. Hilf is now “General Manager of Platform Strategy, driving Microsoft’s platform strategy efforts across the company. Bill’s primary focus is to champion platform initiatives … while leading long-term strategy planning in the Windows Server and Tools organization.” That’s a big change in a position that was, before Hilf, titled simply “General Manager of Windows Server Marketing.” And this change signals a reinvigorated sense of direction.

The P Word

The key descriptor for Microsoft’s newfound direction is the now-ubiquitous word “platform.” How is the concept of Windows as a platform connected with Hilf’s opensource background? I talked to Sam Ramji, director of Platform Technology Strategy, who reports directly to Hilf and oversees Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab, and the Microsoft and Novell Interoperability Lab in Cambridge, Mass.

Ramji spoke of insights from the Open Source Software Lab that are key to Microsoft’s new focus: “We started having a bigger conversation, which included not just how do we bridge gaps with Linux, how do we compare to and compete with Linux, but how do we look at open source? It’s a greater phenomenon than operating systems. It’s really about how developers communicate, about how developers improve technology, and a different way for users to adopt technology.”

Most important for Microsoft’s concept of its own business is the idea that the OS is only a piece of the puzzle, which also includes all the technologies necessary to create business solutions. By thinking of itself as a “platform” company that has a compatible set of end-to-end technologies, Microsoft puts itself in a powerful position. Not only are there hundreds (if not thousands) of Linux permutations, but also a huge variety of technologies and applications are necessary to make an open-source business solution feasible—and all the pieces aren’t necessarily compatible. Ramji said, “There’s OS X, Linux, FreeBSD, Windows, Solaris, AIX, Oracle, SQL, MySQL, Postgres— there’s whole bunch of technologies underneath it that may power it in some way. How does all this stuff mix?”

If Microsoft takes on the task of making all the technologies work together, the company’s competitive position becomes unmatched. This thinking is at the heart of what Ramji calls Microsoft’s decision to “institutionalize interoperability.” Microsoft realized it can make money by supporting non-Microsoft technologies. Ramji even sees the future of Windows Server as being a platform for Linux in virtual environments. “We’ve always had a technological grounding, but we’ve added a business focus. Collectively, we \[i.e., Hilf’s open-source team\] have gone from strategists and agitators to business owners. So interoperability is not just a good idea—it’s actually the business strategy. I think that shows a lot of Hilf’s rising star in the company—that institutionalizing interoperability that’s happening. It says a lot that Bob Muglia and Steve Ballmer would look at Bill and say, ‘This is the kind of leader we want to have in charge of our $4.5 billion growth business.’”

Institutionalizing Interoperability

Hilf’s influence and recognition of virtualization’s power to open new possibilities will guide the upcoming version of Windows. Linux has gone from a source of fear, to a source of optimism, which is even reflected in the Windows Server 2008 tagline: “Heroes happen here.” (OK, I admit it’s a typically lame Microsoft tagline. But you have to agree that it’s more positive than “Do more with less.” And don’t even get me started on how you could interpret “institutionalizing interoperability”....)

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