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Microsoft Exec Talks Up Evolving Linux Strategy

Ten years ago, Microsoft perceived Linux and the open source software (OSS) movement as threats, but wasn't quite sure how to characterize them. They weren't traditional the corporate threats Microsoft had faced in the past from rivals such as IBM, Netscape, or WordPerfect. Instead, Linux and OSS seemed as much about religion as they did about competition. Today, that's all changed, says Bill Hilf, the general manager of platform strategies at Microsoft.

Granted, he's got a great perspective. After working for well over a decade in the Linux community in virtually every role imaginable--programming, engineering management, and Linux technology strategy, the latter at IBM--Hilf joined Microsoft two years ago to run an OSS technology research lab at the software giant, where he helped start the Shared Source initiative among other things. Today, Hilf runs the group at Microsoft that's responsible for interoperating with open source solutions. His most recent accomplishment was performing Microsoft's first-ever keynote event at an OSS trade show, Linux World Boston.

"I jokingly asked people not to throw anything at me during the keynote," Hilf told me, but the reality is that Microsoft's reception from the open source community has been very good. At Linux World San Francisco last year, Hilf provided a technical presentation on behalf of Microsoft and was surprised by the excellent reception he received there as well. "I heard from a lot of people who were very supive of what we're trying to do," he told me. "People are happy to discover that Microsoft isn't trying to fight the open source community."

That said, Hilf is brutally honest about Microsoft's position on open source, and he refuses to engage in what he called "marketure." "I just spoke to a group of OSS developers, and I said right off the bat, 'look, we're a for-profit commercial software company,'" he said. "And that's not going to change. So we're not particularly interested in an argument about us giving away our software." Hilf says that Microsoft has settled into what he calls a "coopetition" with Linux, in the same way that Microsoft both cooperates and competes with many of its partners. "There are products that come out of OSS that we do compete with," he added. "There's no misperception about the relationship here. And it's less confrontational than it once was."

What's changed, Hilf says, is that Linux and OSS have gotten down to business. As OSS has matured and found corporate backing from companies such as IBM, Novell, and Red Hat, the discussion has turned fringe topics like religion and philosophy (or what Half calls "process") to products and services, and the interoperability possibilities that can occur when customers try to combine products from both Microsoft and OSS. "OSS is more commercialized now," Hilf explained, "and Microsoft has evolved with that."

The key, of course, was for Microsoft to understand that there are business opportunities to be had in the open source community. Hilf used JBoss as a typical example. JBoss is an open source Java application server. (The company that makes JBoss, called JBoss Inc., was recently sold to Red Hat.) "We don't love Java [at Microsoft]," Hilf said. "But it turns out that half of the customers using JBoss run it on Windows Server. So if we can improve that story through better Active Directory (AD) integration and other improvements, than there is more business opportunity for Microsoft. Those customers have already decided to use Java, which is fine. But if we can make it better on Windows Server, everyone benefits."

I asked Hilf about Microsoft's support of certain Linux distributions in Virtual Server 2005 R2, which was recently made free and released to the public (see "Microsoft Frees Virtual Server, Supports Linux," and "Sleeping with the Enemy"). He said that while consolidation is indeed a big focus of Virtual Server, the word consolidation means different things to different companies. "I see an IT shop that is already Windows oriented, built out primarily on Windows Server," he explained. "But maybe they have Linux-based edge of network servers, even appliances, running DHCP, firewalls, or Web servers. Each of these servers is one use, single processor, single function. Over time, you get hit in ways you might not initially expect. The bill you get for power and cooling is often half your total IT cost. We see this all the time in our big environments. So consolidating all of these single purpose devices is a big deal, especially when you consider that probably none of them are running at anywhere near capacity."

Moore's Law has helped as well. Today, 64-bit computing capabilities and multi-core microprocessors are changing the rules of the game, and it's possible to purchase incredible processing power for far less than just a few years ago. "Companies can't consolidate fast enough," Hilf said. "And part of what they want to do is virtualize their Linux environments." Microsoft has stepped up assist in that process on the heels of a few years of testing virtualized Linux distributions in house. Hilf tells me that his lab maintains a wide range of virtual machine (VM)-based Linux distributions, and thanks to Virtual Server's Web browser interface, Microsoft employees have been able to test drive any version of Linux without having to install it locally or cart multi-gigabyte VM files around the corporate network.

Hilf says that lots of people are staging Linux server environments virtually as well. This lets them test new applications in, say Apache, before deploying them to production hardware, just as a Windows application developer might do on Windows Server. "This is very common with PHP," Hilf told me, referring to the OSS Web server programming environment that's very similar to Microsoft's ASP. "Most people who develop with PHP use Windows for the development process, where they can use IIS locally. So they test on IIS, then deploy to a test environment in a Linux VM, and finally deploy to a Linux OS, either in a VM or on actual hardware."

If you're interested in being part of the discussion about Windows and Linux interoperability, Hilf's team has recently set up the Port 25 Web site specifically for that purpose. He asked if I'd forward his request to have Windows IT guys participate in the discussions going on now at the site. "We stir up the pot," he said, "and go out there and air it out. But we need a good balanced conversation that tempers the extreme Linux believers, who are vocal and prophetic, with more pragmatic Windows guys." Sounds good to me.

This article originally appeared in the April 18, 2006 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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