Microsoft's Linux madness has a method

Linux alignment helps cloud, virtualization efforts

Under the glare of Microsoft's historic Linux kernel code submission this week is the fact that the software giant on many levels still lives in a community of one much more so than a community at large.

Experts agree Microsoft is finally coming to grips with Linux, open source and its development model as evidenced by its virtualization device driver contribution to the Linux kernel and commitment to a GPLv2 license, which Microsoft has long lambasted.

That's the community at large that Microsoft knows it must respect as users live more and more in mixed environments.But Microsoft's Linux surprise clearly represents a shrewd, tactical move to position itself in high stakes markets where it sees huge growth.

"This move is not so much about doing something specific to control the growth of Linux as much as it is to put Microsoft in a position that is strategically more important long term," says Al Gillen an analyst with IDC.

Those long-term goals, and mighty revenue opportunities, are focused on taking a dominant role in virtualization and cloud computing markets.

That's the community-of-one talking.

"Why should Microsoft let a religious distaste for Linux get in the way of making a lot of money on Windows Server 2008 being the hypervisor under all those Linux servers," says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst with Forrester Research. "That is a sign of the opportunity they see here."

Microsoft's open source virtualization device drivers offer performance and storage enhancements to any distribution of Linux running on top of Microsoft's hypervisor - Hyper-V.

But lest anyone believes Microsoft is somehow completely transitioning to an open source way of thinking, there is more evidence to consider.

The company's Linux kernel submission, which was followed a day later with a second open source contribution using GPLv2, is contrasted by the company signing just a week earlier yet another cross-patent licensing deal, this time with Melco Holdings.

Such deals, which Microsoft began signing in 2006 starting with Novell, protect partners against lawsuits over 235 patents Microsoft claims it holds on technology found in Linux. Partners pay Microsoft royalties and customers get indemnification, an intellectual property mindset that is the polar opposite of open source.

Bottom line: Microsoft's kernel submission points to positives for both Linux and Windows.

Linux gets a boost

Linux benefits from the fact that the code contribution validates the open source development model and the GPLv2 licensing model used throughout the kernel.

"Microsoft is publicly stating that GPLv2 is a valid development license and something that is acceptable for contributing code...that makes me very happy," says Greg Kroah-Hartman, the Linux driver project lead and a Novell fellow.

In the past, Microsoft has said the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property (IP) of any company that uses it, that GPL is a cancer that attaches itself to IP, and that the license equates to anti-capitalism.

Beyond validating GPLv2, the code submission could motivate those that have not yet embraced Linux development."All remaining holdouts will have to change their ways," says Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation.

The Microsoft code consists of four drivers that are part of a technology called Linux Device Driver for Virtualization and that was first introduced as the Linux Integration Components for supporting Novell's SUSE Linux and Red Hat's Enterprise Linux on Hyper-V. The ongoing maintenance of those drivers will be done by Microsoft, making it an active member in the Linux community.

Sam Ramji, who runs the Open Source Software Lab for Microsoft and is the company's director of open source technology strategy, says the code is available to any Linux distribution, commercial or otherwise, without requiring any relationship with Microsoft.

Those are words Ramji needed to say to the Linux faithful who more often than not think Microsoft has something up its sleeve, including those this week who were already screaming online, "it's a trick!"

But while Ramji has become a credible and trusted liaison to the Linux community, his most important Microsoft-centric trait is that "he is savvy about how Microsoft needs to go about competing in today's world," says Gordon Haff, an analyst with Illuminata.

And in that regard, Microsoft's nod to Linux last week could have many ramifications for the vendor's future.

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