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Does Linux SQL Server hint at further disruption in Redmond?

Many longtime IT professionals are wondering if Microsoft's plan to release SQL Server on Linux means other products may be ported to the open source platform.

In March, Microsoft sent shockwaves throughout the IT world when it announced it would bring a version of SQL Server 2016 -- its flagship database management software -- to the Linux operating system in 2017. Not only is Linux SQL Server going to run on supported flavors of the open source operating system -- one assumes Red Hat and Ubuntu, and the demo was running on Ubuntu 15.10 -- but Microsoft's giving away licenses to Oracle shops that agree to replace Oracle database with SQL Server.

Also in March, Microsoft released the source code to its network switch operating system, called Software for Open Networking in the Cloud (SONiC), which is based on Debian GNU/Linux. It is meant to augment the Azure Cloud Switch software that Microsoft runs in its Azure public cloud service. SONiC controls network hardware and specialized chips within high speed switches, especially to enhance software defined networking (SDN) applications.

Most systems administrators must be wondering what in the world is going on in Redmond. Networking hardware? Linux? Free SQL Server? This is all a play by the new Microsoft that cares more about workloads and delivering outcomes than the operating system your organization is using.

Is Linux SQL Server just the beginning?

What does this series of Linux-related announcements mean for Windows Server? Microsoft is not going to have a version of Windows Server for Linux, but some of the workloads and native features of Windows Server might make prime candidates for running on top of Linux. Using some educated speculation, these workloads might include:

  • Most systems administrators must be wondering what in the world is going on in Redmond. Networking hardware? Linux? Free SQL Server?
    Parts of Active Directory. Microsoft has already separated Active Directory from Windows Server by getting Azure Active Directory running in the public cloud. While most of Azure is built on Windows Server, Microsoft has managed to abstract the connection between the operating system and the directory. It also has Azure AD Connect and other synchronization products. Perhaps there's an Active Directory Application Mode module that might come to Linux, which could help with specific applications that need schema adjustments that might not be suitable to make in an organization's larger Active Directory deployment. Keep in mind, I'm not suggesting you'll be able to replace all domain controllers with Linux, but in certain branch offices or application-specific scenarios, it might be a good way to accomplish a limited goal.
  • Azure connectivity. What if there were a smaller, Azure hybrid "appliance" running on Linux that served as a synchronization point and connector between on-premises deployments and the Azure public cloud, especially as software-defined networking improves? It could be used to define direct routes to Azure, prioritize traffic, integrate with ExpressRoute, synchronize directories, enable disaster recovery and failover and run the Azure Backup Service agents.
  • Networking, DirectAccess, VPNs and the like. Since Microsoft has SONiC, it is not difficult to foresee a Microsoft network server stack on Linux. Then again, Linux is generally quite good at routing traffic, and has several enterprise-grade firewalls and intrusion protection packages. Linux has a long networking pedigree, so any Microsoft contribution would likely allow services, such as the VPN-less DirectAccess or better SSL VPNs to run.

Is there more where that came from?

Could this fad in Redmond extend further than just Linux SQL Server? The obvious remaining targets would be Exchange and SharePoint, both of which currently are administered by Windows administrators on some level. Of the two of these, I see Exchange as a more likely candidate. SharePoint is so extensively tied to Internet Information Services (IIS) and has so many hooks into SQL Server that I can't imagine it would be cost-effective to try to release SharePoint for Linux. There are also many collaboration and messaging systems available for Linux already, and I am not familiar with any market segment that is just clamoring for SharePoint but would also prefer to run it on Linux.

Exchange, however, uses its own database and while it has ties to IIS, comparatively they are less extensive than SharePoint. Exchange is also designed to run in battle-hardened, mission-critical environments -- email is everything, after all -- and Linux often runs in those scenarios, too. There is absolutely a market for good groupware on Exchange, since the current offerings, such as Zoho and Zimbra leave a lot to be desired, so I do believe the potential is there.

Of course, this is all speculation. While Microsoft is dabbling in cross-platform activities, and we have identified SQL Server on Linux, this switch operating system based on FreeBSD, and numerous clients for iOS, Mac OS X and Linux, it is hard to say whether the software giant would carve up some of its distinguishing features and products so willingly. But then again, if you had asked me five years ago if we would see SQL Server running on Linux, I would have looked at you like you had two heads. In this day and age, anything's possible.

Next Steps

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Using System Center Configuration Manger with Linux

This was last published in April 2016

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