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Mega-deal promises to connect Windows and Linux

Microsoft opens its arms to open source in a wide-ranging agreement with Novell.

The days when Windows and Linux servers are worlds apart in the corporate enterprise may be coming to an end and, surprisingly, by the hand of Microsoft.

Microsoft and Novell Inc. struck a deal on Thursday to develop and offer joint support for Windows and the Linux operating system. The partnership centers on technology collaboration and patent coverage, something customers that increasingly operate in mixed environments have been pushing both vendors to resolve.

The companies are developing joint technology in the areas of virtualization, Web services management and document formatting.

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As part of the Web services management technology collaboration, Novell and Microsoft are working on technology to improve the interoperability between Novell's eDirectory and Microsoft's Active Directory.

"This is recognition that Linux plays an important role in the IT infrastructure of many of our customers and will continue to play an important role and that the demand for systems interoperability in mixed environments is strong," said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, adding that the two would come together to "build a patent bridge."

Every customer who buys a subscription for SUSE Linux Enterprise, for example, will get service and support from Novell and also a patent covenant from Microsoft. In exchange, Microsoft will receive a revenue percentage of SUSE Linux Enterprise Server sales from Novell.

Also as part of the deal, Microsoft will distribute 70,000 coupons for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server maintenance and support per year to encourage customers to take advantage of new technology developed through the collaboration.

What this agreement will not do is end the competition between the two companies, Ballmer said. "If anybody is confused, I'll say it right now -- if you ask what the right [operating system] is to run a new application, it's Windows, Windows, Windows," he said.

Competition aside, even the idea of a Microsoft-Novell pact would have been unthinkable just a short time ago when the software giant made it known that it would not support open source software. But the tide has turned, driven by big enterprise shops that have a mixture of operating systems typically separated according to the applications they are running.

"It all came down to customer need," said Novell CEO Ron Hovsepian. "They are dealing with a mixed-source environment with a whole host of benefits and complexities," he said.

"As Linux continues to grow as a market segment, this allows customers to accelerate that growth and the opportunities associated with virtualization and interoperability," Hovsepian said.

Novell and Microsoft's engineering, marketing and sales teams get the message, he added, and they are delivering a balance of competition and cooperation for the sake of interoperability for their customers.

In the background, Microsoft has been forging closer ties on its own with the open source community. In just over a year it has locked up collaborative deals with open source middleware developer JBoss Inc., a division of Red Hat, and with SugarCRM Inc., a provider of commercial open source CRM software.

"We've seen Microsoft head in this direction already with Xen," said Tony Iams, senior analyst with Ideas International Inc., based in Rye Brook, N.Y.

In July, Microsoft said it would cooperate with XenSource to develop technology that would allow Xen-enabled Linux to work with Windows hypervisor technology. That technology would be included in the next version of Windows Server, code-named Longhorn, to provide customers with virtualization across their hardware infrastructure and operating system environments.

"[Microsoft] laid the groundwork there to allow users to work with different operating systems on the same platform," Iams said. It makes sense for Microsoft to work with Novell, which was the first to come out with production-grade Xen, he said.

Microsoft has already added Linux guest support with Virtual Server 2005 R2. The company is offering the second beta of a service pack for this release.

But it may have been the spread of virtualization that really sealed the Microsoft-Novell deal. "Virtualization by definition neutralizes the operating system," Iams said. "The growth virtualization has forced vendors to create a more heterogeneous environment," he said.

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