Any thaw in the chill between Microsoft and the open source community is generally seen as good for IT professionals.
But Windows administrators in multi-vendor shops are still combing through the pact between Microsoft and Novell Inc. looking for details that prove tomorrow will be a better day. Microsoft has a history of striking alliances with former foes – the technology collaboration with Sun Microsystems is one such example. And that took years to bear fruit."I'm not sure we can really forecast its effects before [we have] more details, and that's unlikely to be available for quite some time," said Bruce D. Boyce, IT director of at Legum & Norman Inc., an Alexandria, Va.-based real estate management company.
Microsoft already has activities underway to make it easier to share documents between Office and OpenOffice and should have this capability ready within "months" said David Kaefer, general manager of IP and licensing at Microsoft. Novell expects to make document translation available within 60 days.
By January, Microsoft plans to offer more information in a Knowledge Base article as to how it will support virtualized operating systems on top of Windows. Within the first 90 days of the agreement, both companies said they will test Windows Server against SUSE Enterprise Server, sharing error reporting, so both companies can come to market with a tested, supported configuration.
Kaefer said there will be a shim developed to help guest operating systems perform faster and more reliably. Microsoft will also build an agent to ship with its System Center management software to manage Linux.
Most important for Linux users is that Microsoft is providing immediate patent protection for customers who use Novell's Linux. Today, Linux users are vulnerable to potential patent infringement claims. The patent covenant, thus far, is the only piece of the agreement that is real at this point because neither company has disclosed a road map.
"From a technical perspective, it's unclear what value there will be in terms of the virtualization or directory support because they've given us no details," said John Enck, vice president and research director at Gartner Inc., the Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm. "But the patent protection means IT shops can use Linux and Windows in the same environment, and the legal ramifications are immediate and valuable."
For other experts, the deal on face value looks a little lopsided in favor of Microsoft. "What does Novell get out of this?" asked Bernie Klinder, a consultant at Blue Chip Consulting Group in Broadview Heights, Ohio. "Microsoft gets a percentage of sales, and Novell gets the potential to do something."
There are some IT managers who said they don't see the alliance between Microsoft and Novell as a magnanimous effort on the part of Microsoft to promote better interoperability between Windows and Linux. Instead, they see it as just a competitive strike against Linux market leader Red Hat Inc., which also seeks to unseat Microsoft on the desktop.
"There are a lot of places that the Linux kernel has proven itself, and people are realizing that," said Vince Arcuri, manager of Unix administration at St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Home Shopping Network, which runs Windows, Unix and Linux. "They see Red Hat on their heels, replacing four- and eight-CPU machines. So [Microsoft] decides to partner with another Linux vendor that is lower tier."
Vendor posturing aside, managers like Arcuri know they will likely get some business gain out of the competitive situation. "It's a win for people like me who see Microsoft as having a place," said Arcuri, who is certified both on the Windows platform and on Red Hat Linux, "To me, if this helps me keep a product more in lock-step with open source, then it's a good thing."
The half-empty/half-full perspectives
Many IT managers still have a natural knee-jerk reaction to anything Microsoft does in the interest of expanding the Windows empire because it's often to the detriment of third-party competitors along the way. Some IT shops using open source technology worry that Microsoft will tweak its software in some way that renders the open source technology unusable.
So, for them, working together is better than working apart. "With Microsoft acknowledging the market and working together [with Novell], it will be better for the open source community," said Russ Bevan, IT manager at Wyevale Garden Centres plc. in Hereford, U.K. "We use Samba, and [we've worried] that Microsoft would change its protocols and we won't be able to use it any more."
Microsoft has been forced to recognize that open source software is here to stay. Five to 10 years ago, open source support was non-existent, but all that has changed. The IT community is more educated, and there are more support options.
For a long time Microsoft said open source really didn't matter. But it does and its influence is growing, said Dan Stolts, president and senior systems engineer at Bay State Integrated Technology Inc. in Lakeville, Mass.
He's also chairman of the Boston Area Windows Server User Group, and Stolts said user group members complain all the time about the lack of cooperation between Microsoft and the open source community. "It's only good for the technology community when those who, instead of fighting, are playing in the same ballpark."
Christina Torode contributed to this story.