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IT managers doubt open source deals will bring change

Microsoft is lining up Linux partners to maintain the dominance of its operating system. But will it work?

As Microsoft reaches out to open source companies, many IT managers continue to doubt whether the company's recent deals with Linux vendors will mean real business change.

Microsoft has linked arms with several open source vendors during the last six months. The latest deal came last week with Linspire Inc., the San Diego-based maker of Linux desktop software. Microsoft and Linspire promised document formatting compatibility, interoperability between instant messaging clients, fonts and audio and visual codecs.

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Just a few weeks ago, Microsoft made public a broad patent-licensing agreement with LG Electronics, based in Seoul, South Korea. And at TechEd earlier this month, Microsoft and New York-based Xandros also cut a collaboration deal, making a range of promises that include systems management interoperability, server interoperability and office document compatibility.

And in November, Microsoft and Novell signed a collaboration pact that involved sharing technology to improve interoperability and document compatibility.

Experts attribute these types of deals to the growth of virtualization and the need for Microsoft to support multiple types of server operating systems. Many believe if Microsoft's Windows Server is to stay relevant and influential as a host operating system, the company needs to be flexible and support different guest OSes.

Operationally, there is a need for these levels of integration to occur for systems managers, said Tony Iams, vice president and senior analyst at Ideas International Inc., a Rye Brook, NY-based consulting firm.

Users snub Windows-only support

Virtualization can make systems management more challenging because there is no longer that one-to-one mapping between servers and operating systems. Now, IT managers have many operating systems in one box -- and it might not even be the same operating system, or it may come from different vendors, Iams said.

"Microsoft has been discovering the old support it had -- which was strictly for Windows -- has become increasingly unacceptable for users," he said.

Most of the concern about interoperability comes from organizations with large data centers where IT administrators are juggling the same kinds of OSes on different hardware. The real issue is what OS will run on the bare metal, Iams said. If Microsoft were to be inflexible, then IT administrators will look for another OS to run on the host.

But old feelings die hard and IT managers still worry about Microsoft's culture of embrace and extend. Some fear that Microsoft will take open source code and build products around it so that they release the code under open source's General Public License, but the extensions can remain proprietary to Microsoft.

One example of this would be the message-passing interface used in Microsoft's Windows Compute Cluster Server, which was originally an open source technology to which Microsoft has added features.

IT shops mix Windows with open source

FSW, a Bridgeport, Conn.-based social services agency, uses Windows but also has an open source-based storage area network, which is managed by an open filer, an extension of an iSCSI enterprise target project.

"I think [Microsoft's deals] are a backward way to get open source developers to work with Microsoft," said Joseph Foran, IT director at FSW. "It's counterintuitive trying to get companies like Novell to sign 'sign so we don't sue you' agreements in the hope of getting their developers to play in the same sandbox as Microsoft developers."

On one hand, Microsoft has these efforts plus its Codeplex, the open source product hosting site, and "all these efforts to reach out to developers," Foran said. "[But] it's also got its top brass talking about IP."

Microsoft recently made claims that open source technology infringed on roughly 235 of its patents, and it might be looking to collect royalties.

"This stuff just floats by us in the ether as another hollow threat and another hollow agreement," Foran said. "Only if there is a change in technology that benefits business will we pay attention."

Open source platforms put down roots

For a majority of large companies, open source platforms are here to stay for a wide assortment of applications.

At Ogihara America Corp., a Howell, Mich.-based automotive parts manufacturer, Red Hat Inc.'s brand of Linux is a mainstream tool that is used to run all of the company's infrastructure support applications, such as the Web server, FTP servers, DNS and DHCP [dynamic host configuration protocol]. "For us, Linux is easier and cheaper to develop the processes we need," said Dennis Henning, an IT manager at Ogihara.

But, overall, Microsoft's pacts with open source vendors are likely to have little impact on IT shops. "It's all probably just a fact-finding mission for them or a way to say they're involved with the open source community so people like myself won't say they're not a player," said Vince Arcuri, manager of Unix administration at Home Shopping Network in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"A lot of vendors are trying to blend it all together and have more continuity in a heterogeneous world," Arcuri said. "But Microsoft won't give up their competitive edge by giving anything away."

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