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Microsoft open source efforts draw praise

Industry observers are buying into Microsoft's attempts to reach new users, as the company builds support for Linux and other open source technologies in its offerings.

For the past two years, Microsoft has waged a relentless campaign to build bridges, not walls, between Windows and Linux. That effort has re-established Microsoft's street cred as a stem-to-stern services provider in the eyes of users.

Microsoft's CEO, Satya Nadella, drove the decision to extend the hand of friendship to the open source world over the last several years, instead of brandishing a clenched fist. While at an event in late 2014 to promote Microsoft's cloud offerings and show the company's commitment to open source, Nadella said, "Microsoft loves Linux." The statement was a 180-degree shift in attitude from his predecessor, Steve Ballmer, who called Linux a "cancer" in 2001.

Given Microsoft's rapidly rising revenues the past two years, it turns out Linux has been quite good to the company. The company's support for the open source operating system has helped put Microsoft back on the fast track while it gains respect among once-skeptical users and developers.

"Without that credibility, Microsoft would have a hard time convincing users to stay on board with them," said Al Gillen, group vice president of software development and open source at IDC. "Users living in very heterogeneous environments would feel Microsoft was a one-trick pony that couldn't service their total needs."

The enthusiastic adoption of Linux by Microsoft has boosted corporate users' confidence to blend Windows-based technologies with either existing or new internally developed open source projects. Some are also relieved they don't have to engage in hand-to-hand combat with Microsoft over the choice of platform to deploy an application.

"Every answer to questions we had about deployments was Windows," said a manager of terminal systems field initiatives with a large transportation company in Jacksonville, Fla. "Now, answers come back to us like, 'Whatever you think works best for you, we'll try to support that.' That's big for us."

Growing data center diversity 

The endless wave of mergers and acquisitions over the past decade among the country's largest companies has increased the technical diversity and complexity of their IT environments. The pure Microsoft IT organization, even down at the departmental level, is extinct. Even Microsoft itself, through its recent acquisition of LinkedIn, has picked up a sizeable fleet of Linux-based servers its internal IT organization must deal with, said John Gossman, lead architect for Microsoft Azure, the company's cloud platform.

"You might think in large companies that a whole department has everything built in .NET, and another whole department has all Linux and Java, but it's just not the case," he said. "Every department I have come across has mixed workloads. They might love Apache or be running a LAMP stack, but they also have SQL Server or Active Directory to tie together security and authentication."

Microsoft's mission to embrace Linux environments started in 2008 with the company's efforts to ensure Hyper-V and System Center tools ran well with the open source environment. Even then, the company realized it could no longer just support its hardcore Windows and .NET users, Gossman noted.

Path to Azure eased by adding Linux support

Four years ago, Microsoft added support for several distributions of Linux for its Azure cloud environment -- although support for Red Hat's distribution came only last year -- and began to build momentum to create bridges for Windows users to travel across to the open source world. The company's current role as a top-tier cloud provider has helped its campaign to equally support Windows and Linux side by side, so users can more easily pick their operating system and hardware.

"Trying to configure any of these things, especially on a bare-metal server, is a lot of work," Gossman said, adding that a move to the cloud eliminates the chore of finding the right hardware drivers and BIOS updates, then getting them to run properly.

The skyrocketing revenue growth of Azure -- 93% year-over-year growth from 2015 to 2016 -- could give pause to some corporate IT shops that currently have multiple cloud providers. Some observers said they believe the growth of Azure, with the ability to run both Windows and Linux-based workloads, as well as rising subscriptions for Office 365, could convince IT shops to kick public clouds like Google Cloud Platform and Amazon Web Services (AWS) to the curb.

"For some shops with less complex IT environments, they could decide they don't need to have AWS and Google solve their off-premises needs, and that they can get it all from one vendor," Gillen said. "It could serve to simplify things and, over time, and could also save them money."

Loving Linux

  • Microsoft has joined a number of open source consortiums, most notably The Linux Foundation as a Platinum member in November 2016. At that time, cloud archrival Google joined the .NET Technical Steering committee.
  • Microsoft is expected to deliver a version of its flagship database, SQL Server on Linux, later in 2017 that will enable data to be exchanged with Windows Server via the cloud or on premises.
  • The.NET development environment, along with Visual Studio, now supports Linux, so applications can be run in both Windows and Linux environments.
  • GitHub, a popular repository for open source projects, disclosed last September that Microsoft had the largest number of contributors to open source projects.
  • Windows and Azure support both Docker containers and Kubernetes container management.
  • Azure clearly has become a multi-platform cloud. Thirty-three percent of Azure's VMs run on Linux, and Azure supports eight Linux distributions, including CentOS, Oracle Linux, SUSE and Ubuntu.
  • Microsoft released PowerShell for Linux in August 2016 to provide tools that manage systems outside the Windows environment.

Microsoft delivers Linux versions of key offerings

Over the past couple of years, Microsoft has delivered Linux versions of three strategically important products: SQL Server, .NET and Visual Studio. At its 2016 Build developer conference, Microsoft debuted Windows Subsystem for Linux, which lets users run Ubuntu binaries via the Bash shell in Windows 10 and use Linux tools alongside Windows utilities without the need to reboot or launch a virtual machine.  

With these developments, Microsoft offers choice and convenience to corporate IT professionals and developers who are wary of lock-in with a single vendor's software stack, where a single decision, such as programming language, could dictate other decisions for operating systems, databases and even cloud, Gossman said.

"We separate out these layers to make sure they have choice at each layer. It makes it a lot easier for users to make decisions and removes that fear," he said.

For many enterprises, open source isn't a necessity yet, but the option is nice to have, said Molly Gallaher Boddy, an analyst at Technology Business Research in Hampton, N.H.

"All of their competitive peers, like IBM and [Hewlett Packard Enterprise], are offering proprietary solutions blended with open source, so [Microsoft has] to offer that. It's a keeping-pace thing," Boddy said.

Resistance to open source crumbles

Microsoft open source support is well-timed.

Acceptance of open source has slowed among some Windows shops because of a skills gap. Most IT professionals are trained to implement and maintain Windows platforms, and have little to no experience managing Linux and other open-source-based software. If given a choice, many administrators will choose to remain with platforms they know, but there are signs of shifting attitudes.

"You see smaller, OpenStack-focused companies like Mirantis and Rackspace shifting their businesses more toward services and training [for open source]. This tells me they recognize that gap and are working to fill it," Boddy said.

Some believe as Millennials -- many of whom are quite familiar with Linux -- come into the IT workforce in greater numbers, the lack of technical training on open source technologies will cease to be an issue in a few years.

"There will be this generational shift moving forward, as new IT [workers] become younger over time. But, for now, we are in a transitional time," said Kelsey Mason, an analyst with Technology Business Research's cloud practice.

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at [email protected].

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