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MS tool lets Windows play nice with rivals

Microsoft is dangling a free version of its Services for Unix product in front of users in hopes of gaining a foothold in the data center.

While Microsoft no longer publicly likens open source software to a disease, the company continues hammering at Linux by touting Microsoft conversion products and total-cost-of-ownership studies that shine a good light on Windows.

The company's next advance on Linux will be to offer a free version of its suite of utilities that helps Unix applications run on Windows, called Services for Unix (SFU) version 3.5. The price used to be $99 for a client or server license.

The software boasts a few enhancements over older versions. Notably, there are improvements to performance and support for Posix threads, or P-threads, which is more common in high-performance line-of-business applications. Posix, or Portable Operating System Interface, is a set of standard OS interfaces based on Unix.

Dennis Oldroyd, a director in Microsoft's Windows server group, said that his company is making SFU 3.5 a free tool in order to encourage its deployment. "We know customers have the issue of interoperability," Oldroyd said. "Most customers have Linux and Windows in their environments, and they have interoperability challenges. We think driving a better customer experience outweighs us trying to create a business around these interoperability tools."

The software is currently in use at Group 4 Securitas AS, at the Belfast, Ireland-based division of the global security services company. Using SFU, IT administrators are running an application written for the Solaris operating system not just on Solaris but on Linux and Windows as well.

"Because SFU has provided a Unix-like environment, we now network three different types of operating systems together, all from the same code base," said Adrien Bowen, a systems development manager at Group 4 Securitas.

Bowen said that it was important for the application to be accessible on the Windows platform because the company wanted to export the application to its other groups, which are spread across the world and are generally standardized on the Windows platform.

While SFU 3.5 is certainly useful in some enterprises, some experts say that the fact that Microsoft is giving this application away makes them a little suspicious. "When a software company gives stuff away, it either suggests a strong desire to make themselves as attractive as possible in a new space or get more traction in a place where they haven't gotten much attention," said Charles King, an analyst at the Sageza Group, a Mountain View, Calif., research firm.

The launch of Windows Server 2003 was a continuation of the company's entry in the corporate data center market, and it's not clear whether Microsoft got as much out of that as it had hoped, he said.

"Now that Intel [Corp.] is pushing its Itanium processor platform, and Hewlett-Packard Co., which is a primary Microsoft partner, is driving most of Itanium sales, Microsoft sees some opportunity to let Unix users play nice with Windows products," King said.

Linux and Unix continue to have a strong hold on the data center, and that's exactly where Microsoft wants to be. Microsoft executives have publicly acknowledged many times that Linux is a very real threat to Microsoft, and proponents of the open source OS are trying to expand into new markets.

For nearly two years, Microsoft has tried to gain an upper hand by portraying Windows as a better deal overall because Linux isn't as cheap as it seems to be. In reality, whether Linux or Windows is a better deal depends on a lot of factors, said Gordon Haff, a principal at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm.

Most IT administrators recognize that just because Linux is free, that doesn't mean there are no costs associated with the software. For companies with a lot of Windows systems installed, the cost of a transition may be too high. But lots of customers continue to look at Linux, particularly those who remain confused about Microsoft licensing agreements.

In the past year, Microsoft has tweaked its pricing to counter open source software in several environments. For example, the education version of Office 2003 is available for about $100. "If there were no Open Office or Star Office, would Microsoft have done that?" Haff said. "Probably not."

At the tactical level, Microsoft has become less doctrinaire about its Linux strategy.

"[Microsoft] recognizes that, as much as it would like Linux to disappear, it is a reality of corporate environments and, therefore, a certain amount of coexistence is necessary," he said. "If they start forcing people to choose between all Windows and all non-Windows, there is a risk that people will start to choose non-Windows."


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