Linux has won, Microsoft joins the Linux Foundation

Microsoft also released public preview of SQL Server for Linux.

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Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

I knew it was going to happen, it was just a matter of time. Microsoft has officially joined the Linux Foundation as a platinum member. You heard it right. Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation as a top tier member. Microsoft and the Linux Foundation just made the announcement at the Connect(); // 2016 event in New York.

I recall in an earlier interview with Jim Zemlin,  the executive director of the Linux Foundation, when I asked him about the possibility of Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation and his response was, “Certainly, we are open to it.”

Why Microsoft loves Linux

There used to be a time when Microsoft hated Linux. Steve Ballmer called Linux a cancer.  Back in those days Linux was a threat to Microsoft’s business, it still is in the operating space. But the larger market has changed, it has evolved from server-client model to cloud-mobile model. In 2014 Microsoft changed its strategy and started its cloud-first, mobile first journey.

Under Satya Nadella, Microsoft changed its approach towards Linux and became more friendly towards it. In 2014, Nadella made public the display of Microsoft’s love for Linux. It was a refreshing change, but there was a reason. Linux is a dominant force in the cloud-mobile world. There are only two operating systems in data centers: Linux and Windows. Period. Private cloud is all about Linux.  When it comes to public cloud, Ubuntu Linux is the most popular operating system on AWS (Amazon Web Services). Just look at Microsoft’s own cloud platform, Azure, where nearly one in three Azure machines now run Linux. And Azure is critical to Microsoft's cloud strategy.

Azure customers need the confidence that Microsoft is not hostile towards the very platform that they use. Microsoft has to show that they care about Linux. Microsoft has been working closely with all three major Linux players, including Red Hat, SUSE and Canonical to ensure that their products are fully supported on Azure. Microsoft also works with community distributions like Debian to support them on Azure.

Microsoft has hired some of the leading Linux kernel developers including Matthew Wilcox and Stephen Hemminger who work on the kernel. It’s not just about supporting what customers need; Microsoft itself is a consumer of Linux. Microsoft has developed a Linux based operating system called Azure Cloud Switch (ACS). It is a cross-platform modular operating system for data center networking built on Linux. Linux is now a core component of Azure Cloud. You can’t be hostile towards the very project that powers your own infrastructure.

Talk is cheap, show me the code

Microsoft is not new to open source. I have been tracking Microsoft’s open source efforts from the very early days. Ten years before Nadella made the ‘Microsoft Loves Linux’ announcement, in 2004 Microsoft released its first open source project called Wix toolset under an OSS approved Licence.

[Timeline: Microsoft’s major open source announcements so far]

Since then Microsoft has released many open source projects. Recently Microsoft started to open source some of their core components including PowerShell, .NET core and Visual Studio. These technologies are enjoying wider adoption. In an interview,  Mitra Azizirad, Corporate Vice President, Cloud Application Development & Data Marketing at Microsoft told me that two thirds of contributions to .NET Core are coming from outside of Microsoft. It will be surprising to hear that arch rivals like Google are actually among the top contributors to .NET Core.

Google is in fact joining the Technical Steering Group of the .NET Foundation which shows that the .NET developer community is like any other open source community where competitors collaborate to improve the code.

Microsoft is just getting started. Azizirad told me that Microsoft will continue to open soure more of their technologies.

Joining the Linux Foundation

In addition to open sourcing their own technologies, Microsoft is contributing heavily to many open source projects. You may not know but Microsoft is one of the leading open source contributors on GitHub. Becoming a Linux Foundation member is just another step in its open source journey. “Microsoft has made this announcement today, but they've spent the last eight or so years contributing to open source projects,” said Jim Zemlin, the executive director of The Linux Foundation.

“Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation would have been truly unimaginable a couple years ago, but in the context of the Nadella Microsoft it should be seen as natural and even expected,” said Al Hilwa, Program Director, Software Development Research of IDC. “The company has been driving hard to appeal to Linux workloads on Azure, is bringing its key assets like SQL Server to the Linux platform, is open sourcing most of its platform IP and has moved to strike deep partnerships with major players in the Linux ecosystem.”

The Linux foundation is not the only open source organization Microsoft works with. Microsoft has been a supporter of the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) for a very long time. You may not know but Ross Gardler, a Microsoft employee has been the director and president of ASF since 2013. Microsoft also supports the Eclipse Foundation among many other open source organizations.

"From what we see, Microsoft continues to recognize the importance of Linux and other open source technologies in the marketplace. We are happy to see them continue to embrace and become involved in projects and organizations like the Linux Foundation,” said Mike Ferris, vice president, Business Development Architecture, Red Hat.

Microsoft is already involved with many Linux Foundation projects, including Node.js Foundation, OpenDaylight, Open Container Initiative, R Consortium and Open API Initiative.

“Microsoft has been a terrific collaborator with us on a variety of projects. Microsoft is working with us on security issues and with our Core Infrastructure Initiative (CII). We work with Microsoft on the AllSeen Alliance, which is an IoT initiative. We work with them on the node.js project. We work with them on Cloud Native Foundation, to name a few,” said Jim Zemlin. “It's been a refreshing and welcome change from the past to work with them. And we like it.”

Now as a member of the Linux Foundation, Microsoft will obviously work on core Linux. Zemlin wants to work with Microsoft to get the company involved in the foundation’s cloud computing projects such as the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, Kubernetes, Prometheus and the mobile efforts that the foundation is doing around things like Tizen, Zephyr and the Octave project. “We hope to see them supporting their strategy which is mobile and cloud through open source and they seem very, very committed to that,” said Zemlin.

Going beyond code, creating an even playing field for Linux

Microsoft’s collaboration with Linux goes beyond code contribution, the company is now creating a level playing field for Linux. Microsoft ported PowerShell to Linux and at the same time brought Ubuntu shell to Windows. The message is clear, it doesn’t matter what machine you run locally -- whether it’s Linux or Windows --  you will have same tools to do the job. In the enterprise world, Linux is no longer a second class citizen; it’s a first class citizen. Gone are the days when Microsoft would force you to use Windows to do everything.

As I said, it was just the beginning. Today at the Connect(); // 2016 event Microsoft also released the public preview of SQL Server for Linux, which means customers will be able to run SQL Server on Linux and Linux-based Docker containers. The company also announced a preview of Azure App Service support on Linux with native Linux support for Node.js and PHP stacks on Azure App Service to give web and mobile developers a simplified and fully managed experience.

You must have heard of Tizen, a Linux based operating system that’s aimed at a wide range of devices, including TVs, wearables, mobile, and many IoT devices. Today Samsung is releasing a preview of their Visual Studio Tools for Tizen so developers can use them to build .NET apps for the Tizen operating system.

Embrace, extend and...

It’s refreshing to see that Microsoft is embracing Linux. But...you can’t use the word ‘embrace’ in the context of Microsoft without bringing in ‘extend and extinguish’. There are still many people in the open source community who are skeptical of Microsoft’s intentions, given the company's long hostility towards Linux and open source. There are some valid concerns and I wrote about earlier. One of the most worrying concern is Microsoft’s continued use of patents as a tool to goad Linux players into signing deals with the company. Will it stop with Microsoft joining the Linux Foundation?

I see a glimmer of hope. You may have noticed that we don’t hear such stories that much anymore. What’s even more interesting is that you won’t see the same aggression in Microsoft’s blogs and press releases when they do sign such deals. Are they changing? Will becoming a Linux Foundation member change anything? I do hope so. The more you work together the less hostile you are towards your partners.

When I asked Zemlin about Microsoft’s use of patents against Linux players, as a member of the Linux Foundation, he said, “We discourage the use of a shared collective resource like Linux as a platform for asserting IP.” That’s a strong statement.

I am not alone in thinking that Microsoft may actually withdraw from their strategy of using patents as a weapon against Linux vendors. Hilwa said, “I don't think we are going to hear more about Linux-related patents.”

All's well that ends well

There are many people who will remain skeptical and that’s fine. We should remain vigilant, at the same time we should also welcome Microsoft into the Linux world. I think a friendly Microsoft is much better than a hostile one. In the end all we want is open source to grow, all we want is Linux to succeed. That’s exactly what’s happening with Microsoft joining the Linux foundation.

I recall my recent interview with Linus Torvalds where he said that getting rid of hostility between Microsoft and Linux will benefit everyone.

As someone who has been covering Microsoft’s open source efforts since 2005, I am extremely glad to see this development. The way I look at it is that in the end it’s Linux and open source that has won.

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