by Bernard Golden

Five Things You Should Know About the Microsoft/Novell Deal

Nov 03, 20065 mins

Wow! What a week, eh? Oracle makes a big announcement about their support for Linux (see my take on that), and it gets upstaged by an even bigger announcement by Microsoft and Novell. Obviously, this is a significant development — but what are the really important aspects of it that you should care about? Here are five things you should take away from the announcement:

1. Open source is important to your future.

If it wasn’t clear before, it is now. Microsoft has tried convincing customers that their product is better than Linux via the endlessly repeated “Get the Facts” campaign and self-funded “objective analyst comparisons,” but obviously real-world customers have made it loud and clear that their future computing infrastructure is going to include Linux and if Microsoft wants to keep its place in that infrastructure it’s going to have to make nice with Linux. Also, unspoken, but quite obvious: Red Hat is a formidable competitor for Microsoft, which drove it into the arms of Novell, a Linux distributor that has not achieved the market adoption that their technology deserves.

The fact that the announcement goes into detail about the technology agreements and products that the two companies will cooperate on indicates this announcement is in a different class from the tiresome air kiss “Barney” announcements that are a regular feature of the technology industry.

This is the real deal, and it shows how rapidly the adoption of open source is moving. 

2. Desktop Lock-in is Reduced

Both parties have agreed to cooperate on creating and distributing plugins for their respective office automation products. This ensures that organizations (e.g., the Commonwealth of Massachusetts) will be able to move forward with migrating to a neutral, standards-based document format while not requiring users to jettison Microsoft Office en masse. Longer term, this allows end users to standardize on the storage format while having options about which office automation product to use. Even longer term, this provides the exciting ability for non-office automation products to access standards-based files to extract information (can anyone say a data mining tool to pull records and analyze land transactions in the Commonwealth during the mid-nineteenth century?).

3. Virtualization Really is a Big Deal

The fact that the two companies will cooperate on virtualization and support one another’s virtual machines illustrates how important virtualization is. It also indicates that Microsoft really, really wants to make Windows the key foundation technology of future data centers, and is willing to support Linux virtual machines on its own technology if that’s what it takes.

Virtualization will be at the heart of tomorrow’s data centers and both of these companies want a seat at the table (excuse the mixed metaphor).

As I read this agreement, it appears to extend the agreement Microsoft made with XenSource to enable the forthcoming Microsoft hypervisor to support Xen-formatted virtual machines by accomplishing the reverse: the Xen hypervisor will support Microsoft-formatted virtual machines. The agreement might not go so far, in that it might be aimed at allowing the Microsoft operating system modifications necessary to allow it to run as a paravirtualized guest on top of Xen. It’s more likely it’s the first alternative, since XenSource already has announced support for the format in its proprietary Xen Enterprise product; this agreement will extend it to Novell’s products and, perhaps, to the open source Xen product itself. That would certainly be a boon for end users who could support Microsoft VMs on any Xen distribution, rather than on specific, proprietary Xen-extending products.

4. Novell Deserves a Huge Thank-You from the Open Source Community Regarding Patents

Typical of announcements like this is an agreement not to sue one another for patent infringement. Novell deserves enormous credit for holding Microsoft’s feet to the fire and extracting an agreement not to sue individual community developers (i.e., individuals not employed by a commercial entity to do open source development) for patent infringement.

There has been a huge amount of discussion about the danger of patent litigation against open source projects over the past couple of years; the subtext of this discussion has been the potential threat of Microsoft pursuing a scorched-earth business strategy of suing anyone and everyone for patent infringement. While commercial entities might have considered this risk and taken it on as part of their overall business strategy, litigation could be ruinous to individuals who lack limited liability.

This announcement is extremely positive for all open source products, not just Linux, and all open source developers, not just Linux developers. While Microsoft has carefully avoided agreeing not to sue commercial entities, this agreement forestalls the potential for random litigation; it implies that Microsoft will only pursue patent litigation in cases of true infringement rather than as a competitive tactic.

5. Did I mention that Open Source is Important to Your Future?

If you’ve been hanging back from pursuing open source initiatives, proferring reasons like “I want one throat to choke,” or “Yeah, it’s cheap, but it’s so much more work than proprietary software,” this announcement is a wake-up call. If Microsoft is throwing in the towel on their all-Microsoft infrastructure dreams, it illustrates — in a dramatic way — that infrastructures are going to be a mix of open source and proprietary, with an increasing portion of the mix moving to open source.

Open source represents an economic revolution that carries with it changed IT processes, not unlike the changed processes that a small company named Microsoft imposed when it helped bring the economic revolution of the PC to the world. Somehow we adjusted to needing to install distributed copies of software, and so on; this announcement makes obvious that the challenge of changed IT processes imposed by open source is something to be absorbed, not an excuse to avoid using it.