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Microsoft and Linux: Growing ties could benefit CIOs

Microsoft's recent arrival as a Platinum-level member of The Linux Foundation deepens the company's involvement in open source technology, which could benefit CIOs.

Microsoft's move to join The Linux Foundation is the company's latest nod to open source and a welcome, if somewhat surprising, development for CIOs who see the future in cross-platform computing. 

The Linux Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to foster commercial adoption of open source technology, said Nov. 16 that Microsoft has joined its ranks at the Platinum level, the highest level of corporate membership. Microsoft and Linux didn't appear destined to play well together in earlier decades. But the Redmond, Wash. company, where open source was once considered a malignancy, has been extending its reach into the technology in recent years. Two years ago, for example, Microsoft open sourced its server-side .NET stack and expanded the development framework to run on Linux. Other open source developments include the arrival of a public preview of SQL Server, Microsoft's mainstay database software, running on Linux

Microsoft's ongoing cultural shift from Windows-everywhere monolith to a more open company suits Ted Ross, general manager and CIO for the city of Los Angeles. He said Microsoft has been seen as hostile to open source, but noted that the company is changing its proprietary ways. 

Ted Ross, general manager and CIO, city of Los Angeles Ted Ross

The open source direction "reflects Microsoft expanding to an understanding of what the new economy looks like," Ross said. 

That new economy, he said, is "very API-driven" and characterized by a cross-platform approach in which CIOs select among numerous technology tools for the best option for a given IT workload. He said he can't rely on a single vendor, or a single operating system, to deliver the optimum digital services for his customers. He said the city's 41 departments use a number of operating systems, with Windows and Linux at the top of the list. 

In such an environment, Microsoft may view its cultural shift as critical for the company's continued relevance, according to Ross. 

"[Microsoft is] not satisfied to be the 900-pound  gorilla and [is] competing for the business," he said. "As a CIO, I find that very exciting." 

Microsoft and Linux: A surprising twist

Microsoft's embrace of open source marks a dramatic departure from prior years when former CEO Steve Ballmer likened Linux to cancer. That background makes the news of Microsoft's Linux Foundation debut an intriguing development. 

"Given what Ballmer has said over the years, I was very surprised," said John Kolb, vice president for Information Services and Technology and CIO at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "It's kind of curious to say the least," he added, citing Microsoft's historical lack of enthusiasm, if not outright hostility, regarding open source technology. 

John Kolb, CIO, RPIJohn Kolb

Kolb said RPI, based in Troy, N.Y., uses both Windows and Linux and maintains expertise in both areas. Microsoft's Linux Foundation participation could bring those communities closer together. He said he also hopes that Microsoft products and open source tools will see better integration. 

The question of where those integrations will take place and how they will be prioritized may be answered by students at schools such as RPI, Kolb suggested. RPI students, for example, pursue open source projects in the school's Rensselaer Center for Open Source

"Some of the best talent coming out of a place like RPI, as well as others, is very heavily steeped and skilled in open source," he said. "That is their culture. So if Microsoft wants to get some of the best people to answer that question and code to that question, I think they need to be in this world." 

Overall, Microsoft's participation in The Linux Foundation as a contributor will be a good thing for the open source community, Kolb noted. 

As for Microsoft's specific contributions, Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, based in San Francisco, pointed out that Microsoft "is already a major contributor to the Linux kernel, and is also currently contributing to a number of Linux Foundation projects." 

Jim Zemlin, executive director, The Linux Foundation Jim Zemlin

Those projects include the Node.js Foundation, OpenDaylight, Open Container Initiative, R Consortium, Open API Initiative and TODO Group. 

The Microsoft and Linux collaboration seems likely to expand. Zemlin said the foundation anticipates Microsoft "will become more involved with a wider array of Linux Foundation projects over time." 

That participation could speed up open source developments, which could benefit CIOs down the road. 

"In the long term, we should see Microsoft continue to become more involved in the open source community, and thanks to its large developer community, projects they focus on should expect to see even faster technical progress," Zemlin said. 

Cloud benefits

Microsoft's greater openness also plays well in the cloud. About one in three virtual machines in the Microsoft Azure cloud runs Linux, according to a Microsoft spokeswoman. 

Ross said the ability to run non-Microsoft workloads on Microsoft's cloud infrastructure makes the offering more attractive. 

"I'm de-incentivized to use Microsoft infrastructure if I'm forced to use a suite of Microsoft products I don't use today," Ross said. "The openness to allow me to use Microsoft as an infrastructure vendor and retain the use of VMware or Linux makes Microsoft even more compelling." 

Ross said the city uses Azure, Amazon Web Services and GovCloud for cloud computing resources. 

Zemlin said Microsoft has offered Linux on Azure for some time now. Earlier this year, Microsoft and The Linux Foundation rolled out the Linux-on-Azure certification program. That program certifies individuals who can demonstrate the ability to design, implement and maintain "complex, cloud-enabled Linux solutions" that take advantage of Azure's features, Zemlin said. 

Ross and Kolb, meanwhile, both see the influence of Satya Nadella, who became Microsoft's CEO in 2014, in the company's open source position. Ross said Nadella has a new vision for Microsoft, citing the CEO's statements that a learn-it-all culture bests a know-it-all mindset. 

"It's certainly a way for Nadella to put his stamp on Microsoft," Kolb said of Microsoft's open source moves. 

Next Steps

Read about the growing accord between Microsoft and Linux

Gain a historical perspective on Linux

Learn about Microsoft's open source alliances in the cloud

This was last published in November 2016

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Microsoft's involvement with and connection to Linux and other Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) projects has been done to the benefit of Microsoft alone, and sometimes even to the detriment of Linux and FOSS, if the company can enable such result. Such disjointed relationship does not exist with "any other" corporate or organizational Member of the Linux Foundation, all of whom contribute and work to enhance Linux and FOSS for their own AND for unselfish purposes as well. Do the CIOs mentioned want the Microsoft benefits only, without regard for overall health and well being of Linux/FOSS? It would be informative for FOSS technologists and organizations to know where they stand.
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