Beware of Microsofties Bearing Gifts? Not This Time

Old habits die hard. When Linux and open source in general were still in the cradle, it made sense to be afraid -- very afraid -- of Microsoft and other commercial software vendors. But those days are long over. Linux is so deeply entrenched in the enterprise that Ballmer and company couldn't kill it if they tried. So my advice to the FOSSies and bloggers who are about to have a cow over Microsoft's decision to contribute a handful of drivers to the code base is to take a Xanax and chill out.

In case you missed it, Microsoft has released 20,000 lines of Hyper-V device driver code to the Linux kernel community. The news prompted a number of commentators, including InfoWorld's own Randall Kennedy, to go full-bore ballistic. You'd think the black helicopters were about to swoop down on Linuxland.

[ Discover where open source is heading from the movement's leaders in InfoWorld's "state of open source" roundtable. | Find out how InfoWorld's Test Center rates Hyper-V ]

I'm not so naive as to think that Microsoft is doing anything but looking out for itself. But hey, Microsoft is in business to make money, and there's nothing wrong with that. Greg Schott, the CEO of MuleSource and nobody's patsy, puts it this way: "I take it at face value, and no, this isn't a new, altruistic Microsoft. To compete with VMware, Hyper-V needs every advantage Redmond can create for it. As far as Microsoft attempting to take over Linux, it would be like trying to occupy a very populous and patriotic foreign country. Even Microsoft knows its limits."

What's more, the code in question is already out there and has been for some time, notes Bernard Golden, an open source consultant and CEO of Navica. "Distros -- Novell's and others' -- have been using that code. Adding it to the code base will likely improve the quality. And save them [the distros' developers] some work," he says.

The Real Target: VMware

As Freud probably never said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." And sometimes a contribution is just a contribution. Microsoft's Sam Ramji, senior director of platform strategy in the company's Server and Tools organization, explains the action this way in a prepared statement and video:

"Our initial goal in developing the code was to enable Linux to run as a virtual machine on top of Hyper-V, Microsoft's hypervisor and implementation of virtualization. The Linux device drivers we are releasing are designed so Linux can run in enlightened mode, giving it the same optimized synthetic devices as a Windows virtual machine running on top of Hyper-V. Without this driver code, Linux can run on top of Windows, but without the same high performance levels. We worked very closely with the Hyper-V team at Microsoft to make that happen."

Why not take that statement at face value? It certainly makes sense. Microsoft wants its virtual environment to outclass that of EMC's VMware unit, the embattled market leader. "At the heart of this is Microsoft being able to say able to say, 'We support Linux payloads really well in our virtual machine,'" says Golden.

Similarly, Greg Kroah-Hartman, who leads the Linux Kernel Device Driver Project and was instrumental in Microsoft's move, says, "The benefit of this [contribution] is any user who runs Linux as a client on top of Hyper-V will have a much faster Linux client." (He is also a fellow at Novell, which has a controversial open source partnership with Microsoft.)

Microsoft, says Protecode CEO Mahshad Koohgoli, is not acting from a position of strength. "Like any intelligent organization, Microsoft has recognized that it can not stubbornly continue to push its traditional model in a world that increasingly has options. Rather than doing an IBM-circa-late-seventies, it is cautiously experimenting with initiatives that take advantage of the powerful current of open source, without jeopardizing its well-entrenched business model."

Microsoft's Legal Threat Against Open Source Remains

"I'm trying to believe that Microsoft is doing something good. In this particular instance, there probably wasn't any strategic reason for it to not open-source the Linux stuff," says Dave Rosenberg, formerly CEO of MuleSource and now part of the founding team of RiverMuse. "However if Microsoft really wants to be a friend to Linux and open source, it could easily do so with a no-sue patent rule," he adds.

Earlier this year, Microsoft filed a lawsuit against TomTom, a maker of automobile-based navigation systems, saying the company had violated eight Microsoft patents. TomTom's devices run a version of the Linux OS. Microsoft charged that TomTom's Linux implementation violates three of its patents.

The suit was settled, but as Rosenberg points out, Microsoft has not said that it won't launch patent-related suits against other open source companies. Doing so would ease at least some of the distrust (not all of it paranoid, by any means) that still ripples through the open source community.

There's also a school of thought that sees Microsoft's move as a validation of open source. "We see the move by Microsoft to submit its device driver code to the Linux kernel as a validation of the open source development model and the GPLv2 license," said Jim Zemlin, executive director of the Linux Foundation. "Even if a bit overdue, we applaud Microsoft for recognizing the value of collaboration in order to compete in today's IT market."

I'm not sure that Linux needed Pope Steve's imprimatur, but what the heck, this is a win for the good guys.

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