Linuxworld: Microsoft warms up to Linux

For those rabid, open-source conspiracy theorists still holding on to the popular notion that Microsoft Corp. is secretly working on its own version of the Linux operating system (OS), Bill Hilf has some sobering news.

“The bottom line is, we’re wholly, 100 percent committed to Windows and think we can do amazingly powerful things in the operating system,” said Hilf, director of platform technology strategy at the Redmond, Washington-based software giant. “There’s a ton of stuff we can do to innovate. We don’t see that level of innovation [in Linux] that makes us say there’s [anything] out there that’s better than or more effective than what we can do.”

Hilf, who runs Microsoft’s Linux/Open Source lab, said he’s heard a million varieties of the question about whether Microsoft is working on its own Linux implementation, so many that “I should write a book about them all,” he joked in an interview Wednesday.

“The conspiracy theories are ripe,” Hilf said. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me, ‘I know that [Windows] Longhorn is built on a Linux kernel.'”

Still, Hilf acknowledged that Microsoft’s commitment to Windows does not preclude the company from continuing a strategy he has led in his 19 months at the software vendor: To see how Microsoft’s proprietary technologies can better interoperate with Linux and a host of other open-source software.

In fact, that is exactly what will be the focus of a discussion the long-time open-source proponent will lead at this year’s upcoming Linuxworld Conference & Expo next month in San Francisco.

In a session entitled, “Managing Linux in a Mixed Environment … at Microsoft?” Hilf, who polished his open-source evangelism skills working on Linux deployments at IBM Corp., will talk about how he and the team at the Linux/Open Source lab run open source technologies in “the most Microsoft-centric IT environment on the planet.”

“We come up with a lot of interoperability issues, trying to get these things to run,” Hilf said. “We see a lot of problems other people have, and we’ve developed solutions for all of those.”

Hilf said he also will give the Linux faithful a glimpse into what technology he and his engineers use in the lab on a day-to-day basis.

“I have a team of senior Linux and open-source people in the lab,” he said. “I will take [attendees] through what we use in our lab — what operating systems, what servers, how we virtualize them, how we make them all work together, how we use Microsoft management products to make it all work together.”

Dave Rosenberg, a San Francisco-based marketing consultant who is working on content for Linuxworld, said Microsoft has been experimenting for some time how they can “better deal with Linux,” but the show will be the first time Hilf will discuss Microsoft’s Linux interoperability efforts within the open-source community.

Indeed, Hilf said that while he was at Linuxworld last year, he did not speak on behalf of Microsoft but was an attendee like everyone else. In fact, he boasted in rather geeky fashion that he has attended every single Linuxworld in the U.S. since the show was first held in 1999. “I should get some kind of medal for that,” Hilf joked.

Microsoft has shown signs lately of being extremely interested in keeping its Linux enemy close. At its Microsoft Management Summit in Las Vegas earlier this year, Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer said that Microsoft’s Virtual Server 2005 Service Pack 1 would support Linux-based virtual machines. He also acknowledged that Microsoft is listening to feedback from customers who want its Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) product to support non-Windows systems such as those running Linux.

Michael Goulde, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, said Microsoft is beginning to see the need for supporting Linux in some capacity in the same way it has been offering Unix interoperability support with the Services for Unix component of Windows Server.

“Microsoft has now gotten to a point that they’re accepting the fact that there’s enough Linux in their customer environments that they need to interoperate with Linux in the same way they interoperated with Unix in the past,” Goulde said.

Hilf said that Microsoft now has a far better understanding of how technologically diverse customer environments are than it did several years ago, and is more open-minded than ever about making sure its products interoperate with competitive ones such as Linux.

“Shockingly, my biggest surprise my first year [at the company] was just how much Microsoft as a company has been open to [open source],” he said. “The attitude is more, ‘Tell me more about this,’ versus, ‘God, don’t touch this, it’s going to explode if we look at it.’ Polarization is starting to be less and less.”

Microsoft will continue to bolster efforts enabling software like MOM to manage a host of non-Microsoft environments, but mainly through third parties and not within its own product development, Hilf said. It is easy for third parties to build add-ons to MOM called MOM Management Packs that can manage competitive software and Microsoft likely will continue to support this kind of interoperability work rather than bake it into the product itself, Hilf said.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to do it,” Hilf said. “We’ve built tools to make management packs easy. The real interesting work has to be done by people working on the applications. [To manage an Oracle environment] you really don’t want Microsoft guys doing it, you want Oracle guys doing it. This is in line with our motto to build platforms and tools that allow other people to take their intellectual property and brain power to write something specific to their application.”

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