It would’ve been very easy to just ignore the presentation titled “Microsoft and Open Source” at the All Things Open conference in Raleigh last week, except for one thing–the presenter.
The folks in Redmond didn’t grab just anybody to speak for them. They sent someone with some serious open source cred, Ross Gardler, who is currently President of the Apache Foundation and is a co-founder of the OpenDirective project. He’s been employed by Microsoft Open Technologies for the past year or so.
It became obvious very early on in his presentation that Gardler is the real McCoy when it comes to open source. While he may not be in the free software camp as much as we’d like, there’s no denying he knows his way around OSS. He’s a true believer, too.
Obviously, he knew going in that he’d be speaking to a very skeptical audience. At the beginning of the presentation, when he asked for a show of hands from all who were surprised to see the terms “open source” and “Microsoft” being used together, there was some laughter and nearly every hand in the room went up.
“Okay, no surprise,” he said, “almost everybody. Not so long ago, I would’ve put my hand up.”
The presentation began with a feel-good story on how Microsoft and open source saved the day in Costa Rica in September of 2012. There was an earthquake, a bad one, with an accompanying tsunami warning. The server at Teletica, a major Costa Rican news site, quickly went down, swamped by heavy traffic, and needed to get back up pronto. People needed information.
The solution employed by Teletica’s IT folks was Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud service, where they leveraged some available apps to add some needed functionality for their coverage of the disaster, like maps and the ability to post user videos. Quickly, they got back online and were able to serve their audience.
“So they want to cope with three times more traffic than they normally do, they want to put in new features and they want to do it fast. So what do they do? Well, they build and employ a new solution and they put it out on Windows Azure platform and everything goes very well. Eveything is up and running. Everybody is not so happy, there’s been an earthquake, but at least the technology is working. This is grand. The surprising thing, for me, is it took forty-five minutes from the point of going down to the point of coming back up with new services. Forty-five minutes, which in itself is hugely impressive.
“Now, I promised there was a twist and that this wasn’t a Microsoft service pitch. The twist, and what’s important to us here, is that the whole stack was open source. It would have been much harder to do that quite that quickly without open source software. The fact is, on Window Azure they found the solution that they went with. It was an open source solution. And that’s why Microsoft’s engaged with open source. That’s why we’re all engaged with open source.”
Windows Azure turned out to be the star of this presentation and we learned a lot of facts about its use.
We learned that after opening an account on Azure, it’s possible to fire up a virtual machine with a choice of five flavors of Linux as an OS. In addition, we learned about all of the open source projects that receive code contributions from Microsoft, mainly for the benefit of their cloud service, projects such as PHP, Firefox, node.js, Drupal–the list goes on and on.
However, if Azure was the star of this presentation, it was also to key to understanding Microsoft’s primary motivations for suddenly trying to jump on the “we’re open too” bandwagon.
“With Microsoft, customers aren’t just the people who are paying Microsoft for a Windows license or an Office license or whatever… They’re people who are selling products and services to other businesses. We have lots of businesses within Microsoft that make a significant amount of money from customers buying directly, but we also have lots of partners who are engaging with different groups of customers that we personally don’t reach.
“So when we say, when I say, listening to customers, I mean listening to you out here. People who have customers are saying, I really like, let’s say Drupal, and I want to integrate it with Office 365. We need to work with the Drupal community, the PHP community and whatever other technologies are involved to enable you to do that kind of thing. That’s what I mean when I say listening to customers.”
And therein lies the rub.
Microsoft is embracing open source because they have no choice if they wish to keep their proprietary products relevant–especially in the cloud. If Windows Azure offered virtual machines running only on Windows, or only proprietary programs and apps for their stack, the service would fail miserably. Azure’s success depends on its ability to offer CentOS, Apache, Hadoop, Drupal and the like.
Likewise, Microsoft’s contributions to open source projects are almost entirely for the purpose of making sure that open source applications will run well on Windows.
In other words, Microsoft hasn’t been struck by lightening and experienced an “aha” moment. They’ve been dragged kicking and screaming by the demon named Necessity into the open source corner. They’re working with open source because it’s the only thing they can do if they want to stay alive.
This very well may turn out to be a good thing, however, for all of us.
To compete in the open source marketplace, Microsoft has been forced to hire some good open source people. There are now folks like Ross Gardler and many others like him, who are collecting paychecks from Redmond to contribute code to and work with open source projects. Eventually these employees, drawn from the open source community, might actually effect a change of thinking within Redmond’s corporate culture and Microsoft might truly become a real open source player one day. Stranger things have happened.
That day is not now, however.
We will know that day has arrived when Microsoft quits threatening every open source project under the sun with patent litigation. When they promise not to use their patents against open source so long as we don’t sue them, then we’ll know they’ve really changed. Until then, we can only encourage them as they take baby steps in the right direction.