There’s little doubt that a few eyebrows were raised by the news on Friday, when Larry Cafiero reported on FOSS Force about Canonical’s partnership with Microsoft involving Microsoft’s OCS hardware and Ubuntu’s open source Metal-as-a-Service (MAAS) deployment product. Those with a little memory might wonder if this is a case of history repeating itself, as we’ve seen Microsoft court aspiring princess distros before, with SUSE, not long after the distro was purchased by Novell, a company with an uneven history.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Utah based Novell, desperate to stem shrinking revenues, announced it’s intentions of becoming a major Linux and open source player. During the 1980s and 90s the company had flourished in the networking market with its NetWare operating system, a business that was by 2001 in rapid decline, mostly because Windows was now able to network out-of-the-box, and partly due to a customer relations fumble by CEO Eric Schmidt which resulted in the loss of much of the company’s installed base.
In 2003, to establish its open source cred, Novell went on a buying spree, which began in August when it spent an undisclosed amount to acquire Ximian, the open source company behind Evolution, Mono and Red Carpet, the later being an early attempt at an universal package manager for Linux, a precursor to Linspire’s Click & Run. In November, just three months later, Novell spent $210 million, partly financed by an investment from IBM, to purchase SUSE (then SuSE), which was at the time one of the top three Linux distros by most estimations.
Although Novell’s move to open source was slowly paying off and generating substantial income, the new revenue stream wasn’t enough to replace income loss from its declining NetWare business. In spite of massive cuts, the company was bleeding. Wolves were circling, with each wanting a piece of the Novell carcass — even Microsoft, as it turned out.
But Microsoft wanted to keep Novell alive.
In November, 2006, three years after acquiring SUSE, Novell received an eleventh hour bail out when it entered into a joint compatibility and patent agreement with Microsoft. In the pact, Microsoft agreed to pay SUSE $348 million up front and $46 million annually for five years, with return payment by Novell being mainly in the form of support subscriptions for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES).
This put Microsoft in the business of selling Linux, which they did in part by using their patent portfolio as a sales tool. The agreement between Redmond and Novell stipulated that users of SUSE Linux, but not the users of any other Linux distro, were indemnified against any patent claims Microsoft might make against Linux.
This was a big win for Microsoft, which realized that compatibly with Linux was now essential for Windows’ survival. SUSE, under rein and financially dependent on Redmond, could be harnessed as a partner that wouldn’t compete with Windows in any way, as continued bail out money came with built-in boundaries that its FOSS partner couldn’t afford to cross. This move almost immediately prompted Red Hat to offer it’s own free indemnity plan, protecting its customers from any Microsoft patent threats.
There was just one problem: Many thought the SUSE/Microsoft patent indemnity deal wasn’t in compliance with the GPL — although SUSE and Microsoft claimed otherwise. There was no doubt by anyone, except maybe Steve Ballmer, that the deal wasn’t in agreement with the spirit of the GPL, even if should turn out to obey the letter of the license.
The FOSS community, already riled up over recent actions by SCO, which had sued IBM for allegedly contributing copyrighted Unix code to Linux, was livid, and it didn’t help that Novell had significant historic ties to SCO, which included Unix. The move was seen as an attack by Microsoft against enterprise users of any Linux distro.
The agreement turned out to be a public relations nightmare for Novell, of course — not so much for Microsoft which was used to it. For several years the SUSE/Microsoft deal dominated tech media reporting, alongside SCO — sometimes in the same story. In the end, Novell redeemed itself, somewhat, by swapping hats from black to white while riding to the rescue, asserting its ownership of Unix, and killing SCO’s copyright case against IBM and Linux in the process.
That last move turned out to be something of a swan song for both companies. “Old Novell,” which it came to be called in the press, effectively died in 2010 when it was bought by Attachmate, which was then purchased last year by mainframe software provider Micro Focus. SCO went bankrupt, with its products now being owned by Xinuos.
Eight years later, however, the ghost of “old Novell” is still breathing, as SUSE and Microsoft still have a close working relationship. In 2011, the Suse/Microsoft interoperability and intellectual property indemnity arrangement was renewed, with Redmond spending another $100 million in SUSE Linux Enterprise certificates. The current agreement expires on January 1, 2016.
So what does the old SUSE/Microsoft deal have to do with Ubuntu and Redmond’s new partnership arrangement? The quick answer: everything and nothing. Or, perhaps more appropriate for this stage of the game: It’s too soon to tell. One thing’s for sure, even if the deal turns out to be benign and never develops into anything as toxic as SUSE/Microsoft has been, this is sure to develop into something of a brouhaha in the FOSS user community. At the very least, this will become a hot topic on the forums.
Already, a commenter to Cafiero’s article has suggested throwing the baby out with the bath by writing, “Canonical in a partnership with Microsoft?!! Bye-bye Ubuntu, including any distro based on Ubuntu!” There will be a lot of that to come from home users, many of whom are already wary of Canonical’s motives for a host of other reasons.
This isn’t likely to bother Shuttleworth & Company much, as it doesn’t make its money from home users — at least, not until the Ubuntu Phone gets traction. What money the company is making comes from the enterprise, and it’s not clear that enterprise customers care whether Canonical cozies up to Microsoft. Most tech companies, or companies that use tech in a big way, are already dealing with Microsoft themselves, by licensing its products if in no other ways.
However, if this deal or future deals between Canonical and Microsoft prove to play fast and loose with the GPL or other open source licenses, all bets are off the table. These days, nearly all enterprise users rely on open source in a big way — its become the norm — making compliance important for a host of reasons.
All we know for sure is that Microsoft now has two Linux lovers. Make that three, if Oracle Linux OS is added to the mix — enough for an orgy. At least Red Hat is being kept in the mix by the inclusion of its clone, CentOS, as a supported operating system in the Ubuntu/Microsoft project. Incidentally, CentOS trademarks were recently transferred to Red Hat, after the Raleigh based company took control of the project early last year.
Curiouser and curiouser! We’ll see…