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Microsoft's Linux overture: More sizzle, less steak

Quoting from The Globe and Mail

It was like watching Darth Vader call a truce with the Jedi rebels, or Wile E. Coyote finally deciding to leave the Road Runner in peace.

Most business owners and office workers probably didn't pay any attention when it happened. But for those following the battles between proprietary and open-source software developers, a decision Microsoft made recently sounded like the kind of shift that could end the operating system schism -- at least from the user's perspective.

Even though many companies use a mix of "closed-source" proprietary software packages and open-source code that can be shared and modified by others, both the Microsoft and Linux camps tend to see the choice of operating system platform as an either/or scenario. That's how they present it to potential clients, and only grudgingly do they join forces in the market's best interests.

Through what it called "virtual machine" add-ons for the versions of Linux distributed by Novell and Red Hat, however, Microsoft recently said its Virtual Server R2 product will allow businesses to run more than one operating system (OS) on the same physical computer. In other words, a server running Windows XP could also be running Novell's Suse or Red Hat Linux to perform other functions that are more suited to open-source applications -- such as running the Drupal content management tool, for example, or the JBoss open-source database recently acquired by Red Hat.

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Vendors have been touting this concept, referred to as virtualization, as a way of using IT infrastructure more effectively for years. But many in the industry seemed surprised that the world's largest OS company was willing to acknowledge the success of its upstart rival, much less accommodate it.

According to Hilary Wittmann, Windows server product manager at Mississauga-based Microsoft Canada, the add-ins are only the beginning. Virtualization capabilities will be fully integrated into Vista, Microsoft's next version of Windows, in 2007. The decision to accommodate Red Hat and Novell's Suse was not so much a concession, she said, as it was a response to customers who have started using a mixture of Windows and Linux anyway.

"Interoperability is very important," she says. "This is a situation where we're actually offering telephone support for Linux. It makes the customers feel a lot more comfortable."

The Canadian open-source community doesn't share Ms. Wittmann's enthusiasm. Evan Leibovitch is co-founder of the Linux Professional Institute and executive director of the Canadian Association for Open Source. He characterized Microsoft's Virtual Server move as a bunch of hoopla over nothing.

"What benefit does a business -- especially a small business that basically uses the computer as a tool like a cash register -- get from running two different platforms?" he asks. "What happens is, the administrator has more work to manage the virtual environment and play traffic cop between them. Virtualization may be good fashion for the vendors, but that doesn't mean the customers have to run after them."

Matthew Rice, who operates a Toronto-based Linux consultancy called Starnix, is even more caustic.

"I can honestly say that none of our clients remotely care about this," he says. "It is interesting to see more and more acknowledgment from Microsoft that other [operating systems] exist, though. Perhaps the 'embrace and extend and make incompatible' days are coming to an end?"

Ms. Wittmann says her company's virtualization strategy may find more acceptance among existing Windows customers that use Linux in test and development work, or who are struggling to manage legacy software environments while moving to Vista. This includes medium-sized businesses of 100 employees or less, she adds.

"It can be really cost effective," she says. "A lot of customers make decisions about their technology where they're looking five years down the road. Virtualization can help manage those transitions."

While Microsoft is making sudden overtures to Linux users, the open-source community has long been interested in helping bridge the divide. About 10 years ago, a number of developers started a project called Wine, in which they rewrote raw source code in a language called C that, in a sense, cloned Windows 3.x and Win32 application programming interfaces so that they could be run on Unix computers. Mr. Leibovitch says as Windows has evolved, Wine is still progressing -- but not with any help from Microsoft.

"They've done a pretty good job, especially on the server side," he says. "The problem is there are so many undocumented things about the Microsoft environment, it's a moving target."

More recently, a company based in London, England, called 2X created a Linux desktop product that can run Microsoft software such as Word and Internet Explorer on a simple computer known as a thin client. So just as Microsoft is offering Linux on Windows, others are offering Windows on Linux.

Ms. Wittmann says she welcomes the competition, and that Microsoft's management tools will keep it ahead of the pack.

Mr. Leibovitch counters that it's more likely companies will choose one OS platform over the other. "You can't drive a Ford and a Chevy at the same time."

Perhaps all this talk of interoperability is just hiding the fact that it's the applications, and not the underlying operating system, that really interest customers these days. And that means that if they want the market to use their applications, both Microsoft and open-source vendors have to go beyond mere virtualization -- they also need to ensure their products' performance isn't compromised when they run on another platform. The developers are not doing anyone a favour here -- they are trying to stay in business, and virtualization must be followed by deeper OS integration for the programs businesses want to use.

2X's press release used the headline "Linux and Windows get hitched," but having recently gotten married myself, I know it's not so simple. It's not just a case of bringing two sides together, but about making sure the combination works as a team. Microsoft and the open-source community may be prepared to say "I do," but that's just the first step.

The original article can be found, here.

Published Thursday, June 01, 2006 6:24 AM by David Marshall
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