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How Microsoft Became an Unlikely Open Source Champion

Microsoft's transition from open source hater to open source leader can be summed up in two words: times change.

Microsoft hated open source in 2001, when then-CEO Steve Ballmer called it "cancer." A year earlier, he compared it to "communism."

Fast-forward to 2018 and Microsoft is now arguably the open source community's greatest champion, contributor and user. (See Microsoft Is a 'Deeply Open Source Company,' Says Azure CTO Russinovich.)

Why the change? "The industry, Microsoft, and people in leadership just have a different understanding of open source now. It changes over time," John Gossman, distinguished engineer, Microsoft Azure, tells Enterprise Cloud News.

Microsoft's John Gossman
Microsoft's John Gossman

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Gossman attributes Microsoft's earlier open source antipathy to ignorance. "Some of us older folks didn't know how open source worked," Gossman says. "We thought, 'We're developers. We make our money from writing software. So why should we just give it away?'"

Microsoft's change in attitude was pushed along by the example of companies making money off open source -- particularly Red Hat Inc. (NYSE: RHT) "A lot of us saw that Red Hat made a really good business with open source software. It just became vastly more prevalent," Gossman says. Red Hat and Microsoft are partners on containers, and Azure supports Red Hat Enterprise Linux. (See Microsoft, Red Hat Expand Partnership to Include Containers.)

Microsoft's increased focus on Azure brought open source into the Microsoft mainstream, Gossman says. "We're trying to run people's IT workloads, and it turns out there isn't anybody who's a pure shop," Gossman says. There are no pure Windows .NET shops, no pure Red Hat or Java shops. "Even startups have a polyglot of tools." To succeed in the cloud, Microsoft had to support the software its customers want to run, and much of that software is open source.

Gossman says, "If you want to serve the customers, you have to be open to running Linux and Linux-based workflows."

Also, Microsoft is a company founded by developers, with a strong developer focus. "Developers love open source. It's a great way to show off what you do. It's a great way to get your hands on the code, to collaborate with customers and users," Gossman.

Because of developers' natural affinity for open source, developers within Microsoft used it even when it was officially banned.

"All of those things came together. It was no single factor. And it took a little while for people to understand it," Gossman says.

Change at the top at Microsoft didn't hurt. "The people at the top, Satya [Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella] and Scott Guthrie, [Microsoft executive vice president of the cloud and enterprise group], the customers and line developers, they all love open source. It changed pretty smoothly and pretty quickly," Gossman says.

Indeed, for anyone still skeptical of Microsoft's commitment to open source, consider this: In addition to that Red Hat partnership -- which is kind of a big deal -- Microsoft has its own version of FreeBSD for Azure, is partnered with Canonical to run Ubuntu on Windows, runs .NET Core on Linux, has its own Linux certification and contributes to the Linux kernel.

According to one measure, Microsoft is the top contributor to open source repository Github as of October, with 1,300 employees pushing code to 825 top repositories. According to another metric, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is the top contributor, with fewer employees than Microsoft (900) pushing to more repositories, about 1,100. But even there, Microsoft runs a respectable second place.

Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation at its top-tier Platinum membership level in 2016. Also that year, the company launched Project Olympus, an open source hyperscale cloud hardware design and a new model for speeding up development of open source hardware. The company signed on for gold membership in the Cloud Foundry Foundation last year. Also last year, Microsoft introduced the open source Project Cerberus to protect cloud firmware, and the open source Coco blockchain platform. (See Microsoft Lights a Fire Under Open Source Hardware Dev, Microsoft Goes for Cloud Foundry Gold, Microsoft Looks to Secure Clouds With 'Project Cerberus', Microsoft Serves Coco-Flavored Blockchain for Enterprise and Microsoft Joins Linux Foundation, After Calling Linux a 'Cancer'.)

What has Microsoft learned from its transition that might benefit other companies? How can a company make the transition from proprietary to open source culture?

Getting the legal team on board is key, says Gossman. "You've got to get your legal people to understand the licenses," Gossman says. Because of Microsoft's natural, strong interest in intellectual property, the legal team understood licenses very well, and in many cases they were the strongest open source advocates.

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Joe Stanganelli 3/2/2018 | 5:14:18 AM
Re: Going with the flow @maryam: Sure. This is why major security flaws proliferate in open-source code for years upon years -- because the kind of people open source generally attracts are more interested in features than the more boring stuff like security. So too for documentation -- also very boring, but just as essential.
[email protected] 2/28/2018 | 4:14:37 PM
Re: Going with the flow Yes, passion is good but commitment can rival that if someone is not committed to growing and maturing the code it doesn' evolve that's what creates so much of the uncertainty in using it for many. Lack of documentation and support 
Joe Stanganelli 2/27/2018 | 10:47:49 PM
Re: Going with the flow @Michelle: Moreover, leveraging well-accepted open-source code and open-standards frameworks is a selling point unto itself when developers and entrepreneurs try to get companies on board with their projects. You're far more likely to not be told to go away if you can say you use, say, RHEL as opposed to whatever homespun niche offshoot you've developed.
Joe Stanganelli 2/27/2018 | 10:44:03 PM
Re: Going with the flow @Michelle: What can I say? Passion doesn't pay the bills. ;)
Michelle 2/27/2018 | 1:27:12 PM
Re: Going with the flow Longterm support can be tough. Open Source developers experience burnout too. Passion is good in the early years, but it can quickly drain through the lifecycle of a project.
Michelle 2/27/2018 | 1:24:20 PM
Re: Going with the flow Exactly. "If company A contributes, then it can't be too crazy."
Joe Stanganelli 2/26/2018 | 9:52:24 PM
Re: Going with the flow @Michelle: That's key. Frankly, outside of games and a few particular utilities, open-source stuff that is left to contemporaneously (though, inevitably, waningly) passionate individual developers tend to eventually fizzle out in terms of support. Even widely used tools can fall by the wayside in terms of their development. Case in point: After TrueCrypt had numerous severe vulnerabilities exposed in a security audit, distributions of the software were halted -- with the website urging visitors to instead download BitLocker (a Microsoft product).
Michelle 2/26/2018 | 2:24:23 PM
Re: Going with the flow I think it helps the cause when very large companies contribute to a codebase too. It shows the rest of the world that the software is important and is being maintained by real professionals. 
kq4ym 2/26/2018 | 12:30:12 PM
Re: Going with the flow Interesting the section on how the lawyers had to get aboard the open source train dealing with all the licensing and intelletual property issues involved. It's only logical of course that one of the main reasons Microsoft shifted is simply that "Microsoft had to support the software its customers want to run, and much of that software is open source."
[email protected] 2/26/2018 | 11:34:27 AM
Re: Going with the flow @Michelle I agree when established enterprises adopt a new technology others take notice. Now Open Source doesn't seem like the Wild West it once was to many.
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