How Microsoft Became an Unlikely Open Source Champion

Mitch Wagner

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.

Next page: 'Core to our business'

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<<   <   Page 3 / 3
User Rank: Light Sabre
2/20/2018 | 5:07:11 PM
Re: Going with the flow
It's unavoidable. To attract the top talent, big companies need to allow their developers to do things like open source and work on 20% projects... 
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Blogger
2/20/2018 | 4:06:35 PM
Going with the flow
This is definitely a good move. To stay in the game companies need to go with the flow, change and adapt. And Ballmer’s comparisons, well ...
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