In-Depth

Cracking Open the Door to Open Source

Microsoft veers toward the light in its new approach to open source.

When Bill Hilf came from IBM Corp. to join Microsoft three years ago, the company's stance on open source vacillated wildly. It would swing from outright indifference to overt nastiness. Today, something else is unfolding: Microsoft is striking a surprising balance. It has stopped dismissing open source licensing and community development as dangerous folly or evil foe, and is looking for a way to both compete and co-exist.

Let's start with Hilf. Under his direction as general manager of platform strategy, Microsoft is crafting a multifaceted plan to approach open source from a number of different levels: Linux as an operating system competitor; interoperability with Linux in mixed environments; partnering with open source ISVs; development of Shared Source Licensing; contributions to and support for community development sites.

"It does seem to me that Microsoft is trying," says Michael Cherry, lead analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash. "Bill Hilf seems to be trying to figure out how to get the advantages of the open source development methodology. And there's no question that one of the lessons of Vista development is that companies have to evolve their process of engineering. Microsoft needs to look at their processes and borrow best practices from anywhere they can get them."

Hilf's work around interoperability may be best exhibited within the Open Source Software lab at Microsoft that tests its products in every conceivable environment. The lab is currently running 30 to 40 different Linux distributions. Hilf also heads up Shared Source Licensing, which represents Microsoft's approximation (that's a generous assessment) of a GPL-type license model by providing IT administrators and developers access to source code to test and review. This helps organizations make internal application fixes, do security evaluations and ensure interoperability with their own environments.

More importantly, Hilf has worked to bridge the gap between Microsoft -- Public Enemy No. 1 -- and the open source community. He has evangelized at LinuxWorld shows and shown a willingness to embrace some aspects of the development model and its proponents. Internally at Microsoft, he's tried to strip out some of the negativity that permeates the hallways whenever open source comes up -- not an easy thing to do.

There's more evidence that Microsoft knows open source is here to stay. Think of the major alliances with open source companies. No one overlooked the unlikely bedfellows resulting from the Microsoft and Novell alliance (ostensibly done to ensure Linux interoperability, better support and IP infringement protection). Also consider the swath of technical partnerships with the likes of JBoss (now owned by Red Hat Inc.) and open source applications players like SugarCRM Inc. and Zend Technologies Ltd.

Whether a new day has dawned is still up for debate. There are plenty of skeptics, but under Hilf's direction Microsoft is a far cry from the days when president and CEO Steve Ballmer publicly declared Linux a "cancer" that would eat away at intellectual property rights in the industry. Nevertheless, no one thinks Microsoft is going all touchy-feely on open source. Microsoft isn't pondering whether to open source Windows, but rather, as Hilf describes, how to find a way to tie SharePoint into some cool open source thing customers seem to like, for example.

"Some people think that we're doing these deals to appear more 'friendly' and that's not it at all," says Hilf, with refreshing candor, as anyone who has spent time getting information out of Microsoft will tell you. "It's all about growing our business. And the dirty little secret here is that most customers of open source run it on Windows first."

He points to JBoss, for example, which does approximately half of its open source application server implementations on Windows OSes. "It's common sense for them to partner with us."

Bill Hilf, General Manager of Platform Strategy, Microsoft

Commercialization
Common sense sums up a lot here. As one of the new faces inside Microsoft, Hilf, along with Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie and a raft of like-minded internal developers, is decidedly less black and white about open source and other software business models, including Software as a Service. Ozzie, for one, is bullish on Microsoft's Live services initiatives, and Hilf is helping to oversee such initiatives as CodePlex, a Microsoft-backed Web site much like SourceForge where developers can post open source community projects.

What's a driving factor in this kinder, gentler attitude? Commercialization. Microsoft isn't the only one knocking on the open source door -- Oracle has plans to offer support for Red Hat's Linux customers, and Sun Microsystems' goal is to reorient its business to embrace open source tenets.

As Hilf tells it, commercial open source companies today are just another part of the generic application ecosystem. The only difference is how they license their software. How the software is implemented or supported by the vendors isn't much different from everybody else in the industry. This reality has accelerated Microsoft's interoperability efforts. And those efforts, according to Cherry, are aimed primarily at facilitating sales.

"Microsoft is very concerned about that, wanting to remove all barriers to the sales process," he says. "It's about not allowing an enterprise to defer deployment of Microsoft technology because they have some Linux they are concerned won't work with Longhorn Server."

This is driving classic co-opetition between Microsoft and open source ISVs as well. Part of Microsoft's strategy in embracing these open source companies -- even if they have applications that compete with such products as Microsoft CRM or any of the Dynamics lineup -- is chiefly because it helps sell a lot of Microsoft platform infrastructure. If a whole new slate of open source apps is spurring license sales of Windows OSes, SQL Server, IIS, MOM or Active Directory, you can bet Hilf's happy.

"Do I really care if it's open source or not if it sells our infrastructure?" he asks rhetorically.

One user agrees that open source development is evolving into a model of many flavors, not just one based on a free-software utopia. Paula Bach of the Computer-Supported Collaboration and Learning Lab at Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology notes that "the spirit of open source now moves along a continuum from ideologically driven to profit-driven."

Finding a business case for open source alliances is certainly driving Microsoft. SugarCRM is one of those ISVs that decided to work with Redmond developers after Hilf approached them with an initial proposal in late 2005. As a result, the open source CRM software company inked a technical partnership with Microsoft that optimizes its applications on top of Microsoft infrastructure. The reason they did it? Customer demand.

"We run on Unix, Solaris, Linux, FreeBSD, etc., but a large number of our customers like to run applications on Windows and SQL Server," says John Roberts, chairman and CEO of SugarCRM. "People at first [said], 'Oh my god they are partnering with Microsoft.' But if you think about it, no one really owns open source."

Roberts says his team has weekly calls with Hilf's team and Microsoft product people, and so far have subsequently developed FastStack Installers that pre-bundle SugarCRM with SQL Server Express, IIS and Active Directory. The company's plans this summer call for certifying the forthcoming SugarCRM 5.0 version on Vista. They've also posted SugarCRM source code onto Microsoft's CodePlex site to be redistributed by the community at large.

CodePlex has captured a lot of attention both inside and outside Microsoft. Developers are able to collaborate on open source projects, contribute projects of their own and get feedback and help from Microsoft developers around .NET and other tools. For some users, especially those interested in open source projects for Windows servers, it has become an alternative landing spot to SourceForge.

Aras Corp., which makes business applications for project management, product management and quality compliance, recently announced it was open sourcing all of its applications. They run exclusively on the Microsoft platform. The result has been dubbed Microsoft Enterprise Open Source. Customers must still license Windows servers and other infrastructure in the traditional way, but can download and run the Aras apps for free. They can also modify them while Aras provides consulting and support services.

As part of this initiative, Aras also made the code for the applications available on CodePlex. "Microsoft has quietly embraced the open source process," says Peter Schroer, president of Aras, in Lawrence, Mass. "And with CodePlex, anyone can download, modify and take those changes back to the community on that site."

Deciphering Microsoft's Shared Source Licenses

Microsoft Permissive License (Ms-PL) - Least restrictive of the licenses. Licensees may view, modify and redistribute the source code for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. They may change the source code, share it with others and charge a licensing fee for their modified work.

Microsoft Community License (Ms-CL) - Best used for collaborative development projects, with specific requirements if licensees choose to combine Ms-CL code with their own. Allows for non-commercial and commercial modification and redistribution of licensed software.

Microsoft Reference License (Ms-RL) - The Ms-RL is a reference-only license that restricts licensees to viewing source code to gain deeper understanding of the inner workings of a given technology.

Naysayers Aplenty
Before we start singing Kumbaya, let's state clearly it's inconceivable that Microsoft's efforts around open source have yet been widely greeted as sincere, altruistic or even legitimate by a large faction of the open source community.

One of the thorns in open source proponents' sides is Microsoft's Shared Source Licensing. There are three versions of these licenses, the most restrictive being the Microsoft Enterprise Source License that allows access to some Windows source code, but not modifications. The Microsoft Community License is less restrictive, allowing developers to modify code to create derived code so long as the modified files stick to their original, royalty-free license.

The main beef among open source advocates is Microsoft's refusal to put any of the licenses into the community for review and approval. Michael Tieman, president of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), says the community is more than willing to assess Microsoft's licenses on their merit, just like the GPL or other open source licenses. Direct discussions have been held over the years to no avail.

"We don't want anyone claiming they are open source if they aren't," Tieman says. "Microsoft has always extended a friendly gesture to anyone willing to build on the Microsoft platform, and then kept the other hand clenched to strike if that application company becomes successful."

"When I see companies like Microsoft get into the open source arena, I see less community, less innovation, less choice and more red tape and costs," says Marianne Mason, Web administrator at Hamamatsu Corp.

Microsoft is used to such skepticism and condemnation, especially when it's accused of using its market-leading status to threaten litigation and to go after potential patent infringement violations with a vengeance. On that point, Hilf says, the facts paint a clearer picture.

"I ask those folks, 'How often has Microsoft sued over IP?' The answer is two [times]," he says. "We are not a patent troll company. We protect our IP and our licenses, but we do not want to litigate."

Tieman counters saying that while Microsoft might not sue prolifically, it knows the right way to toss its weight and voice around so that market activities are affected.

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Hilf faces is changing the internal tone at Microsoft. One of the things he's worked on is convincing developers that they need to play a role in the open source process and take part in projects on CodePlex to join the so-called community. The engineers caught on right away, he said, while the sales and marketing organizations were tougher to persuade.

"Luckily, I was able to come in, in a way that gave me access to anyone in the company, and a lot of it was simple education," Hilf says. "I was really clear about what open source is and isn't."

That internal reprogramming and external outreach to the open source community has gotten high marks for Hilf and his team. The real difference in the company's open source stance today versus a few years ago is largely about tone.

"The whole tenor of the argument has changed," says Cherry. "Hilf has faith in his products' features and in a head-to-head competition he believes he's going to come out and beat them. And he's comfortable enough not to have to get into the aggressive tactics that tell customers they are stupid to go to Linux."

Microsoft has been wielding the stick. Maybe this time, the carrot is the best bet.

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