Linux Gains Windows Muscle

Based on Microsoft's model, the open source world evolves its stacks strategy.

Of all the accusations Microsoft has levelled over the years against open source, perhaps the least contentious is that it lacks the tight integration offered by Microsoft's own products. As Nick McGrath, director of platform strategy for Microsoft in the United Kingdom, puts it: "One of the problems I've seen with open source software is it doesn't take on board some of the issues that customers have around interoperability and integration. Open source projects tend to offer a very specific point solution."

That may have been largely true in the past, but one of the most important recent developments in the open source world is the rise of integrated open source enterprise stacks. Many run on Windows, too, so they offer the Microsoft IT community a range of interesting -- and free -- alternatives to traditional solutions.

Microsoft understood earlier than most the power of offering stacks as defining elements of a wider software ecosystem. McGrath says that it was "largely a standardization on a common platform that's really helped to build the ecosystem over time." Network effects mean that a single, large ecosystem is much richer than a collection of many smaller ones, as was the case in the 1980s and early 1990s when the main enterprise operating system, namely Unix, was fragmented into numerous, slightly incompatible flavors.

Nick McGrath, U.K. Director of Platform Strategy, Microsoft

The rise of the GNU/Linux (the term insisted upon by the Free Software Foundation, as the Linux kernel itself layers a number of GNU tools on top of it) operating system in the mid-1990s potentially created another major ecosystem, but one of free software's greatest strengths proved to be something of a weakness too. "One of the key things about open source software is it enables individuals the freedom to develop their application in any direction that they choose," McGrath notes. "They don't necessarily have to think about the specific requirements of an individual customer or indeed a whole host of customers. A lot of open source projects are produced by people who just wanted to solve a problem that they themselves had, or collectively had with another group of people."

The result of this unfettered creativity was a rich patchwork of software that sometimes covered business's real-world needs inconsistently or only partially.

Bob Young, co-founder of one of the first and most successful open source companies, Red Hat Inc., worried about this as far back as the late 1990s. "The success of operating system platforms has relatively little to do with the guys selling the operating system, and a great deal to do with the success in building out an ecosystem around that operating system," he explained in 2000. "Microsoft might be the most profitable supplier in the Windows marketplace, but they earn a small share of the total revenue of that industry. The reason you can get almost anything done with a Windows-based computer is because there's some vendor out there who can help you do it." As a result, he said, "What we recognized was that we had to build out this ecosystem."

LAMP Illuminates a Solution
Red Hat's efforts at the time concentrated mostly on persuading leading companies like IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. to take GNU/Linux seriously-work that eventually paid off with ports of major proprietary enterprise products to that platform. The first purely open source ecosystem, albeit on a small scale, coalesced around what became known as the LAMP stack, whose name derives from its four components: the GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache Web server (still the most widely used on the public Web, even today), the MySQL database and a scripting language (PHP, Python or Perl).

Together, they formed the first integrated open source stack that offered a business solution in the same way that Microsoft's software bundles did. The power of that combination can be judged from the fact that almost a decade after the acronym was coined in 1998, the LAMP stack remains widely used for building sophisticated Web sites quickly and cheaply. As MySQL's Executive Vice President of Products Zack Urlocker notes: "Among Web 2.0 companies, start-ups and SaaS [Software as a Service] companies, it's probably 90 percent LAMP." Big names running the stack include Wikipedia, Flickr, and Technorati Inc.

While LAMP offered an example of how successfully integrated open source solutions could be, others were tackling the issue of how to tame free software's tendency to create multiple, uncoordinated solutions to a problem by helping to define a common platform and hence promote the creation of a larger, richer open source ecosystem.

For example, the Linux Foundation, which is the organization that pays Linus Torvalds for his work on the Linux kernel, has been working for some years on a major project called the Linux Standard Base (LSB). Unlike Microsoft's controlled releases of the Windows stack, there are no official versions of GNU/Linux; instead, the free operating system appears as part of "distributions," variegated collections of software that can be put together by anyone. This freedom has led to a great diversity -- there are currently hundreds of specialized "distros" available, with more appearing each week -- but also subtle incompatibilities that are the bane of application development.

Dominic Sartorio, President, Open Solutions Alliance

Dan Kohn, COO of the Linux Foundation, explains how his organization solves this problem: "The Linux Standard Base is about finding the common subset that all of the major distributions are making available and standardizing that, so that applications providers can rely on it. The idea is that any [LSB-]certified Linux application will run correctly on any [LSB-]certified Linux distribution."

Vendors Band Together
Just as the Linux Foundation seeks to recapitulate Microsoft's success in spawning an ecosystem centered on the operating system, the Eclipse Foundation aims to do the same for the development platform. Mike Milinkovich, the executive director of Eclipse, sketches in the background. "Eclipse first came upon the public scene in November 2001, when IBM contributed what was estimated to be $40 million of code to the open source community. The goal that IBM had in creating was to create for Java a tool and an ecosystem [that] could compete in terms of size and scope and gravity with what Microsoft had done with Visual Studio," he says.

The main architect of the ecosystem idea, Skip McGaughey, currently director of ecosystem at Eclipse, explains its origins. "Our customers were telling us that they were tired of trying to integrate the tools themselves. This led us to the idea of nurturing and promoting an ecosystem at the same time as creating the technology," since interoperability is a defining feature of such an approach.

How the Stacks Stack Up
Click on image for larger view.

IBM soon realized that its stewardship of Eclipse was a barrier to its competitors joining: They "perceived it as an IBM-led, IBM-controlled project, even though it was available under an open source license," Milinkovich explains. IBM then decided to take the next step, and the Eclipse Foundation was created as a separate legal entity, he says.

Independence brought with it a big advantage.

"Microsoft has built up around Visual Studio and .NET a very vibrant and powerful ecosystem," Milinkovich says. "The difference is that our motivations truly are pure. My job, and the job of people at the Eclipse Foundation, is not to make money for our shareholders the way that any for-profit company has to act. We're here to help grow the ecosystem in a vendor-neutral, even-keeled kind of way."

Consequently, Eclipse has blossomed. Milinkovich points out that when the foundation was first created it had 50 members, and now it's up to 155 member organizations. Similarly, the number of projects has grown from approximately a dozen to around 70.

As successful as both the Linux and Eclipse Foundations have been, neither addresses a pressing concern for enterprises: the lack of easy interoperability among open source applications. The first attempts to deal with this issue came from companies that put together integrated open source bundles that solved particular business problems. The pioneer here was SpikeSource Inc., which has crafted pre-built collections of "SpikeIgnited" open source stacks that provide complete business intelligence, enterprise content management, collaboration, e-mail, CRM and Web content-management solutions, and has done so in a form that's easy to install, manage and update.

As Tom Callway, marketing director at Sirius Corp., one of the leading European proponents of the approach, puts it: The application stack "allows us to get away from the idea that open source projects are a disparate, disorganized rabble with little to offer the enterprise." Moreover, Sirius's CEO, Mark Taylor, points out that the existence of stacks is having a positive effect on the way enterprise open source is being written: "We're now seeing most of the enterprise-class open source world become conscious of the stack idea, and ensure that their project plays nicely with its neighbors in the stack."

Perhaps the best proof of this new sense of collective responsibility is the formation in February 2007 of the Open Solutions Alliance (OSA). As Dominic Sartorio, president of the OSA, explains: "There's been a lot of commercial open source companies that have focused on business applications emerging over the last two or three years. I think it's a natural evolution of open source: It started with the operating system and developer tools, and has gradually been moving up the stack. All of us [at the OSA] emerged basically as vendors of point solutions. What all of us have independently found is that our target customers want not just point solutions -- they need to combine them in some way or they may need to integrate [them] into some existing infrastructure."

Dan Kohn, COO, Linux Foundation

The OSA is a non-profit organization, like Eclipse in that it too does not resell any company's products, Sartorio emphasises. "We're a trade association where we focus on solving common issues." The organization's focus on vendor-neutral solutions designed to create a level playing field and lower barriers to entry brings important benefits. "If the ecosystem makes it easy to start a company, easy to start selling a solution, easy to start finding customers, we're going to have a very competitive market," observes Brian Behlendorf, co-founder of the Apache Web Server Project.

Two early OSA projects include creating a common customer view and providing single sign-on facilities across compliant applications. Sartorio notes: "We fully expect some of the interoperability challenges we have will take into account having legacy software. Single sign-on is one of those we're looking at, where we're contemplating [that the user] may have some proprietary bits but [they'll] still want single sign-on to work across it." This isn't the only place where the two ecosystems of Microsoft and open source are starting to overlap.

Part of the Stack
Already, open source applications are widely used running on top of Windows. Alongside the LAMP stack, there's also Windows+AMP (WAMP). Although over 40 percent of MySQL's downloads are for GNU/Linux, around 30 percent are for the Windows platform. As Urlocker explains: "People often develop on Windows and deploy on Linux." The popularity of Eclipse among Windows users is even greater: "[We've found that] 87 percent of our downloads are for Windows, and Linux is 9 percent," Milinkovich says. Eclipse is "very much part of the broader Windows ecosystem," he emphasizes.

Now, the open source enterprise stacks are starting to appear on Windows. In May of this year, SpikeSource announced that it plans to work together with Microsoft to certify all of SpikeSource's SpikeIgnited solutions on the Microsoft Windows platform. Bill Hilf, general manager of platform strategy at Microsoft, probably had this collaboration in mind when he wrote on his blog the day before the SpikeSource announcement: "We want to grow the software ecosystem, including open source software, as it relates to Microsoft software." Clearly, this is an area where Microsoft and the open source world have a common interest. As Eclipse's McGaughey notes: "In a healthy ecosystem, everyone gains."

More Information

Open Source Stacks on Windows
Enterprise open source isn't just for GNU/Linux anymore. The following selection of applications also runs on Windows.

Web Server



Business Intelligence

Enterprise Content Management




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