Update: Microsoft releases code for Linux drivers

The precedent-setting move is viewed as validation of open source

Microsoft, which has been at odds with the Linux community over the years because of intellectual property issues, on Monday said it has released 20,000 lines of device driver code to the Linux kernel community.

Announced at the O'Reilly OSCON (Open Source Convention) in San Jose, Calif., the code release includes three Linux device drivers available to both the Linux community and customers and featured in the upcoming 2.6.32 release of the Linux kernel. The drivers will enhance the performance of the Linux operating system when virtualized on Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 virtualization software or Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V.  Code will be offered under the GNU General Public License 2, the first time Microsoft has ever used GPL2.

[ About two and a half years ago, Microsoft forged a Linux partnership with Novell that still generates controversy. ]

"The benefit of this [contribution] is any user who runs Linux as a client on top of Hyper-V will have a much faster Linux client," said Greg Kroah-Hartman, who leads the Linux Kernel Device Driver project and was instrumental in Microsoft's move. He also is a Novell Fellow.

In prepared statements and an interview, a Microsoft official stressed the importance of interoperability.

"We are seeing Microsoft communities and open source communities grow together, which is ultimately of benefit to our customers," said Microsoft's Sam Ramji, Microsoft senior director of platform strategy in the company's Server and Tools organization. "The Linux community, for example, has built a platform used by many customers."

"Today's release would have been unheard of from Microsoft a few years ago but it's a prime example that customer demand is a powerful catalyst for change," said Ramji. Indeed, Microsoft has been involved in ongoing disagreements with open source advocates, with Microsoft having claimed open source projects such as Linux violate 235 Microsoft patents.

In choosing GPL2, Ramji noted it is the license requested by the Linux community; Microsoft will not charge a royalty for use of the drivers or assert any patents. "Our philosophy is interoperability is not just about code but about choosing the right license," he said.

Ramji also cited the current economic climate as a driving force. "Many companies are turning to Microsoft more frequently to help them succeed in a heterogeneous technology world because we understand that reducing complexity is a key factor to reducing cost. We are seeing interoperability as a lever for business growth," Ramji said.

In a statement, the executive director of the Linux Foundation saw Microsoft's effort as validation of open source.

"We see the move by Microsoft to submit its device driver code to the Linux kernel as a validation of the open source development model and the GPLv2 license," said Executive Director Jim Zemlin. "Even if a bit overdue, we applaud Microsoft for recognizing the value of collaboration in order to compete in today's IT market."

An industry analyst concurred that the move was precedent-setting.

"This is a logical but precedent-setting decision for Microsoft. Credit Microsoft for recognizing the reality that a sizable portion of its customer base was going to be running Linux and Microsoft side by side in virtualized environments, so it would be important to be competitive on an interoperability front," said Stephen O'Grady, analyst at Redmonk.

"For all of its logic, however, this is a move that would have been inconceivable a few years ago, meaning that the glasnost of Microsoft vis a vis open source continues," O'Grady said.

Future open source moves being pondered by Microsoft include better support for the Python language on Windows and continuing its support for Java on Windows, Ramji said. Frameworks like Hibernate or Spring also could be embraced by Windows technologies, including offering tooling support, he said. Microsoft also will continue to work with the Eclipse Foundation to enable development of rich Internet applications based on Microsoft's Silverlight platform. Silverlight, though, has not been open-sourced although Novell offers an open source implementation of it called Moonlight.

Ramji said he could not comment now on whether Microsoft might join the foundation.

Microsoft's selection of the GPL drew strong reactions.

"I think MS's embrace of a viral license like GPL shows just how far they've come since they considered it a 'cancer' a few years ago," said analyst Jeffrey Hammond, of Forrester.

"They've been making steady progress, and the attitude I see developing now seems to reflect the ultimate in pragmatism. They've conceded that since [open source software] isn't going away, they might as well profit from it, in this case making their server virtualization product more appealing," Hammond said.

Even an ardent opponent of Microsoft, Roy Schestowitz, editor of the Boycott Novell Web site, gave a nod to the company while also criticizing the arrangement.

"While it is commendable that Microsoft is no longer entirely allergic to the GPL2, it ought to be strongly emphasized that this is the latest example (among others) where Microsoft submits an open source patch from which Microsoft Windows or another part of the proprietary Microsoft stack is to gain," Schestowitz said.

Microsoft on Monday also is highlighting its ongoing investment in optimizing PHP on Windows Server and the Microsoft SQL Server database. The company has had work ongoing on a SQL Server driver available for PHP to support more native features in SQL Server 2008. Microsoft also has partnered with PHP tools vendor Zend Technologies to boost PHP.


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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