How Azure became the place for open source in the cloud

Microsoft has truly embraced open source, in a radical shift rare for a big company—and developers should be very happy

How Azure became the place for open source in the cloud

Microsoft is perhaps the most impressive company on the planet right now. While it doesn’t (currently) dominate markets like it used to, Microsoft has managed something dramatically more difficult, something that portends future success as a platform behemoth: profound cultural change.

Microsoft recently announced that it is effectively open-sourcing its 60,000-plus patent portfolio by joining the Open Invention Network. It claims this move will “help protect Linux and open source.”

Yes, Microsoft is now putting the full weight of its intellectual property to protect the things it used to call “anti-American” and “a cancer.” Why? Because Microsoft has changed. And why? Because Microsoft is a platform company, and platform companies must embrace open innovation to survive. Microsoft is smart enough under its current leadership to understand that.

Microsoft’s journey: I love you, you’re perfect, now change

Microsoft’s ambition to be the world’s largest platform company hasn’t changed, but the rules for being a successful platform vendor have. Completely. Eons ago, when Microsoft controlled desktop computing, the company could get away with slagging off open source. At the time, open source was still new, and its successes largely confined to the server. More important, vendors still controlled what enterprises used in their data centers, and no one did that better than Microsoft.

Slowly but surely, however, the “everyone but Microsoft” crowd started to collaborate on open source projects like Linux, fostering new platforms for innovation from which Microsoft’s anti-open-source stance locked it out. In the last five years, this move to open source has accelerated to such a degree that Cloudera cofounder Mike Olson could boldly (and truthfully) declare, “No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.”

In this new platform world, you run on open source contributions or you are an also-ran.

Microsoft started to figure this out a decade ago, open sourcing ASP.Net in 2008, as well as other code. The company was feeling its way toward the new platform approach, but only in pockets. Company-wide, the company still snarled “proprietary.”

That was then. This is now.

Microsoft: A kinder, gentler platform aspirant

Recently, Microsoft executive Scott Guthrie said:

We recognized open source is something that every developer can benefit from. It’s not nice, it’s essential. It’s not just code, it’s community. We don’t just throw code on the website. We openly publish our roadmap, and we have 20,000 Microsoft employees on GitHub. With over 2,000 open source projects, we’re the largest open source project supporter in the world.

Going from open source zero to hero (Microsoft is the world’s largest open source contributor by a wide margin) in a little over two decades may sound like slow change, but it’s amazing that a company could make the change at all. After all, Microsoft’s walled garden approach to platform innovation made it billions of dollars (and it still does, each quarter) and thedominant software vendor of the 1990s and 2000s. That Microsoft recognized that its recipe for past success wouldn’t work for future success is almost unprecedented. Anyone who has worked at a big company knows how frustratingly slow big companies change, if at all.

Today, Microsoft is a vastly different company than it once was. As Erich Anderson, Microsoft’s chief information property counsel, said at the OIN membership announcement:

At Microsoft, we take it as a given that developers do not want a binary choice of Windows vs. Linux, or .Net vs. Java—they want cloud platforms to support all technologies. They want to deploy technologies at the edge—on any device—that meet customer needs. We also learned that collaborative development through the open source process can accelerate innovation.
Following over a decade of work to make the company more open, ... Microsoft has become one of the largest contributors to open source in the world. Our employees contribute to over 2,000 projects, we provide first-class support for all major Linux distributions on Azure, and we have open sourced major projects such as .Net Core, TypeScript,Visual Studio Code, and PowerShell.

These are the new rules for competing as a platform vendor, and Microsoft is playing by them with aplomb.

Mostly. Many Microsoft divisions still can’t bring themselves to treat MacOS as an equal citizen. But in open source, there’s much less of that antipathy in Redmond.

Sorry, AWS: Azure is becoming the place for cloud open source

You can see the effect of Microsoft’s open source embrace on its key cloud competitor, Amazon Web Services. AWS makes a great platform for running open source, but it has been less forthcoming about its work to embrace open source as part of its platform. By contrast, Microsoft is staking a real claim to being the most developer-friendly cloud platform, putting AWS on the defensive. For the first time, Microsoft Azure is the place where open source can best thrive.

Developers aren’t a particularly political lot—certainly not when it comes to running code. They want to get stuff done with a minimum of fuss. Microsoft is becoming the cloud with the least “fuss.”

I once thought AWS’s lead was unassailable and perhaps at a features/functionality level it still is. But Microsoft is making a bold claim for being the most developer-friendly cloud with its embrace of open source and open innovation, something that developers will appreciate and build on.

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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