Microsoft: Getting to grips with open source

Has Redmond finally accepted that open source should be embraced, or are the company's recent partnerships with community-developed software providers simply another way to crack the competition?

Microsoft's recent decision to partner with virtualisation specialist XenSource has added momentum to the notion that it is softening its stance on co-operation with the open source community. But while Microsoft can point to numerous examples of sharing its source code and other data, hardcore open source advocates will no doubt argue that it's just pragmatism on the part of a rapacious competitor

The company's UK technology officer, Jerry Fishenden, claims Microsoft is part of a "broad ecosystem to enable greater interoperability with our technologies".  Examples include recent partnerships with open source-based commercial vendors such as database giant MySQL, web server vendor JBoss, and most recently XenSource.

Speaking at the Open Source Business Conference, held in London last month, Fishenden told delegates that Microsoft is facing a challenge to decide how much it should co-operate with the competitors. "The concept of 'co-opitition' is nothing new. It goes back 10 years or so, despite debate about its origins in terms of the way competitive companies work together," Fishenden said. "Look at Apple, for example: Microsoft and Apple compete for software market share. But we provide Microsoft Office for Mac, and it is the most successful application suite on a competitive platform."

Another, less well-known example of Microsoft's attempts at creating an open source-like community of developers is the Shared Source Initiative. This effectively supports a series of programmes that provides licences for developers to access and share source code, in seemingly the same spirit as open source projects, such as the Apache web server.

But even this initiative demonstrates that, while Microsoft may be slowly opening up its vaults, it's far from abandoning its commercial, proprietary roots, given that the Shared Source Initiative licences vary in terms of restrictions. For example, the "reference licence" simply allows code to be viewed, while access to its recently launched CodePlex portal can only be obtained by having a Microsoft shared-source licence.

These moves are an indication that Microsoft is responding to a maturing and increasingly mixed IT market, says Fishenden. But he is quick to point out that Microsoft will not abandon its existing licence-based software model.

"Microsoft already has a wide diversity of licensing options," he says. "From the classic, subscription-based model for keeping your software updated; and the Xbox Live system we're setting up of using credits for uploading and downloading games; to the traditional, free proposition offered by Hotmail, the well-established online email service, which has some 300 million users worldwide."

But in this quasi-religious battle between commercial software vendors, led by Microsoft on the one hand and open source supporters of the Linux operating system, for example, on the other, it can be hard to see whether this sea-change in Microsoft attitudes will translate into added value or greater interoperability for customers.

Microsoft is moving in the right direction to promote mixed system environments, but its claims to want to interoperate fully with open source IT components should be approached with caution, says Jono Bacon, consultant for Open Advantage, leader of the UK Linux User Group.

"Microsoft had a fairly immature approach to open source in the late 1990s," says Bacon. "But at least it has recently been making an effort to hold out an olive branch to the open source community. However, all I've seen so far is good intentions, but with no real action to back them up."

The software giant's concept of interoperability, allowing it to compete and co-operate at the same time, does not translate in real terms, he adds. "True interoperability means your software can work with anything you want it to work with. But Microsoft's concept of interoperability is getting its software to work with the bits they want you to be able to work with. It's a one-way mirror in that sense, and I don't think Microsoft will ever be truly interoperable with other vendors' components."

The example of the open document format (ODF) being touted by the industry to ease document interoperability issues is a good example of how far Microsoft really has to go, says Bacon. He contends that...

...Microsoft has often supported standards, such as ODF, to avoid the need to change their own business model and publish intellectual property freely, in the same way as its open source counterparts.

While Microsoft supports the ODF standard, Bacon points out that it has only recently ratified the standard for the most basic levels of interoperability with its products, and only after pressure from key customer bases.

"To be fair to Microsoft, it is doing a really good job of managing its relationships with its customers," he says. "But I’m fairly convinced that large government customers, who really need these standards, told Microsoft it needed to support ODF. And Microsoft has been clever, as far as I can tell, by introducing ODF to its products through a translation layer that plugs into Office. So additional file formats such as ODF then plug into that translation layer. It's not likely we'll see ODF as an option on any 'Save as', dropdown menu on a Word document soon."

Microsoft's commitment to interoperability is patchy in areas where its product portfolio are as proprietary as ever, adds Bacon. "At a recent meeting with Microsoft, Exchange was used as an example of a product that, if you want to use it, you have to use Microsoft Outlook to access it," he says. "I'd like to see people talk to it with anything, like Thunderbird for example. But interoperability like that avoids lock-in and, until Microsoft tackles lock-in, they cannot claim they are fully interoperable."

Microsoft's head of platform strategy, Nick McGrath, claims his company has the right to ensure customers will only get the best from their investments when used in a complete Microsoft stack. "We always look at how to build software that integrates with our platforms, for smooth, seamless integration. Our customers look to us to provide a total solution."

Conversely, he says that open source components are most often used as point solutions within the infrastructure, and are more difficult to manage. "We have a single management console for our server environment, which is not the same for Linux where you need many different tools, requiring lots of integration with minor business applications. The open source component may be cheap, but the total cost of ownership is more expensive."

Robin Noble, IT director for the Royal Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames, has first-hand experience of working with a mixed IT environment, and says his organisation's membership of the Microsoft Shared Solution Network has helped it achieve better interoperability and enabled it to share its work with others in an open way.

Microsoft executives often point to a maturing attitude towards knowledge and information sharing with its facilitation of the public sector Shared Solution Network, established at the beginning of 2005. The Network allows local authorities, such as Kingston, to freely publish code written using Microsoft's .Net development environment for other member authorities to use, therefore reducing time and money spent on testing and development.

"I can see specific areas where open source components can play a role — in the network, for example — but I think Microsoft is catching up," says Noble. "We have been able to use Microsoft BizTalk server and .Net development to get different systems to talk to each other, to provide a fully integrated system that gives the public a seamless service."

As part of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's mandate to get as many people using online services as possible, Kingston is using BizTalk to allow residents to report problems getting their rubbish collected. The messages are routed to Oracle databases that hold information about collection routes and removal companies. The BizTalk solution then sends the message through to the rubbish removal company to alert it to the issue, returning the eventual response directly to the resident.

 "We've also just gone live with a council-tax e-billing facility based on the same principles, which integrates with the Government Gateway [the central registration service for e-Government initiatives]. We're happy to share our work, free-of-charge, for download from the Microsoft Network so, in the longer term, others can make enhancements and feed them back to us."

But, despite Noble's enthusiasm for the initiative, he admits that Microsoft has only acted as a facilitator in the network. Kingston has done all the work itself in partnership with system integrator, Ciber UK.

"In reality, BizTalk is only the messaging server; the systems it talks to can happily be open source as long as you're using open standards, but in reality it gives us more options to use Microsoft applications. Third-party software may not be as 'safe', if you want to call it that," says Noble.

Despite its apparent aspirations to co-opt elements of the open source model, the Microsoft Shared Solution Network appears to encourage more lock-in, with lower interoperability risks.

Todd Barr, director of enterprise marketing for commercial open source vendor Red Hat, commented on this wave of Microsoft initiatives. "The sharing of source code and distributed development initiatives have been happening for years — look at the size of SourceForge [the world's largest development and download repository of open source code and applications], for example. Microsoft's efforts aren't unique. And you can't apply 'open source' as a veneer on top of existing proprietary code or development processes."

His comments echo Bacon's view that Microsoft's attitudes towards open source may be changing due to customer pressure, but that its strategies for dealing with open source competitors have not.

"Partnerships with JBoss and MySQL, for example, have very little to do with open source. Microsoft, smartly, wants any popular applications to run on its operating system, and smart software vendors want to be able to sell their applications to the Microsoft installed base. I'm sure there are dozens of new proprietary applications Microsoft partners with each year," says Barr.

Traditionally, open source and commercial software has been a black and white landscape, but some analysts claim we're moving into a grey area in both camps. Phil Dawson, Gartner research vice president, agrees that Microsoft is making efforts to curry favour with open source supporting customers, but says end-users can exploit this to get the best of both worlds.

"I think you'll see Microsoft go down both the open and commercial routes with a hybrid model to capture both opportunities. I don't think we'll see Microsoft go open source — what we're seeing now is a political move to forge alliances, where these two camps will work together but never be best buddies," he says. "But it gives customers the opportunity to run hybrid environments and get the best of both worlds. It's just up to them whether the open source/commercial split should be 50/50, or 80/20 one way or the other, because ultimately they have to manage those environments."