​Why Microsoft is turning into an open-source company

Microsoft now has its own BSD Unix operating system, supports Ubuntu as a subsystem on Windows 10, and recently open-sourced the Xamarin software development kit. This is not Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer's Microsoft.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I know it's very, very hard for some of you to believe it, but Microsoft really and truly is well on its way to becoming an open-source company.

Microsft FreeBSD

Microsoft creating its own version of FreeBSD is only one of many moves it's made on its way to become an open-source company.


Let's go through the list shall we? Microsoft just released its own version of FreeBSD for Azure. So what, you say? Who uses FreeBSD? Well, you've probably heard of a little company called Netflix. Then, there's Citrix, Array Networks, Gemalto. and Netgate, which already have virtual appliances on the Azure Marketplace.

Earlier this year, Microsoft and Canonical partnered up to bring Ubuntu to Windows 10. Why? Because it makes it easier for developers to write programs for Ubuntu on the Azure cloud. You know, Ubuntu, the favorite Linux of Azure users.

Before that, Microsoft bought Xamarin, the multi-platform mobile app development program. Xamarin always had a lot of open source in it, but Microsoft has pushed it even further that way by open-sourcing its Xamarin software development kit (SDK), runtime, libraries and command line tools. The Redmond crew's reason for doing this? Building apps twice is once too often. This move makes C#, Microsoft hopes, competitive with Objective-C, Swift, or Java in the mobile space.

These are only Microsoft's most recent moves. In 2015 Microsoft brought .NET Core to Linux; supported Debian GNU/Linux on its Azure cloud; and set up its own Linux certification. Microsoft's current CEO, Satya Nadella, has proclaimed that Microsoft loves Linux. Heck, Microsoft even has its own, specialized Linux distribution: Azure Cloud Switch.

What do all these moves have in common? They're designed to make Microsoft a profitable open-source company.

Microsoft isn't just becoming a cloud company, although it is that too, it's turning to open-source for profits as well. Look at where Microsoft's revenues come from in 2016. Server products and cloud services make the most money with 20 percent of total revenue. Microsoft Office, which is turning into a cloud service, takes third place after gaming. Windows? It's barely over 10 percent.

Now what runs on the cloud? I'll tell you: It's open-source operating systems and server applications. To quote Mark Russinovich, CTO of Microsoft Azure, "It's obvious, if we don't support Linux, we'll be Windows only and that's not practical." He added that one in four virtual machine instances on Azure are Linux and that the number is increasing.

Open source has become the dominant development paradigm. While people used to talk about open source and free software in terms of religion or cancer, depending on which side you were on, the real reason open source has won is that it makes hard financial sense.

As Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation's executive director, has said, open source "shared development is enabling faster development with higher quality and lower costs. This is causing the software value chain to change." Microsoft gets this.

And, it's not just software. The barrier between hardware and software is getting erased. As Zemlin commented:

Hardware functions are increasingly being abstracted into software. You can see this in software defined networking (SDN), server virtualization, and the cloud. This has put a lot of pressure on hardware vendors. More and more specialist hardware has been replaced by open source software running on generic x86 boxes.

So it is that almost every technology company, including Microsoft, is shifting over to open source for its development.

Sure, Microsoft will not be open-sourcing Windows or Office. Those have enormous sunk costs and they're still profitable. But for any future projects? It will be all open source, all the time. And, as Windows and Office move to the cloud, it wouldn't surprise me one bit if back in Microsoft datacenters they'll be running on Linux or FreeBSD.

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