Why open source is so important to Microsoft

The company's CTO of Data spoke with ZDNet about the growing importance of open source, given Microsoft now finds itself as one of the biggest contributors.

Microsoft CTO of Data Raghu Ramakrishnan joined the tech giant from Yahoo in 2012, bringing with him a keen interest in open source with roots in Hadoop from its inception.

Speaking with ZDNet while in Sydney this week, Ramakrishnan described the investment Microsoft has since made, and discussed why the Windows-maker is placing such a "big" bet on open source.

Now a technical fellow at Microsoft, Ramakrishnan was a professor for 20 years at the University of Wisconsin. Open source has its origins in academic research, and according to Ramakrishnan, that continues to be a huge influence on the field -- and on Microsoft.

"This is an area where many, many people have gotten their PhDs working on some part of down the line database technology," he explained. "It's a deeply technical field. So we're not just being altruistic, we are staying engaged with that community."

He said Microsoft considers itself somewhat of a bridge between the research community and the enterprise world, committing and contributing a lot of code to open source.

Read also: Why Microsoft is turning into an open-source company

But it's not just evangelism; Microsoft gets a lot in return.

"We have any number of masters and PhD students, so being visible, being a thought leader, not only helps drive the field in areas of interest to us, it also gives us credibility when we want to bring in the very best people in the field," Ramakrishnan said.

The data-focused CTO credits Hadoop for the phenomenon that open source has become, noting also that generally enterprises are now not only comfortable using open source, they're asking for it.

"Microsoft has made a remarkable tenet in the last 5-10 years, and I actually think Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] was a watershed in that regard," Ramakrishnan told ZDNet. "We meet customers where they are, and in particular if you want Linux we'll give you Linux; if you want MySQL, well we'll give you MySQL; you want NoSQL well we'll give you NoSQL -- that means you need to be part of open source; open source by nature is a community thing."

Microsoft didn't always embrace open source, but by late 2016, when Microsoft joined the Linux Foundation, the community had an idea of what the future of the company that once said "Linux is a cancer" was going to look like.

According to Ramakrishnan, if instead of embracing the opportunity Microsoft had continued to "fork it", the fork would "very quickly become a dead-end". Besides, it comes down to being a good tech citizen.

"It's an ecosystem, it's a community in the truer sense of the word," he explained. "If you're going to be a vendor of open source, if you're serious about it as we are, you need to be part of it."

And that means not only consuming but giving back, too.

"Otherwise, if you don't give back ... there'll come a time when you need to make some changes because otherwise your products won't work well and you won't have credibility -- people won't listen to you and then you're stuck with supporting customers off a code base you have no say in."

Microsoft now finds itself as one of the largest contributors to open source.

When asked if anyone in the open source community has ever said no to Microsoft contributing anything, Ramakrishnan said with a smile, "In some areas, yes".

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