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Whats really behind Microsofts love of open source

Open source is what underdogs do to win. For Microsoft, it’s paying dividends in the cloud.

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Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella

Image: James Martin/CNET

Google and Microsoft are currently racing to out-open each other in a bid for cloud glory. Indeed, both companies have released impressive quantities (and quality) of open source code, gifting the world everything from Kubernetes (Google) to quantum computing programming languages and development kits (Microsoft). For students of open source history, such moves aren’t particularly surprising; if anything, like Thanos, they are inevitable.

Why? Because open source is and always has been the tool of the underdog.

SEE: Cloud providers 2019: A buyer’s guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Open source your competition

For years we saw startup after startup bill itself as “the open source X,” with “X” representing the dominant vendor in a particular market. (For example, I worked at Alfresco, the “open source Documentum.” Can’t get much sexier than that.) More interesting, however, was the “stunning and irreversible trend in enterprise infrastructure,” as Cloudera co-founder Mike Olson put it, toward open source. “No dominant platform-level software infrastructure has emerged in the last ten years in closed-source, proprietary form.”

To be taken seriously, a technology needed broad adoption, and open source was the easiest way to get there fast.

Hence, from Apache Hadoop to MongoDB to Apache Kafka to [insert broadly adopted technology of choice], it has all been open source. Ride-hailing services might need to raise billions of dollars to take on stodgy taxi companies, but in software the best way to compete with entrenched interests is to open source the technology and let developers run wild.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Microsoft and other companies have noticed. Given the importance of developers, such tech giants have embraced open source as a way to entice developers to build applications on their platforms. Even so, the cultural shift away from proprietary software has been painful and slow for the tech giants, particularly Microsoft. It’s impressive, therefore, that Microsoft currently ranks as the world’s top open source contributor, at least as measured by sheer number of employees active on GitHub.

Working with open

Of course, “open” isn’t merely a matter of code. As difficult as it is to retrain a company to embrace (and release) open source, it’s arguably even harder for corporations to learn how to collaborate with erstwhile competitors.

Google, for example, recently determined that it would help to resell open source products through its cloud. As its open source chief, Chris DiBona, said, this wasn’t “some sort of generous magical deal,” but rather a way to deliver customer value. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in so doing, Google Cloud positioned itself as open source friendly against the allegedly open source unfriendly AWS.

Perhaps more impressive is Microsoft.

SEE: Vendor comparison: Microsoft Azure, Amazon AWS, and Google Cloud (Tech Pro Research)

Google has a long history of working with open source. Microsoft, for its part, has a long history of doing everything in its power to destroy open source. As such, when Microsoft starts a love-in with open source partners, it’s even bigger news.

Just this week, corresponding with the company’s Build developer conference and Red Hat Summit, Microsoft announced (or recently announced):

  • The embrace of open-source Chromium (from Google) as the heart of its Edge browser…and would have it run on Apple’s MacOS and other operating systems (Note: If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, you haven’t been around long enough to remember Microsoft’s antitrust woes);
  • The release of ONNX, “gives data scientists the flexibility to train and tune models in the framework of their choice.” In other words, a data scientist can mix and match rival frameworks. Start with Microsoft, finish with Google’s TensorFlow;
  • The launch of KEDA, an open source Kubernetes event-driven autoscaling service, with Red Hat, allowing “developers to deploy serverless containers on Kubernetes in any public or private cloud, as well as on-premises,” and not merely Microsoft’s Azure.

Indeed, it’s perhaps this last one that is most interesting. Microsoft spent years getting cozy with open source before it finally, in 2015, decided to get chummy with the dominant open source vendor, Red Hat. Here was a company, after all, that managed to turn that “cancerous” Linux into billions of dollars in revenue. Today, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst stand on stage together, friends.

Or, at least, allies.

Both companies need to beat AWS. Both are relying on open source, as is Google, to do that. Open source was, and is, the tool of the underdog. Given how massive the stakes are in this cloudy game of chess, we can expect to see unprecedented quantities of high-quality open source code released.

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