The Microsoft-Novell alliance – good, bad or ugly?

A few weeks back, I attended a Novell webcast about last year’s Novell-Microsoft collaboration agreement. Although that particular event was for partners, I’ve since found that the same presentation is available to a wider audience so I’m not breaching any NDAs by writing a bit more here about what this is all about.

We live in a heterogeneous world; most of the world’s data centres run a combination of mainframe operating systems, Unix, Windows and Linux. As commodity server hardware takes hold, many organisations previously running Unix-derived operating systems are starting to look at Linux (what Novell don’t say is that many won’t consider running Linux because of concerns about the supportability of open source software). Clearly a move from Unix to Linux is easier than a move to Windows, so (according to Novell), Microsoft has taken the pragmatic approach and partnered with Novell, who claim that SUSE Enterprise Linux is more prevalent in data centres than Rad Hat – the number one Linux distribution (I’m sure that Microsoft would argue that Windows Server 2003 and 2008 include better integration with and application support for Unix-like operating systems).

The Novell-Microsoft collaboration agreement focuses on three technology areas:

  • Virtualisation – virtualisation is a hot topic and the various competing technologies each take a different approach. Novell and Microsoft consider their solutions (with interoperability options for Xen and Windows Server Virtualisation) to give the best in performance, support, interoperability, cost and management (I’d say that’s not yet true, but may soon become closer to the truth with Windows Server Virtualization). Novell are quick to point out that Red Hat now include Xen (since Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5) but only support their own operating system in a virtual environment whereas Novell will support Red Hat, SUSE and Windows (NT/2000/2003) guests.
  • Heterogeneous systems management – today’s server management products are a minefield of standard-based and proprietary software. Under the Novell-Microsoft collaboration deal, the two companies will co-sponsor and contribute to a number of open source WS-Management products. They will also improve federation between Microsoft Active Directory and Novell eDirectory with WS-Federation and WS-Security.
  • Document format capability – Novell describes Microsoft as having a “heathy market share” (I’d call that an understatement – others might consider Microsoft’s dominance of the Office productivity application market to be unhealthy). Novell considers the open document format (ODF) to be growing in support (if not from Microsoft) and project that it will soon become the standard for governments. Under the agreement, Microsoft and Novell will co-operate to make it easier for customers use either or both Open XML and ODF formats.

Under the terms of the arrangement, Microsoft has purchased vouchers that may be exchanged for copies of SUSE Enterprise Linux and will issue them to customers who are looking at Linux in a cross-licensing arrangement that indemnifies SUSE Enterprise Linux users from patent infringement claims – as discussed in episode 93 of the Security Now podcast (transcript) – in return, Novell hopes to become the Enterprise Linux of choice and has issued a similar covenant to indemnify Microsoft customers against claims on their patents.

Remember that this information has come from Novell – not Microsoft – and there is a lot of fear uncertainty and doubt (FUD) circulating at present about Microsoft’s true motives for a Microsoft-Linux alliance (including rumours of open source software’s wide infringement on Microsoft’s software patents).

As an infrastructure architect working for systems integrator, my personal view is that anything that leads to interoperability improvements is a bonus. I’m not sure that’s what we have here – the Microsoft-Novell relationship seems (to me) to be more about marketing than anything substantive (although they have announced a joint technical roadmap) but we’ll see how this works out – it has certainly got the Linux movement up in arms as Microsoft has announced further partnerships with some less significant distributions (including Xandros and Linspire) and consumer electronics giants who use Linux in their products (notably Samsung and LG).

It will be interesting to see how Ubuntu reacts over time (Ubuntu founder, Mark Shuttleworth’s latest reaction is neither hostile nor approving although he did earlier incite OpenSUSE developers to defect to Ubuntu and can now be quoted as saying:

“We have declined to discuss any agreement with Microsoft under the threat of unspecified patent infringements.”

[Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu project]

I’m certainly not expecting a Microsoft deal from the number one Linux distribution:

“We believe…

It was inevitable. The best technology has been acknowledged.

The relentless march of open source is shaking up the industry by freeing customers from proprietary lock-in and lack of choice.

[...]

We will not compromise.”

[Red Hat statement on the Microsoft Novell announcement]

There’s more from Red Hat’s Mark Webbink and ars technica has a good review of why he is ever-so-slightly misguided in his assertion that:

“These guys made noise. Larry Ellison had the effect he wanted to have, and our stock price went down. But let’s see where we all are a year from now. We will still be standing. We still believe that we will be the dominant player in the Linux market because, by that time, there won’t be any other Linux players. We will have succeeded once again.”

[Enterprise Linux News - Red Hat: We will be here in one year, Novell will not.]

Whilst I’ve not spoken to anybody at Microsoft on this particular topic, it does strike me that Microsoft employees are, by and large, either extremely defensive, or a touch arrogant, when open source software is mentioned (to be fair, so are representatives of many companies if you ask them to talk about the competition). Maybe Microsoft can help make a better Linux (as the Linspire agreement suggests) but will they? Well, for one example, they rejected my feature request for Linux client support in Windows Home Server; and one Microsoft employee had a good point when we were discussing my desire to see (ideally not DRM at all, but more realistically) a single cross-platform standards-based DRM solution – “would [Linux users] accept a solution from Microsoft?” (to which I would append “, Apple or any other closed source vendor?”) – probably not.

Further information

Microsoft Interoperability.
Novell/Microsoft more interop.
Novell and Microsoft collaborate – customers win.

Is a picture worth a thousand words?

Novell's new business strategy (from ars technica)ars technica has a visual timeline of the Novell-Microsoft controversy, including this gem of an illustration for Novell’s apparent business strategy.

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