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Why Microsoft will drive serious Linux innovation

Matt Asay | Sept. 12, 2017
Microsoft, while maintaining its commitment to Windows, has made the necessary steps to not merely run on Linux but to help shape the future of Linux

This is the yeoman’s work of being a successful platform. It’s useful but not particularly innovative.

But that is not to say that Microsoft isn’t innovating around Linux.


Microsoft’s Linux innovation is on the edges

When I challenged Frazelle on her statement, Frazelle was quick to point out that she wasn’t referring to Linux kernel contributions but making more a statement about “innovations with Linux” and to “look at who is using Linux in crazy ways.” Or, more important, in not-so-crazy ways.

Frazelle, remember, has a strong container pedigree. In that area, Microsoft more than earns the “innovator” label. Even seemingly pedestrian work -- like making Docker containers work for Windows, not merely Linux — is a big deal for enterprises that don’t want open source politics infesting their IT.

Or how about Hyper-V containers, which marry the high density of containers to the isolation of traditional VMs? That’s a really big deal. Microsoft’s commitment to Linux has been such that over the past year the percentage of Azure VMs running Linux has jumped from 25 percent to 33 percent, according to Microsoft Azure CTO Mark Russinovich.

In short, maybe the more accurate tweet would have been that Microsoft is the only company doing serious innovation around Linux. Although that would be up for debate, Microsoft has changed so much that most of us would at least consider the statement.


Getting at the heart, or kernel, of the Linux matter

Even so, given just how dependent Microsoft increasingly is on Linux, it’s time for the company to not just innovate around the edges of the Linux ecosystem but to start contributing directly to the Linux kernel, commensurate with the value it derives therefrom. Ten years ago, Microsoft couldn’t do this without suspicion. Today, this is what we expect of Microsoft.

Microsoft seems to understand this, and is finally getting serious about Linux.

As ever in open source, it starts with people. Without fanfare, Microsoft has started hiring Linux kernel developers like Matthew Wilcox, Paul Shilovsky, and (in mid-2016) Stephen Hemminger. Hemminger’s hire is particularly interesting not only because he’s considered one of the big-time kernel developers, but also because it was he back in 2009 (while working for Vyatta) who called out Microsoft for violating the GPL in its Hyper-V code.

With the addition of these three people, Microsoft now employs 12 Linux kernel contributors. As for what these engineers are doing, Linux kernel maintainer Greg Kroah-Hartman says, “Microsoft now has developers contributing to various core areas of the kernel (memory management, core data structures, networking infrastructure), the CIFS filesystem, and of course many contributions to make Linux work better on its Hyper-V systems.”


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