Hilf speaks about Linux through Microsoft eyes

Bill Hilf

Director of Microsoft platform technology strategy, Bill Hilf was going to face a crowd of open source enthusiasts at the Linux World conference in Sydney next week, but pulled out. His talk, about managing Linux in a mixed environment will instead be presented by Microsoft New Zealand's chief technology officer, Brett Roberts.

Computerworld managed to grab a few minutes with Hilf, the man who runs Microsoft's Linux and open source technology group to hear the proprietary software giant's views on open source, and what the Linux lab inside Microsoft gets up to.

There has been plenty of speculation as to why you have pulled out of the conference - but what is the real reason?

I had a scheduling conflict for an internal meeting that could not be moved. Believe me, I would much rather be at LinuxWorld in Sydney.

How many staff are in Microsoft's Linux and open source technology group?

It's a small, experienced and focused team - it usually is around eight to 10 people at any given time.

What exactly does your group do?

Essentially, we're a centre of competency for Open Source Software (OSS) inside Microsoft. By running Linux and a variety of other OSS in a highly Microsoft-centric IT environment, we're learning how those technologies can better interoperate with Microsoft's proprietary technologies. The lab consists of a few hundred servers plus a range of PCs, collectively running over 40 different Linux distributions, together with many different versions of Unix. These various systems need to interoperate with the Windows-based networking, human-resources, e-mail and other systems that run Microsoft. In the research lab there's analysis, testing, benchmarking, a variety of different interoperability scenarios that we work through, and a large amount of resources that we provide to the rest of Microsoft so that they can understand and learn more about OSS.

While testing interoperability between open source software and Microsoft products is one of the lab's main objectives, it isn't the only one. Another important objective is a more competitive one - to help Microsoft build better products by deeply understanding Linux and open source. We analyze, test and benchmark aspects of open source software we want to compare to Microsoft products, such as various server workloads, desktop scenarios, virtualization technologies, security technologies, management tools or just applications that are specific to certain vertical industries.

One of the biggest areas that my team and I look at that is often unrepresented is that it's not just the technical analysis, but also the sociological elements of OSS and the community development model. We spend a tremendous amount of time understanding the community process of this model and learning how Microsoft can be more aware and its products more accessible to the community.

How important is Linux and open source strategy to Microsoft?

By exploring the dynamics of the open source software phenomenon in an impartial and unbiased manner that relies on hard technical data, the Linux/Open Source Software lab at Microsoft has been able to drive improvements and changes to both internal Microsoft groups and customers who have asked us to look into common Linux/OSS questions and issues. And while we're very proud of the work we've accomplished so far, by continuing to practice the fine balance between cooperation and competition with open source software, we are equally confident that our future research will benefit Microsoft, its customers and partners, and the open source community.

How does Microsoft plan to make money from open source and Linux?

Microsoft recognizes the benefits as well as the drawbacks of the OSS development model. We are incorporating its most positive elements into our development practices. Our top priority is to produce great software that meets the needs of our customers, partners, and other constituent communities. We recently embarked on interoperability projects with SugarCRM and Jboss, open source vendors you normally wouldn't associate with Microsoft. The reason we pursued these relationships is because in both cases nearly half of their customer base is running Windows Server. By working with these companies, we can help our joint customers ease interoperability issues. The deals are also a prime example of the success partners are finding on the Windows platform regardless of the development model they employ.

How much does Microsoft view open source and Linux as competition?

There has been a lot of talk around Microsoft and Linux, but the discussion has shifted since it began. Overall, we've seen the industry discussion evolve from emotion, to technology, to its current focus on how business and customer value is delivered. Microsoft has invested in resources to engineer products that it stands by -- products that are comprehensive, easy to use, and deliver value "out of the box" for key customer IT scenarios. There are many scenarios where we'll compete head to head and many where we find cooperative engagement - our customers determine 'how much' we do or don't compete.

When did you first become involved with Linux and open source, and what got you interested in it?

Before joining Microsoft in January, 2004, I was a senior enterprise architect at IBM where I also helped lead the Linux technology strategy for a group that focused on emerging competitive markets.

Why did you jump ship from IBM to Microsoft?

Microsoft had an interest in learning about and understanding OSS, including Linux, and brought me in as an expert in the field to lead a team and build a lab to do that type of work. I was attracted to Microsoft because as someone who has at different times served as a developer, an architect, and CIO I know where the tough challenges are in software environments. Microsoft offers me the opportunity to work with extremely smart people, and the ability to work at the largest software development environment in the world.

Are Linux and Microsoft two polar extremes or do you feel there is more common ground than people often assume?

Contrary to a common assumption that Microsoft is anti open source, the reality is not so black and white. Certainly, most customers don't live in that either/or world. They choose a technology - an operating system or an application - based on its ability to solve a particular problem and to serve a certain business need, not based on its development model.

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