Microsoft Loves Linux – as Long as It’s Not Red Hat

Just when you thought it couldn’t top itself — having contributed Linux kernel code under the GPL, broadly supported Linux alongside Windows with its systems management and other software, and spun off a new subsidiary dedicated to openness, Microsoft showed yet more Linux and open source love recently, adding an impressive Linux lineup to supported software on its Azure cloud.

However, there’s one major Linux player that’s sort of getting left out of the lovefest. It’s enterprise Linux leader Red Hat and its Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which has to sit by while other distributions, including RHEL community clone CentOS and market competitors SUSE and Ubuntu, get first-class treatment in Microsoft’s Azure cloud.

This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen Microsoft look to the “other” Linux distributions as leverage against Red Hat. Though some may be critical of Microsoft for its apparent selective Linux approach, the bottom line is that Redmond is among the broadest supporters of Linux in the industry today. HP has historically been among the most aggressive, backing unpaid Linux distributions such as CentOS, Debian and Ubuntu — which is also a paid Linux option with support from Canonical.

Open Cloud

However, Microsoft recently has been equally if not more supportive, by including CentOS, OpenSUSE, SUSE Linux Enterprise Server (SLES) and Ubuntu Linux distributions among supported options on its Azure cloud. Much of that has to do with Microsoft’s recognition of open technologies in response to market demand, and its effort to be inclusive. However, much of it also has to do with isolating Red Hat, which is Microsoft’s top enterprise server competition.

Previous examples of this include Microsoft’s landmark partnership and cross-patent license agreement with SUSE Linux vendor Novell in the fall of 2006. Microsoft continued to put pressure on Red Hat by targeting the flow of unpaid, community Linux users converting to RHEL with its own migration plan alongside SUSE in 2008.

Other examples of the “old” Microsoft in action include recent efforts to lock Linux out of desktop machines with its UEFI secure booting.

Still, it is wise on Microsoft’s part to support more Linux community distributions. While conversion can work both ways — from paid to free for cost and labor savings, or from free to paid for support, insurance or scale — the existence of a community option such as Fedora, OpenSUSE or Ubuntu truly benefits the paid, vendor-supported cousins — RHEL, SLES and Ubuntu, respectively.

The community distributions not only help to grow developer, device and user ecosystems, but also provide a cutting-edge or community option to the more stable, tested and certified Linux versions that come at a cost.

By supporting these other Linux options — particularly RHEL clone CentOS and not the Red Hat-sponsored community version Fedora — Microsoft is trying to intercept the progression of community Linux users to paid customers.

It’s interesting to note that Oracle Enterprise Linux, another RHEL clone, is not among the Linux supported on Azure — perhaps an indication that old software grudges die hard, and putting Oracle in the same “not-invited” category as Red Hat.

Come Together

Even so, Microsoft may have more to gain by including Red Hat Linux in its Azure cloud. There have been similar instances, such as when Microsoft and Red Hat came together to support each other’s virtualization technology — which was truly a response to demand from customers who insisted Microsoft and Red Hat work together to support their respective virtualization systems. Though Microsoft may view its exclusion of RHEL as a way to steer customers toward other options, it is missing out on the most popular Linux for which enterprises are willing to pay.

There may be a lot of different community Linux distributions being used, but when it comes to paid, commercial Linux, it’s most frequently Red Hat. In addition, Microsoft may find that users are fine to use CentOS on the Azure cloud but will still go to Red Hat and RHEL if and when they are seeking support.

Earlier this year, there was some speculation that it would be OpenStack, the open source cloud computing project from Rackspace and NASA, that would isolate Red Hat in the market, but I was confident Red Hat would build on the integration and work that began with its Gluster acquisition.

VMware tried to out-open Red Hat with its Cloud Foundry PaaS, which competes with Red Hat’s recently open sourced OpenShift. There’s also an increasing competitive threat for Red Hat from Oracle. However, it seems with some recent traction for Azure and the addition of competing distributions, it is Red Hat’s old foe Microsoft that is proving most aggressive in going after the open source leader.

LinuxInsider columnist Jay Lyman is a senior analyst for 451 Research, covering open source software and focusing primarily on Linux operating systems and vendors, open source software in the enterprise, application development, systems management and cloud computing. Lyman has been a speaker at numerous industry events, including the Open Source Business Conference, OSCON, Linux Plumber's Conference and Open Source World/Linux World, on topics such as Linux and open source in cloud computing, mobile software, and the impact of economic conditions and customer perspectives on open source. Follow his blog here.

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