Sam Ramji is a busy man. As Microsoft’s senior director of platform strategy, his job is a big one: overseeing the company’s initiatives in Linux and open source.
Wait a second – Microsoft’sstrategy in open source? Yes, that’s right. The planet’s largest software company, whose relationship with open source has been, at best, hypercompetitive – Linux partisans might describe it less diplomatically – is reaching across the divide to the (formerly) enemy camp.
Or, as Ramji wrote on his LinkedIn profile:
“Open Source Software projects and ISVs should contact me to initiate a relationship with Microsoft. I am focused on narrowing the gap between the Open Source community and Microsoft through research, collaboration, interoperability, and community engagement.”
Goodness. Back in, say, 2002, who would ever have thought that a Microsoft executive would extend such an offer? Apparently, Hades has finally frozen over. Never let it be said that Microsoft isn’t willing to change and adapt with the times.
Redmond’s change of heart (or at least change of strategy) isn’t brand new. In November 2006 the company stunned industry observers when it unveiled an agreement with Novell to make Windows more interoperable with SUSE Linux. The deal included plans to enhance interoperability in virtualization, Web services and between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.
Critics claimed the Novell deal was Redmond’s way of undermining open source – sort of a “if you can't beat ‘em, join 'em” strategy aimed, ultimately, at co-opting the competitive threat. The joint agreement referred to Microsoft’s offer of patent protectionto “non-commercial open source software development.” Some Linux devotees saw this as a gambit to create doubt about commercial open source vendors. Did enterprise clients with open source in their datacenter now have to worry that their vendor would be ensnared in a lawsuit?
However, Microsoft explained, the deal was anything but nefarious. With increasingly heterogeneous datacenters, customers wanted Window and Linux to work well together – in fact they demanded it. The company’s efforts were focused on providing the best solutions for enterprise clients, and if that meant interoperating with Linux, then Redmond was flexible. Naturally Microsoft needed to protect its intellectual property in the process, hence the patent statement.
The Novell-Microsoft partnership (and similar deals Microsoft has inked with Linux vendors) continues to spark controversy. Perhaps total harmony between the open source community and Microsoft will have to wait until the Age of Aquarius. Or longer.
In the meantime, it’s Sam Ramji’s job to build a bridge between these two contrasting worlds. To that end, he does things like attend the recent open source confab OSCON, where he spoke about areas of interoperability. He facilitates technical collaborations between Microsoft and open source vendors; past examples include JBoss, SugarCRM, XenSource, Zend and SpikeSource. And he's involved with Microsoft’s Open Source Software Lab (launched in 2004), a research project located in Redmond with hundreds of servers running dozens of Linux distros. He maintains a blog about Microsoft and open source.
Before his current role Ramji held a variety of tech managerial posts, including a stint supervising engineering teams as they developed heavyweight applications on open source software. He holds a degree in Cognitive Science from UC San Diego, and he’s a fan of the famously independent, Noble-winning physicist Richard Feynman. He lives in Seattle with his wife and kids and, when not working, likes the guitar and mountain biking.
Ramji’s exceptionally busy schedule kept him from answering all the questions I submitted to him, yet he did address some key issues about Microsoft’s strategy regarding open source:
Q: The very fact that Microsoft has an individual leading its open source initiatives represents a sea change in the company's attitudes. What prompted this change?
Over the course of the past few years, you can certainly say that Microsoft’s open source strategy has evolved. The force behind this evolution is both an increased technical expertise and deep line of sight into Linux and open source, which has really helped Microsoft understand where the company competes with commercial Linux offerings and where it can cooperate with the open source community. Microsoft’s open source strategy is built on participation with individuals, communities and businesses.
Q: Certainly you're aware that some observers are skeptical about the concept of Microsoft having an open source strategy. How do you respond to this?
Our open source strategy, now and in the future, is to continue a journey in which we participate with others in learning how open source products and technologies, Microsoft products and technologies—and sometimes open source products and technologies from Microsoft—can coexist, combine, and comingle in ways that offer value to customers, developers and IT administrators, partners businesses, and, as a commercial company, our shareholders.
But our strategy remains unchanged. Microsoft competes with Linux and UNIX servers with Windows servers; we're going to find ways to interoperate between Linux and Windows because lots of our customers run both; and we want to grow the open-source ecosystem as it relates to Microsoft software.
Q: At a recent Microsoft Worldwide Partner conference, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to be saying that Microsoft will work with open source, but will never actually produce open source software. Is that a correct reading of the company's attitude?
I’m glad you asked this, because it’s incredibly important that we accurately articulate Microsoft’s open source strategy. Microsoft believes that the next ten years of software will be a time of growth and change where both open source and Microsoft communities will grow together. We believe that in an increasingly interconnected world, more people have more opportunity; to use more technology; to do more things than ever before. We support those choices and are expanding interoperability between open source technologies and Microsoft technologies.
Q: If you were to look ahead several years in the future, what do you foresee for Microsoft's open source initiatives?
Both Microsoft and open source exist within a larger industry context, so it is worth taking a moment to ground ourselves in that context. The last ten years have been a time of dynamic growth and change in information technology in which both open source and Microsoft have grown. Our belief is that we are moving toward a “next ten years” in which Microsoft and open source will “grow together” – and that this growth will increasingly be focused, purposeful, and complementary.