OS Wars: Why has Microsoft Embraced Linux?

“Embrace, extend and extinguish”... Back in the late 90s, this was Microsoft’s secret strategy for dealing with open source software.

At the time, Linux, the community-developed operating system was top of Microsoft’s open source hitlist. The approach involved freezing out Linux from its ecosystem, limiting the choices of customers who wanted to use it, and even threatening lawsuits against Linux development houses.

These days, things have changed. No longer are Microsoft and Linux locked in battle. Not only is Microsoft one of the biggest contributors to the Linux kernel, but it also happens to be the most popular operating system on Azure, Microsoft’s very own public cloud platform.

Here’s a closer look at the relationship between Linux and Microsoft, why it has changed, and what the future might hold.

Linux and Windows: two approaches compared...

Linux v Windows is the classic illustration of the difference between proprietary and open source software.

Windows, Microsoft’s graphical operating system goes way back to 1985. Beyond PCs, the current Windows ‘family’ also comprises OS software for servers, embedded systems and smartphones. In terms of its familiar file storage structure and architecture, Windows has actually changed very little over the last three decades.

In 1991, Linux was created by Finnish student, Linus Torvalds as a free operating system, open to anyone. The original release was a skeleton OS consisting of a few lines of code, without a graphical interface. Over time it has been added to by countless contributors, so it now consists of more than 23 million lines of source code.

With Windows, you can’t change the source code, and the product’s use is governed by the end-user agreement. It is of course bundled in with the overwhelming majority of domestic PCs and the majority of business machines, hence its market dominance.

Linux was designed to be an OS that’s accessible to anyone; the idea being that you can tailor it to your own purposes. For this, you start off with a ready-made base in the form of a Linux distribution (‘distro’). These range from pretty simple user-friendly distros that have a similar look and feel to Windows (e.g. Ubuntu and MX Linux), right through to business-focused variants for heavy-duty tasks such as server management (e.g. Red Hat and CentOS). With your distro in place, you can then customise it to your specific needs.

Microsoft v Linux: Why the conflict?

The short answer to this goes something like, “It’s what Microsoft does!”

Certainly for PCs, distribution deals with hardware manufacturers meant that Windows effectively became the default OS on the vast majority of machines. If you were an ordinary user who wanted to use Linux, you had to effectively jump through hoops to get there.

Legal pressure also featured. As the application of Linux systems opened up, Microsoft was quick to make claims of copycat violations. For instance, in 2007, Red Hat was named in a list of culprits alleged to have violated Microsoft’s patents. In 2009, TomTom was sued, amid claims that the company’s Linux-based products violated a patent relating to file storage.

So what changed?

Back in the early 2000s, Microsoft’s former CEO Steve Ballmer dubbed Linux a “cancer...fit for communists”.

Fast forward to 2018, and Microsoft announced that it was joining the Open Invention Network (OIN), the exact same group whose members it had in its sights when pursuing patent litigation a decade earlier. Instead of looking for infringements to pursue, the new arrangement meant that Microsoft was going to open up 60,000 of its patents for other companies to use for their own Linux-related open source projects.

On the cloud server side, In October last year, Microsoft announced that it was extending its Hybrid Benefit Program to Linux. Originally, this licensing perk applied to Windows Server or SQL Server customers only. It meant that organisations running one of those servers could bring those licenses over to the Microsoft Azure platform and run the server software in a virtual machine. Now, the same offering is also available for Linux servers, including Red Hat and SUSE.

So why the change of approach? It’s all down to pragmatism, and it’s largely based on two factors:

Customer preferences and usage trends

Despite the claims that the Microsoft ecosystem offered everything users needed, customers themselves, especially business users, often had other ideas.

While the Linux global desktop market share is minute (less than 2%), its usage for other purposes is far more widespread. Almost 40% of embedded systems (everything from games consoles to microwave ovens ) are based on Linux. Almost a third of web servers are also based on it. 80% of smartphones (i.e. all those on Android) are built on it, too.

Linux has a reputation for being stable, secure and customisable. In fact, according to one stat, 83% of developers claim that they prefer to work on Linux compared to any other operating system.

It’s cloud-friendly

90% of the ‘workloads’ (e.g. applications, business databases and virtual machines) that reside on the public cloud are built with Linux. Because it’s modular, configurable and can support so many use cases, it’s by far the most popular OS for cloud-based development projects.

Could the next version of Windows be based on Linux?

The other major factor in favour of Linux concerns security. When a vulnerability emerges with Windows, cybercriminals too often have the opportunity to exploit it before it gets patched. And while Linux definitely isn’t exploit-proof, it tends to be the case that thanks to its system of community-sourced oversight, it suffers with far fewer exploitable vulnerabilities, bugs and threats.

In fact, some commentators have suggested that because Windows is so notoriously ‘buggy’, there’s a possibility that Microsoft could, in the not too distant future, decide to ditch its source code in favour of a Linux kernel.

Will this happen? Probably not. And Microsoft insider, Hayden Barnes recently set out some very good reasons why. Not least, it’s unclear whether it’s possible to rebase the Windows code and maintain the compatibility that Windows is known for. Microsoft has invested heavily in Windows in recent years. What’s more, turning Windows into Linux wouldn’t be good news for customers. As he puts it, “The more desirable outcome is that open source innovation continues spreading across all operating systems”.

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  • Nathan House

    Nathan House is the founder and CEO of StationX. He has over 25 years of experience in cyber security, where he has advised some of the largest companies in the world. Nathan is the author of the popular "The Complete Cyber Security Course", which has been taken by over half a million students in 195 countries. He is the winner of the AI "Cyber Security Educator of the Year 2020" award and finalist for Influencer of the year 2022.

  • Peter Slack says:

    This is a great article Nathan. I suspect another reason is that MS is trying to bring back developers like me who were lured onto OSX. I was a life long windows and unix user, I experienced the polarization of windows and linux in the old days, I always needed 2 computers to have the best of both worlds, the 2 were always like water and oil when you try to have it on one computer.

    I started on a media / music software project and made the transition to OSX 10 years ago. Much to my delight OSX offers the best GUI built on linux, I haven’t really gone back.

    Recently MS seems to be upping their game; I’m closer to having my GUI and unix too without having 2 machines or obtuse setups with tools provided on Windows 10. I feel this experimentation has been ongoing on Windows Server products for at least 15+ years, their server products I feel are first rate. I can have linux running on Hyper-V so it isn’t really an integrated experience but at least I have my GUI and unix too.

    MS is really doing great things and I’m super interested and they have captured my curiosity. Their VS Code development tool is taking the dev world by storm.

    I also wanted to note that MS seems to be on top of the open JDK development as another thread of open development leadership; Apple dropped the ball on this.

    As another note I suspect there is a new gauntlet thrown by Apple given that I can now spin up OSX on AWS .. look out linux and widows in the clouds?

  • Edwin says:

    Nice article and very interesting to read. Thx

  • PaulemPG says:

    Since I move on RDBMS from Oracle DB to PostgreSQL I switch my laptop from Windows to Fedora. Even I’m using libvirt as vm with a Win10 image provide by my customer. VS code is nice but I prefer Atom.

  • $habz says:

    Great article, i am expectant of this new collaboration

  • anys says:

    Thanks again Nathan for this good news article. you do it every time i read them, stay well…..

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