The effort is part of the company's standard way of assessing competitive threats and using that information to figure out how to improve the company's own products, Microsoft spokespeople said today.
The group includes fewer than 10 people, the Wall Street Journal reported today, but Microsoft spokespeople were unable to confirm the number or say how long the Linux evaluation effort has been under way.
Linux is changing the rules, said Brian Behlendorf, a developer of the Apache Web server software popular on Linux. "I think they better watch it. I would be doing that if I were them," he said.
Microsoft isn't to be discounted, though. Microsoft has "shown it can turn the company on a dime, as it did with the Internet a few years back," Behlendorf added.
While Microsoft's Linux plans may seem a bit ad-hoc, the company has been sharpening its focus on the upstart operating system. For example, the company funded a controversial study pitting Windows NT with Linux on computers serving up files and Web pages and then publishing a Web page showing the advantages of NT over Linux.
"It's time for the Linux folks to step up to the challenge and prove that Linux is capable of achieving better results than Windows NT Server," Microsoft says on the Web page.
The software giant has denied Linux is a threat, which is convenient for its marketing effort, while acknowledging it's a competitor, which is convenient for its legal battle with the Department of Justice.
Though Linux has its fans and detractors, it's hard to deny that the Unix-like operating system is changing the computer landscape. Linux is cheap, particularly given that companies don't have to pay extra depending on how many clients will connect to a Linux server. Many companies are selling servers tailored for Linux, including the biggest sellers of servers using Windows NT: Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Dell Computer, Compaq Computer. Linux also stands as a good way to get more use out of older computers that aren't beefy enough for other operating systems. And because its programming instructions are available for anyone to see, companies can debug or tune Linux themselves.
Some standard Linux criticisms are also fading. It now works better on multiprocessor machines, round-the-clock global technical support is emerging, and HP is helping to set up a site where companies can hire Linux developers to write software under a deadline to meet specific requirements.
Behlendorf said the biggest change in the playing field isn't so much Linux, but the arrival of the open-source programming model--a method Microsoft has been paying attention to since at least August 1998, the date of publication of its Halloween documents.
Microsoft has made vague statements about releasing parts of its own software as open source, though not likely as open as what prevails in the open-source community.
One example of the company's mindset is the Microsoft-funded Web server study of Linux vs. Windows NT by Mindcraft, a lab that tests software for clients including Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, SGI, Apple, and others.
The study found that NT was 2.5 times faster than Linux at serving up files and 3.7 times faster serving Web pages, but it provoked outrage among Linux fans on the Internet who said the NT system had been tuned for the test but the Linux system hadn't been.
Apache developer Dean Gaudet, however, acknowledged in a posting to the Linux kernel mailing list that Apache isn't blazingly fast. "Apache will never be the fastest Web server, because that isn't our goal. Our goal is correctness and usability. Performance at this level is mostly a marketing gimmick."
Tuning Apache gives only a few percentage points improvement because of the way it's designed, with a new computing task called a "process" being generated for each Web page delivery.
Behlendorf said that Apache developers are changing Apache by altering how the program allocates tasks. The method, called "multithreading," is expected to give the software a performance boost, particularly in serving up complex pages.
Meanwhile, Mindcraft was stung by accusations that its study found what Microsoft paid it to find.
Perhaps more significantly, though, Mindcraft invited "leaders of the Linux community to participate in a retest of the Linux and Windows NT Server benchmarks we published," the company said. "We hope that they will accept this invitation."