Microsoft embraces GPL, opens Hyper-V to Linux with LinuxIC

Redmond is proving that it can compete with open source on open source's terms by licensing LinuxIC under the GPLv2 license.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Old dogs may struggle with new tricks, but they seem to be able to figure out new licenses.

In a shocking move, Microsoft announced Monday the release of Hyper-V Linux Integration Components (LinuxIC).

The news reflects Microsoft's continued interest in lobotomizing its virtualization competition through low prices, but also the recognition that it must open up if it wants to fend off insurgent virtualization strategies from Red Hat, Novell, and others in the open-source camp.

But the truly startling news is that LinuxIC is being released under the GNU General Public License (version 2). Microsoft once called GPL anti-American. Now it calls it friend.

The gods must be crazy.

Or maybe Microsoft is simply recognizing (finally!) that GPL can be a capitalist's close ally. That and the fact that many components within the Linux kernel are GPLv2-licensed make the move completely natural...at least, once you forget that this is Microsoft embracing GPL, rather than some other company like Red Hat.

LinuxIC is a collection of kernel drivers that enable Linux to recognize that it is running on Microsoft's Hyper-V and optimize accordingly, resulting in an "enlightened version of Linux," according to market researcher IDC. The device drivers have yet to be accepted into the Linux kernel, but the GPL license and general utility makes their inclusion probable.

The move opens up Hyper-V to much more than Windows, which has arguably been its weakest point. As IDC notes, this embrace of Linux is a "key element if Microsoft is going to successfully go head to head with VMware in large accounts--many of which already are dedicated VMware customers."

Importantly, Microsoft is now opening up even beyond its long-time Linux partner, Novell, to embrace an array of other Linux partners, including Red Hat. While Novell was the first Linux vendor to certify for Hyper-V, Microsoft's lack of real support beyond Novell's Suse Linux Enterprise Server was a weakness, as some have complained.

But this is arguably a new Microsoft. Redmond recently announced that Office 2010 will support Internet Explorer and Mozilla's Firefox. The company is learning that its customers run heterogeneous software environments, and it's (slowly) responding. Microsoft's Sam Ramji, senior director of Platform Strategy, notes: "We are seeing Microsoft communities and open source communities grow together, which is ultimately of benefit to our customers."

Microsoft, in short, can't ignore open source, including Linux, without ignoring its own customers.

But surely this move is more Machiavelli than Santa Claus? Maybe, maybe not. I asked Novell's Greg Kroah-Hartman, a prominent Linux kernel developer who was deeply involved in influencing Microsoft to release LinuxIC, what Microsoft's move means for Linux. His response reflects an enthusiasm that is as surprising as it is refreshing:

We want Linux to work well for everybody. This move is not bad in any way for Linux, Xen (Novell's preferred virtualization technology), or KVM (Red Hat's preferred virtualization technology). This is not a competition, per se.

With LinuxIC, Microsoft is doing two things. First, it's saying that contributing open-source software under GPL is acceptable. And second, it's supporting the idea, which I and others in the Linux kernel community have long advanced, that all Linux kernel drivers should be open source.

LinuxIC is the latest example of how Microsoft is changing, and it's a big proof point. When Microsoft embraces Linux, that's news. When it does so by embracing GPL, it's perhaps time to start the countdown to Armageddon.

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