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Microsoft's Linux contribution: Thank Novell?

A Microsoft executive outlines the thinking behind its move and notes it was a key Linux contributor from Novell who first suggested the move.

Microsoft's move to offer several Linux drivers owes a lot to a key programmer at Novell.

Linux veteran--and Novell fellow--Greg Kroah-Hartman suggested to Microsoft about four months ago that the company release the three drivers to be part of Linux under the GNU General Public License (GPL) terms that govern Linux code. Kroah-Hartman, who helps oversee the inclusion of drivers into Linux, said he worked within his company to find the right contacts at Microsoft.

"They reacted well," Kroah-Hartman said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "They were open to it. It just took a while to hash out all the details."

Greg Kroah-Hartman
Greg Kroah-Hartman Novell

Microsoft's Sam Ramji credited Kroah-Hartman for helping guide Microsoft through the process. "He provided valuable guidance and feedback to the Open Source Technology Center, which enabled the team to contribute the code in a way that was acceptable with the Linux kernel community processes," Ramji said in an e-mail interview.

The move illustrates the combination of social, legal, and technical factors that must be addressed before Microsoft's code could arrive. Anyone may contribute software to the Linux kernel, but actually getting it accepted can be a complicated matter, even for a company that hasn't bad-mouthed the GPL. This time, at least, Microsoft's pragmatism carried the day.

Microsoft had been working on the code contribution for some months, Ramji said; it happened to be ready in time to announce this week to coincide with the OSCON 2009 open-source conference.

As I noted yesterday, Microsoft made the move largely to help strengthen Windows Server as a host environment for Linux.

"Microsoft decided to release the drivers to support broader adoption and facilitate better performance of Linux running as a guest operating system where Windows Server 2008 is the host," Ramji said.

Kroah-Hartman said Microsoft met all the requirements for inclusion of the code in the Linux kernel and said it will probably show up in version 2.6.32 of the kernel, which will be released about four or five months from now.

Microsoft said it made sense to release the code under version 2 of the GPL, even though Microsoft has been critical of the GPL and used other open-source licenses for most of the code it has made freely available in the past.

"It's just a validation of what all of us have been publicly saying for many years."
--Greg Kroah-Hartman, Novell fellow

"Because GPLv2 is the license of the Linux kernel, we are releasing the device driver code under the GPLv2 license to facilitate interoperability," Ramji said. "Our use of the GPLv2 license, as requested by the Linux community, means we will not charge a royalty for or assert any patents covering the driver code we are contributing."

Kroah-Hartman, who heads the Linux Driver Project, has been arguing for some time that all Linux drivers should be released under open-source licenses and said that Microsoft's move represents a change in its attitude toward the GPL and highlights that the GPL is a valid license for a project to be released under.

"It's just a validation of what all of us have been publicly saying for many years," Kroah-Hartman said.

He noted that Microsoft is now a full fledged Linux developer and will be responsible for maintaining its piece of Linux. He noted that the community has already submitted a couple of patches aimed at improving Microsoft's code.

Microsoft didn't close the door to contributing more to Linux.

"We expect to maintain the Hyper-V Linux device drivers as part of our product development and support process for Hyper-V, which we expect will involve ongoing contributions," Ramji said. "Part of the OSTC's charter is to continually evaluate open source, market conditions, customer requests and scenarios, and as such we will evaluate possibilities to work with additional open source projects in the future, including the Linux Kernel."

I asked Ramji whether Microsoft sees any dissonance in contributing to Linux at the same time it has claimed that Linux violates its intellectual property. His answer:

"Microsoft is pragmatically focused on helping customers and partners be successful in a heterogeneous technology world," Ramji responded. "We both compete and partner with traditional commercial vendors, and will continue to do so with open source-based businesses, with a focus on providing value for shared customers."

Kroah-Hartman said he doesn't spend a lot of time on the legal questions.

"Hey, companies are big," he said, noting that sometimes one part of a company has a different stance than another. "It has nothing to do with me."