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Microsoft takes on Linux with free tools

Microsoft broadens its attack on Linux and related operating systems by giving away a set of tools for migrating applications to Windows.

Microsoft is broadened its attack on Linux and related operating systems on Thursday by giving away a set of tools for migrating applications to Windows.

The company announced a new version of Services for Unix (SFU), a collection of tools that help Windows systems to work with installations based on the Unix operating system and its open-source derivative, Linux.

Microsoft previously charged $99 per client or server to use SFU. But the new version, 3.5, will be free for any customer using a current Windows operating system. The software is available for download from Microsoft's Web site.

SFU packages an array of tools designed to accomplish two main tasks: that of allowing Unix and Windows systems to work together by using common file systems, directories and other resources; and that of helping information technology workers to migrate applications from Unix to Windows.

"This is really about the interoperability," said Dennis Oldroyd, the marketing director for Microsoft's Windows Server Group. "Very few of our customers are going to have a pure Unix or pure Windows environment...It's also a tool for customers who want to look at migrating an application off of Unix and onto Windows. The thing that makes the product unique in the market is the comprehensive nature of the solution."

Mike Cherry, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft, said migration is Microsoft's key concern with SFU. Unix applications have to run on comparatively expensive proprietary hardware sold by manufacturers such as Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard. Companies that want to cut costs are increasingly looking to migrate applications to commodity hardware based on Intel chips. "Customers don't like the cost of running these large Unix systems, and they want to move them onto Intel hardware," Cherry said.

That means making a choice between the open-source Linux operating system and Windows. Linux has a natural edge because of its roots in Unix, said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "People think Unix and Linux are the same thing, so there's a natural center of gravity," Gartenberg said.

SFU is intended to even out the equation by providing a smooth path for migrating to Windows, Gartenberg said. "There's a really good reason for Microsoft to want this to be widely adopted," he said. "Microsoft can't afford to lose ground in the server market."

Cherry said SFU helps keep Microsoft in the game for Unix users. "These are a set of products designed to make the move to Windows as easy as the move to Linux would be," he said. "People who would otherwise dismiss Windows...now have a strategy to move to Windows. In the absence of these tools, I don't think Windows would be considered by those customers. The tools keep at least keep Microsoft in consideration, and going forward from there they have to sell customers on the merits of Windows."

Oldroyd said Microsoft decided to make SFU free as part of its overall Windows strategy. "We stepped back, looked at the product and decided this is really a value we want to deliver to our customers as part of the value proposition of Windows," he said. "We want to remove impediments for people who are looking to migrate their applications from Unix to Windows."

Microsoft is in the middle of a far-reaching campaign to slow the growth of Linux, most recently launching a global advertising campaign against the open-source rival.

Changes in SFU 3.5 include widespread performance enhancements and support for applications that use Posix threading technology to run multiple processes simultaneously, Oldroyd said.

SFU works with most major Unix flavors and several major Linux distributions, including Red Hat. "There's a portability story there as well," Oldroyd said. "People tried something on Linux, they're not happy with it, and this way they can go to Windows."