Software

What Microsoft understands about open source that your company does not

Microsoft understands that its future depends upon contributing to open source, not just using it. Here's why your company needs the same strategy.

Microsoft, the company that loathed open source with righteous passion, is now the world's largest contributor, measured by employees actively contributing to open source projects. Why? Because Microsoft finally figured out that its future depends on open source. The only weird thing is that your company hasn't come to the same conclusion.

Today, open source is the lingua franca of software developers, something that Microsoft's CTO of Data Raghu Ramakrishnan captured perfectly in a ZDNet interview: "If you're going to be a vendor of open source...you need to be part of it."

He's 100% correct, but most companies still don't understand, as Microsoft does, just how deeply their future depends on not only consuming open source, but also contributing to it.

Was blind but now I see

Yes, it's sort of bizarre that Microsoft, of all companies, is now the poster child for open source goodness, given how profoundly bad they were before. Former companies leaders were previously quoted as saying "Linux is a cancer," and open source is "un-American."

And, yes, it's not as if Microsoft got open source religion ex nihilo. Microsoft's move to become a cloud platform vendor made open source a strategic benefit, not to mention economically viable. A platform company trying to entice developers without the plethora of open source projects like MySQL, Kubernetes, Docker, Linux, etc. was always going to be doomed to fail. Given that Microsoft doesn't like failing, it learned to stop worrying and love the open source bomb.

SEE: Linux distribution comparison chart (Tech Pro Research)

Even so, anyone who has watched how other legacy tech vendors have struggled with open source will know that Microsoft's love affair with open source was by no means a foregone conclusion. It's hugely impressive that Microsoft has gone from open source zero to hero, and in a relatively short period of time. So much so, in fact, that Microsoft now has roughly double the number of contributors to open source projects as the next-nearest competitor, Google, according to new estimates.

The question is, why?

You need to be part of it

After all, Microsoft needn't actively contribute to open source projects in order to monetize them through Azure, right? Well, sort of. On one hand, it's absolutely true that, depending on the open source license, anyone can host them and charge money for the privilege.

This, however, hardly scratches the surface of the benefits a company can derive from open source.

SEE: Microsoft Azure: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)

For one thing, being an active user of open source doesn't get you the recruiting benefits open source brings. According to Ramakrishnan:

We have any number of masters and PhD students, so being visible, being a thought leader, not only helps drive the field in areas of interest to us, it also gives us credibility when we want to bring in the very best people in the field.

Having qualified engineers participating in projects begets qualified engineers wanting to work for Microsoft and participate in those same projects. Like begets like.

To effectively sell open source, however, it's not enough to just use it. You also have to be part of the community that builds it, as he goes on to note:

We meet customers where they are, and in particular if you want Linux we'll give you Linux; if you want MySQL, well we'll give you MySQL; you want NoSQL well we'll give you NoSQL — that means you need to be part of open source; open source by nature is a community thing. (Emphasis added)

To underscore this point, he said, "If you don't give back ... there'll come a time when you need to make some changes because otherwise your products won't work well and you won't have credibility—people won't listen to you and then you're stuck with supporting customers off a code base you have no say in."

Microsoft, for example, would have zero credibility trying to sell another vendor's products: It wouldn't know them intimately and wouldn't be able to support them adequately.

SEE Why Microsoft and Google are now leading the open source revolution (TechRepublic)

Open source projects are no different. If anything, they require even more familiarity with the code and the people who write it because you can't mask ignorance of the product with a cross-vendor OEM contract. If you've got no influence with an open source project, you really have no right to sell it, because you have a limited ability to support your customers.

This is true of vendors, but it's also true for any company—and that's pretty much every company—that depends on open source components to run critical aspects of their business. If you don't contribute to the projects you use, you're a passenger on a plane with someone else setting the destination. That's not a good situation, and it's not necessary, given the opportunities for influence that open source affords. Be smart: Contribute more open source code, just like Microsoft.

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Image: iStockphoto/GaudiLab

About Matt Asay

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.

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