Microsoft says that its Hyper-V virtualization stack may soon support the Ubuntu and Debian Linux distros as well as CentOS, Red Hat, and SuSE.
The proprietary software shop has told The Register that after adding CentOS support last month, it's looking to support other Linux distros on Hyper-V and also its management software. Furthermore, It is considering giving Ubuntu and Debian penguins a phone number they can call if things go wrong.
"One request that has come to us time and again is Ubuntu and Debian," Sandy Gupta, general manager for marketing strategy for Microsoft's Open Solutions Group, told The Reg during a recent interview. "We haven't seen a lot of requests, but what we have found is when somebody wants Ubuntu, they want Ubuntu.
"If we were to do look at those two [Debian and Ubuntu], and we are looking, Ubuntu would be the next big popular thing for us to look at." Requests are primarily coming from web hosters in Europe.
Microsoft's love for Linux is designed to stop VMware from becoming the default virtualization and management standard for Linux in the cloud. Several Linux distros currently install on VMware hypervisors.
Gerry Carr, director of communications at Ubuntu sponsor Canonical, told us no specific conversations are taking place with Microsoft, although company reps had spoken to Gupta at various events.
If Microsoft doesn't do this, it'll lose potential customers forever to VMware
Carr added that while Microsoft is a closed-source-centric company – and opposed to the open-source Linux philosophy of Ubuntu – it makes sense for the two companies to work together. "We obviously recognize their place in the market and spend a lot of time working on technologies to better integrate with them; so if there is work that will make out users' lives easier then that's very welcome."
At a corporate level Microsoft has historically been aggressively anti-Linux and anti-open source, but those in its Server and Tools biz are pragmatic. They know that they need to work better with Linux and open source or risk losing operating system, virtualization, and management money to VMware. The Server and Tools group is home to both Windows Server 2008 and Hyper-V.
Gupta said that Microsoft is moving into Linux support for one simple reason. "VMware is competition for us. VMware has similar support on ESX." If Microsoft doesn't act, it will lose potential customers to VMware forever, as those running Linux and Windows standardize on ESX as their virtualization layer. "We have more differentiation in systems than just virtualization, across other aspects of management," he said.
This all goes back to a massive re-organization of the Microsoft's Server and Tools unit last year. During that re-org, VMware was identified in a leaked internal memo seen by The Reg as a potential threat to Microsoft in the cloud.
Supporting Linux on Hyper V also means that Microsoft can equip itself with the technical knowledge and driver-level support needed to run the open source OS on the company's own Windows Azure cloud.
Sounds crazy? The Reg has learned from a source familiar with the situation that the company already has a version of Linux working on its Azure compute fabric in the lab. This work was done by Microsoft's Windows Azure engineering labs, which sits inside the Server and Tools group. According to our source, the work is at a very early stage. It will be at least 10 months, he says, before Microsoft is ready to announce anything.
Presumably, this will involve running Linux on Azure's "VM roles", raw instances akin to what you get on Amazon EC2. Originally, Azure was a pure platform-as-a-service, meaning it didn't offer access to raw VMs, but this is changing.
Currently, Microsoft's Azure compute fabric uses a modified version of Windows Server 2008 R2. It runs its own hypervisor – the Windows Azure Hypervisor – but features from that hypervisor are moving into the main Hyper-V software. The Fabric controller handles high-speed connections, load balancing, and switching between servers used in Azure.
Linux on any sort of Windows might be anathema to the Microsoft old guard and anybody outside Microsoft's Server and Tools unit, but Linux on Azure would be a big win for the company's customers.
Many of Microsoft's biggest users of Windows, Hyper-V, and other Redmond products also run Linux in their data centers. These are precisely the companies Microsoft is trying to push towards the Azure cloud.
For Microsoft, it would also mean Azure becomes more like Amazon's EC2, which offers a choice of operating systems - including Window. It fits with Microsoft's strategy of giving customers the choice of running non-Microsoft languages such as Java and PHP on top of Azure.
There's a long way to go before that.
Microsoft's Linux heartbeat monitor
What Microsoft announced in May was early stage support for CentOS: CentOS now runs as a "first class citizen" on Windows Server R2 Hyper-V, meaning Hyper-V and the CentOS drivers have been tuned to work together from the perspective of performance.
Microsoft is also making it possible for users of its Systems Center management software to provision and spin up a CentOS instance on Hyper-V and manage updates and patches. Redmond offers a CentOS plug-in for workflow management software called System Center Orchestrator, which was known as Opalis before Microsoft bought it in 2009, and there's a plug-in for connecting to Spacewalk and SuSE Manager.
Microsoft has also tuned CentOS for Hyper-V via continuous updates to the 20,000 lines of Linux driver code it open sourced in 2009 under GPLv2, and it's providing customers running CentOS with telephone support.
Microsoft knows this is only the beginning. Gupta says the company is also looking at trying to manage the "heartbeat" of CentOS on Hyper-V using Systems Center. This means looking at characteristics like CPU utilization or, if you are running a web server like Apache on CentOS, tracking down network bottlenecks.
What comes next with CentOS – and perhaps Ubuntu and Debian – will depend a great deal on what the company learns over the next three months supporting the Linux distro.
Microsoft also supports SuSE and Red Hat. On these two OSes, it turned to Novell and Red Hat for engineer and support help. And with Ubuntu support, there would be a similar relationship with Canonical. But like CentOS, Debian is a community project that doesn't have one main commercial backer, which means that Microsoft must work more on its own.
We will lean a lot more in the next three months - more than we have leaned so far before the start of the project.
"Having no vendor behind something like this is a new model for us because, so far, it was much smoother: we handed off to Novell or Red Hat when a call came in. Now we have to make sure when we deal with a least install and config issues it's a high-quality experience for the customer. We have to make sure it's not a 'nice to have', it's a 'need to do'," Gupta said.
"If we go Debian, we will have a similar challenge, but hopefully from the CentOS experience we will learn a lot," he said. "We will lean a lot more in the next three months - more than we have leaned so far before the start of the project.
"We cannot know what we need to do so far with resource set on call volume, but the next three to six months will tell us a lot more about resource adjustments and doing something similar in other communities when it's a Linux or something else."
How far Microsoft goes with its Linux love may be restricted by money. Support for Linux might be great for selling more copies of Microsoft's software and ensuring customers are not lost to VMware, but it also means increased costs for Redmond. Right now, things are fairly simple with CentOS. The company can ensure the OS works with nightly builds of Hyper-V with a little engineering work on management plug-ins, and Microsoft is feeling its way on how to resource the telephone support line
Microsoft as IBM?
A bigger question is in play: does Microsoft really want to become a services company like IBM? Support for Linux today is a tiny, tiny percentage of Microsoft's overall business. Taken to its endpoint, such a move could take Microsoft's core focus away from Windows.
Right now, Microsoft's rationale for technical support of CentOS is clear: making sure those nightly builds of Hyper-V work with CentOS. Gupta says Microsoft is drawing the line at "touching" the Linux code. It won't provide patches.
"We are clearly not going in the direction of IBM, but with the cloud we are getting into services. This is a bit different, this is more about making sure if somebody deploys our cloud, they can have all those things co-exist, that they are not going to build a cloud just for Microsoft products, and just for Linux, and just for Oracle," he said.
"We are not a Linux distributor and we are not going to be one," Gupta said confidently, before quickly adding with a grin: "I don't think!" ®