Microsoft Taps Former Linux-Bashing Team To Get Open Source Developers Excited About Azure Cloud

Microsoft has changed the mission of an internal team that used to highlight shortcomings in open source software, and is now using it to recruit open source developers.

Microsoft’s worldwide Commercial Software Initiative (CSI) team, which until recently was tasked with both collaborating and competing with open source software, now aims to get open source developers to see the advantages of running their apps on Azure, CSI Vice President Mark Hill told CRN in an interview on Tuesday.

"In the past, we were more heavily weighted to competing [with open source software]. Right now, it is overwhelmingly about collaborating and attracting the open source community," Hill told CRN. "With Azure, we've put a lot of effort recently into making sure all the frameworks and interfaces are coded so that people can 'lift and shift' open source apps and they can run on Azure."

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This is a subtle yet important shift for CSI, which was formed during the heyday of Microsoft's controversial 'Get The Facts' campaign against Linux, which ran from 2002 to 2007. While CSI has kept a low profile in recent years, Microsoft has posted job listings that suggested the team is still fighting against open source.

In a CSI job posting in December, Microsoft said candidates would need to be able to "Win share against Open Source Software (OSS) in the cloud, on devices, and in traditional workloads by changing perceptions of Microsoft and winning the socket."

In a separate CSI listing in February, Microsoft said it's looking for candidates who can "positively change perceptions" about Microsoft's support for open source software. "The core of this role is to win mind-share so that Microsoft can win market-share," Microsoft said in the job listing.

It's Hill's job to show that this sort of thinking no longer defines Microsoft's approach to working with open source. And CEO Satya Nadella, who was already helping transform CSI when he was head of Microsoft's Cloud and Enterprise group, continues to play a key role, according to Hill.

"He's putting a lot of pressure on us -- in terms of what we offer [to developers], what we're doing with the open source community, and whether we're delivering the right products and services that partners and customers need," Hill told CRN.

Microsoft still plans to compete with certain types of open source products in certain situations. For example, Microsoft Office will continue to compete with OpenOffice in the desktop productivity software market, but Microsoft's support for open document formats will help customers who need interoperability between the two, Hill said.

In emerging markets where government officials sometimes see open source software as a way to save money, CSI will try to sway perceptions in favor of Microsoft software, said Hill.

However, the 50 or so CSI "leads" Microsoft has in place around the world are now primarily tasked with getting developers to see the advantages of building on its platform, Hill said.

NEXT: Microsoft's Long Road To Repairing Open Source Relations

Microsoft has already done a lot of work to repair its relationships with the open source community. Linux now runs well on Azure, and developers can build apps using just about any of the open source tools currently in vogue.

In April, Microsoft open sourced significant portions of .NET and deepened its strategic partnership with Xamarin, an open source mobile app development startup that makes it possible to build iOS and Android apps using Microsoft's C# programming language.

Hill told CRN these efforts, and the changes happening in CSI, show that Microsoft is serious about engaging with open source developers.

"There's a new Microsoft in town. And as we move to a services and devices company, we're really interested in providing a platform for open source software developers to build their businesses," Hill said.

Hill acknowledges that it's going to take a while for Microsoft to convince skeptics in the open source community that it has their best interests at heart. To convince them, Microsoft plans to highlight partners and customers that have been successful in running open source software on Azure.

"We're doing this for the long run, and we don't expect things to happen overnight," Hill said. "We're committed to this, and I have no doubt that, over a period of time, people will see our commitment."

For now, Hill said one of his first big tasks will be to find a new name for CSI, as the old one no longer fits with the team's new mission. A final decision on the new name is expected within the next few months, he said.