This Tiny Team Inside Microsoft Is Playing Huge Role In Software Giant's Open Source Revolution

Microsoft's stance on open source technology has changed dramatically since the days when Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer treated Linux like a verbal punching bag, and 24-year company veteran Mark Hill has had a front row seat to the vendor's philosophical transformation.

As Microsoft's vice president of open source sales and marketing, Hill leads a group of nearly 50 employees tasked with getting more customers moving open source workloads into the Azure cloud. Hill's team -- known internally as OSS, short for open source software -- is also playing a big role in driving CEO Satya Nadella's "mobile-first, cloud-first" vision.

"The focus of my team now is to enable Microsoft to attract all customer workloads onto our cloud platform, regardless of whether that software is first-party Microsoft or open source software," Hill said in a recent interview. "Regardless of what the platform is, we want to show them how to run it in Azure."

The early returns on the OSS team's efforts appear promising. Currently, 1 in 4 virtual machines on Azure are running Linux, and Hill said that ratio is on track to soon reach 1 in 3 VMs. In addition, around 60 percent of Azure Marketplace images are now based on Linux, he said.

But there's still work left to do inside Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft to get everyone on the same page. Hill said his team is also in charge of training some 45,000 Microsoft sales and marketing employees in how to talk about open source software with customers.

"We create training and our people roll it out to every single [sales and marketing] employee," Hill said. "We have spoken with every general manager of every Microsoft subsidiary and walked them through details of how to talk about Microsoft's open source commitment. And every enterprise sales lead, and people in other key roles, have been trained in how to talk about open source."

Chris Hertz, CEO of New Signature, a Washington, D.C.-based Microsoft partner, told CRN that Microsoft's embrace of open source technology is benefiting both consumers and partners.

"From partnering with Red Hat to providing Office on iOS and Android devices, Microsoft has demonstrated they are excited about delivering great mobile-first, cloud-first experiences and solutions to their customers that take advantage of the broadest range of available technologies," said Hertz in an email. "It is a bold new world for Microsoft [and one] that makes them more competitive."

Microsoft's OSS team has undergone a dramatic shift in recent years. It used to be called the worldwide Commercial Software Initiative (CSI) and was in charge of competing with Linux and other open source technologies. CSI was formed during the heyday of Microsoft's Get The Facts campaign against Linux, which ran from 2002 to 2007, although Hill didn't join until early 2014.

While CSI has been moving in an open source-friendly direction for the past several years, Hill told CRN in a May 2014 interview that Microsoft was still competing with OpenOffice in the desktop productivity software market, and with open source software in general in emerging markets.

Hill said Microsoft is now no longer competing with OpenOffice, but declined to address whether it has also given up the fight in emerging markets, saying only that "It has always been about choice and we continue to advocate for openness and choice for our customers."

Microsoft got rid of the CSI name in April 2015 and overhauled the team's focus. This included changing existing CSI job descriptions to reflect a friendlier stance on open source, and re-interviewing all of the CSI staffers -- called "leads" in Microsoft parlance -- and informing them their jobs would be changing, Hill said.

The former CSI leads are now called open source leads, and their role has been elevated to that of a product marketing manager, according to Hill. "Think of them as product managers in every subsidiary whose job is to talk to the open source ecosystem and adopt what they are doing around open source," he said.

Microsoft now has between 45 and 50 open source leads, and Hill said some of them hold a dual role of Azure lead. "When you talk to customers about open source on Azure, you're selling Azure, which is why the dual role makes sense," he said.

Hill pointed to several recent open source announcements that underscore Microsoft's commitment to open source, including supporting SQL Server on Linux and bringing the Linux Subsystem to Windows 10. Just as important are the partnerships Microsoft has formed with Red Hat, SUSE, Canonical and the Linux Foundation, Hill said.

Hill, who attended Red Hat's partner conference in April, said he's now focused on getting more Red Hat partners to sign up as Microsoft partners. To aid in this effort, Microsoft's OSS team is hiring specialist partner managers who understand how to grow and nurture these new vendor relationships.

"This business is all about partnering. Our commitment to open source has to be ingrained with partners," Hill said.

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