Microsoft open source exec: Not the loneliest guy in Redmond

The name Microsoft still engenders boos and moans from the crowd at LinuxWorld, but increasingly open source advocates and Microsoft executives recognize the need for the two camps to play nicely.  To that end, Microsoft hired Bill Hilf, an open source industry veteran to help it chart its strategy in the choppy open source waters. Hilf, director for Microsoft’s platform technology strategy organization, is leading a technical session at LinuxWorld – a first for Microsoft – that focuses on managing Linux in a mixed environment. Network World Senior Editor Jennifer Mears sat down with Hilf at the show to hear about Microsoft’s Linux/open source software lab and where the software giant sees the industry heading. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Tell me about your background and how you ended up in this rather interesting role at Microsoft.I started at Microsoft about 20 months ago and I’ve been working with open source and Linux for about a dozen years. My background is in software development. I ran the engineering group for a company called eToys.com, which was a very large almost entirely open source based ecommerce site. I then joined IBM when IBM was starting to ramp up its interest in Linux – around 1999 or 2000. Microsoft contacted me in the late 2003 time frame and said, “We need to understand open source software and what we can learn from it.” I’m a software guy at heart and I was interested in working for a company that builds software at the scale Microsoft does, just from a career perspective, and from a technical interest perspective. So I started in January 2004.Did you have an internal conflict about going to work for Microsoft, considered by many in the open source community to be the evil empire?Sure. But a lot of people look at Microsoft from a 10,000-foot view and see a company that makes a ton of money and sells proprietary software. Microsoft is really a technical company, full of technologists and led by technologists. As a technologist, it is to me a very interesting place to work. I love IBM. It’s a great company. But it’s a sales company, run by sales people. And as someone who has a raw instinct for technology, Microsoft was a perfect place for me.What about the comment that Microsoft Steve Ballmer made a few years ago about Linux being a cancer?

It’s like gum on a shoe. No matter what happens it can’t come off. That was well before I joined.

How have your friends in the open source community responded to your move to Microsoft?

I just did an interview with Slashdot. I gave my e-mail address and said if you’re having problems, write to me. I’ve already gotten about 1,200 emails and I will answer every one. About 99% of the e-mails have been positive, saying thanks for being open and honest. Thank you for just having a dialogue. People were saying that it was refreshing to have someone who is from the open source community at Microsoft who understands open source issues and understands how to communicate with the community. I spend time with a lot of people in the open source development community all the time, sometimes daily. I talk to a lot of the leaders in the open source community on an engineering level about what we can do to work better together. You’d be amazed at how many of those people have been receptive to the point of saying, “You know what, thank God that I have someone I can actually contact, because I’ve been working in this space for years, and I didn’t know anyone in that company called Microsoft.”

What about in Redmond? How has the reception been there?That was really my big concern, more than about how the open source community would respond. Many of the people in that community are good friends. My bigger concern was that I would just be the loneliest guy in Redmond. But one of the biggest surprises to me was how many people, particularly engineers at Microsoft, really understand open source and the open source phenomenon. They had open arms for me, saying, ‘Hey, come talk to us, explain this to us.” What I don’t do, though, is get religious at Microsoft either way because it devalues the conversation. When I say our products could be better here or that we could grow in this area, it’s all based on hard data.Could you sketch out the two or three biggest areas where you see open source as a threat to Microsoft and how Microsoft is responding to that threat?I can honestly say I spend just as much time thinking competitively, as I do opportunistically, as I do from an interoperability perspective. I try really hard to make sure it isn’t just about competition. We will compete with products from the open source space, as well as products from the commercial space, just as we always have. But there is plenty of opportunity for us, plenty of ways we can interoperate with these technologies. We don’t see a lot of technical stuff that we think, “That’s going to be the end of the software industry as we know it.” If you ask me to total up all the things in the past dozen years I’ve seen that are radical innovations, they don’t come from open source. What open source is is a great engine of commoditization. So when we look at competitive threats, people commoditizing our technology that we make money from, sure, that’s a competitive threat just like it is for everybody. Do you see commoditization happening, for example, with some of the identity management products coming from open source community?

Most of the commoditization has happened at what I would call server infrastructure, or edge of the network server workloads. For example, I don’t see commoditization of supply chain management systems or ERP systems or customer relationship management systems. I don’t see that. I do see commoditization of a single purpose DHCP server. I do see commoditization of a DNS server. So you just have to keep innovating to stay in the game. The reason why I say this very confidently is I know what the next 18 months look like from an innovation release cycle for Microsoft. We’ll be releasing more software in the next 18 months than we have in a long, long time. 

Talk a little about the Linux lab and what you’re doing there.We have more than 300 different server and client systems running more versions of Linux and Unix than any sane customer would ever run. It’s extremely heterogeneous. I take our products that are designed to be interoperable and put them in my lab and test them. So we’re doing that right now with the next release of our Windows server product called R2 coming out this year, which will include a variety of interoperability features for Unix. Another thing that we’ve done that we’ll see pay off in the near term is the work we’ve done with our high performance computing product that we’ll be releasing this year called the Compute Cluster Edition. Linux dominates cluster computing today. We haven’t played in that space effectively. So I built a best of breed Linux cluster in the lab and I make our product race it. We do benchmarks and we do comparisons and we look for interoperability capabilities between the two. I feel very strongly when that product is released it will be a good contender in the marketplace.Microsoft uses a lot of third party vendors – such as Vintela and Centrify – to enable interoperability between Windows and other environments. Will Microsoft continue to rely on third parties?We’ll do both. One network administrator wrote me after my Slashdot interview. He needs a variety of NFS and NIS services in his systems. The work we’re doing in our subsystem for Unix applications in R2 will substantially help him from a Windows out-of-the-box perspective. Where we do rely on partners is in a lot of these other areas, such as management and authentication and authorization. We may go into different markets based on the need, but what’s really great about having a partner ecosystem like this is they can be deep, deep specialists in a particular area. We want to put our dollars into writing management platforms that third parties can hook into. I love the fact that there are lots of players out there like Vintela and Centrify building technologies. That means they’re going to be competitive, they’re going to be price competitive, so the customer wins.What about Microsoft’s shared source program, which provides limited access to code. Is that something that you think should be expanded?

 There is always going to be a need for people wanting access to source code. But having spent so long in the open source community, I feel very strongly that the source code is just one small piece of the phenomenon of open source software. The much larger piece is really the community process. That’s the magic. It’s a sociological thing. It’s not so much a line of code thing. I think what should and will be expanded at Microsoft is how we think about community in all of our products. An example is looking at how we’ve changed the way that we blog. We have some crazy number – thousands and thousands – of developers who blog every day. That didn’t exist two years ago. What are those blogs? They are little snippets of interesting C# code that people put out there or little bits of a little batch file that someone could use to update their policy settings across their network. That’s transparency, that’s community, that’s how it works. And that’s the real magic.

So you think Microsoft can tap into that while still being this proprietary software giant?Absolutely. And we are not the only people who are recognizing that. There are some very strong benefits from this community process. There also are a lot of negative attributes from it, too. Just like anything in the world, it’s not always rosy. There are also some challenges when you build software that way. And we recognize those. But obviously Microsoft sees a place for open source and proprietary products?

There will always be a co-existence of open source and commercial software. I honestly believe that. We wouldn’t have started programs like shared source if we didn’t see a need to give customers more transparency into the source code. Fundamentally, the belief structure that we are a commercial software company and that we can build great innovative products, that hasn’t wavered one bit in 30 years and it’s probably stronger than ever. People say there are open source zealots. They should spend some time in Redmond. There are some amazingly passionate people around our technology and we believe we are building some great stuff. I’ve seen it. It’s not because I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, I’m still critic No. 1 of a lot of things in Redmond. And I’ve seen some of the great technology we’re building. It’s very exciting.  

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