The lab tests various Linux distributions in its Virtual Server product line.
It also tests Samba, the open-source SMB file server, in different scenarios, as well as management tools working across a cross-platform environment.
Lastly, the lab tests open-source applications that run on Windows and/or integrate with other Microsoft software.
"Our goal for doing all of this is pretty simple—we want our customers to have the best experience with our software regardless of environment," Hilf said.
Hilf has managed many data center environments. While at IBM, he worked with customers on their enterprise architectures, and he said he is quite aware that mixed environments are a reality in the enterprise.
"So we want to make sure, from an open-source software and Microsoft software perspective, that our customers are able to interoperate," Hilf said.
"For example, we can manage our Linux and Unix servers in my lab with Microsoft management technologies, using tools like Microsoft Systems Management Server, Microsoft Operations Manager and Active Directory, along with partner software from Vintela and Centrify, to get rich interoperability scenarios," he said.
These tools also provide seamless Active Directory integration with the labs Linux servers, and give the ability to deploy RPM patches as well as conduct remote inventories and monitor all of the Linux and Unix servers, Hilf said.
But the lab is also an enormous resource for Microsoft staff. There are about 40 different versions of Linux and almost every major Unix and BSD version running on a wide variety of hardware architectures.
"Counting both virtual and physical servers, its over 250," Hilf said. "We have a variety of ways people in Microsoft can experience these systems, probably the most common is a capability in Virtual Server 2005 that gives a user access to the system through a Web browser."
One of the services the lab provides is a centralized and controlled way to give Microsoft employees a view into Linux and open-source software environments, not just features of a certain distribution but how a real world customer environment might be configured and operated.
"For some of these scenarios we use regional distributions of Linux. For others, we use the bigger distributions, such as Red Hat. Using a wide variety of distributions this way also gives us the ability to see how they do and dont differentiate," Hilf said.
The lab is also a sounding board and critic for the Microsoft product development teams. While Hilf admits he spends more time with the Windows Server product development teams than any of the others, he said that his resources are available to all of them.
Hilf points to the Windows Compute Cluster Server 2003, which entered a market space long dominated by Linux, as an example of how the Lab helped the product development teams.
"The development team came to me to help them understand what the best of breed Linux cluster would look like in this space," Hilf said.
"They also wanted to see what the existing products and solutions out there actually offered and how we could better integrate, automate and improve on that with our product," he said.
Given that clustering is currently a Linux-dominated environment, it makes sense that the Lab team, with its experience in Unix and Linux, would sit down and tell the development team what tools they would need to achieve their goals.
"We were really involved with that team, all the way through the process," Hilf said.