Microsoft: Irrelevant, Evil or Eternally Optimistic?

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2008-09-08

Microsoft's Platform Strategy Is 'Open' to Interpretation

Sam Ramji is focused on Linux and open source, which is more significant when you consider that he works for Microsoft.

Ramji leads Microsoft's platform strategy efforts across the company, including long-term strategic planning in the Windows Server and Tools organization. But Ramji's primary focus is to drive Microsoft's Linux and open-source strategy, working together with Microsoft technology development teams and open-source communities to build interoperable solutions.

Ramji sat down with eWEEK Senior Editor Darryl K. Taft at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention at the end of July.

What are the announcements Microsoft is going to make here at OSCON?

First of all, for the first time Microsoft will be submitting a patch to a GPL V2 [General Public License Version 2]-based project. The second thing is we've put an enormous number-over 10 and close to 150-of our protocols and formats into a perpetually royalty-free license.

That includes all of the Office binary specifications, and this is really relevant to a specific project called Apache Poi, which is an Apache-licensed Java implementation of Microsoft binary file formats. It's growing to include Open

And the third and final big chunk is that Microsoft is becoming a sponsor of the Apache Software Foundation.

So what was the GPL V2 project you submitted the patch to?

It is ADOdb. ADOdb is a PHP project that is a data access layer a lot of PHP applications use. In February we launched Windows Server 2008, which included support for PHP on Windows Server. Since then the SQL Server team has shipped a PHP-native driver for SQL Server, which is a dramatic improvement to the previous access technology that existed. And this is the first step in taking that set of technologies and making it available all the way up the PHP stack.

So if you think about the whole stack, you need an operating system, you need a database, then you've got substacks within PHP. You've got things like ADOdb for data access, then in the future you can expect us to do more contributions to the application layer-things like photo sharing, bulletin boards and content management systems.

So this is the first, and it was a big deal. It took a long time to figure out the way we could do that in a way that protected the project and protected Microsoft, and everybody had the right rights. I think there are some things that IBM figured out and put into practice over the last decade, and Microsoft is starting to figure out how to do that.

I think that's the twofold significance of the news. First, that we're contributing all the way up to drive PHP on Windows Server 2008 and future versions of the server, and doing that with a level of sophistication understanding how that app layer works. And, second, we're figuring out the mechanics of how we can submit patches to GPL V2 projects.

So what is the significance of this submission?

It's something that we hadn't figured out how to do before. We've contributed code to open-source projects like MPICH2, which is a parallel programming stack that is managed by Argonne National Labs. That was the first big contribution to a third-party open-source project that Microsoft made. A lot of people have thought that GPL V2 was just an area that we would not be able to contribute to, just based on our licensing and our take on how intellectual property applies to software. We figured that having a line of sight into open-source technologies was going to be good for us after there were a couple of viable projects.

Is There an Overall Open-Source Community?


How do you deal with the perception of the overall open-source community toward Microsoft?

I don't believe there is an overall community. There are many, many communities. You could say it's a federation. So what I've found is ... and how I deal with it is I have different, specific, detailed interactions with different communities.

My interaction with Samba is very Samba-
specific. My interaction with the Mozilla team is very Mozilla-specific. There's almost nothing in common between the world of network file systems and the world of Web sites and Web languages and AJAX. They're really very distinctly different. And [there's] almost nothing, again, in common between that and the world of document formats or Java application servers.

So, each of these is really a rich community in and of itself. I think we diminish the richness when we try to apply one flat community label. Just like we diminish the richness when we say all these commercial software vendors are alike, especially the big ones. You can't really say, hey, Microsoft is doing this or IBM is doing this.  We're 91,000 people; IBM is 350,000 people. It's not homogeneity.

Well, who would you say is the leader in open source?

If I had to pick one, I think I've voted with the news today. I've contributed materially to the Apache Software Foundation. If I had to pick one organization that has got the most different projects that have a broad impact, high-quality engineering standards in a range of areas. ... There's a reason why that stood out to us as we thought about what we could contribute to and what could we start to help differently with than we've done in the past.

How is that different from what you have done with the Eclipse Foundation?

With the Eclipse Foundation, we are working right now specifically to do technical engineering support. We're not contributing patches, we're not giving code away. We're answering questions, helping troubleshoot bugs in the implementation of SWT [Standard Widget Toolkit] for WPF [Windows Presentation Foundation]. So it's a technical relationship, very similar to the relationship we have with Mozilla with Firefox. As they find bugs, we help them deal with it.

For example, we got a question about how you do submillisecond timers in Windows. So we deal with things like that. And as we bring out new releases, we let them know there's a new version of Windows and we'll bring a bunch of ISVs in.

My group's approach has been: We're going to treat leading open-source projects like they're ISVs and give them that same level of handholding and assistance and guidance in adopting, troubleshooting and understanding the next level of that technology. So it's what I characterize as a technical collaboration. And we'll continue that technical collaboration with different ASF subprojects like Axis 2, like Apache Poi, like Jakarta. There's a whole range of these. But the explicit partnership with Apache is both a material financial contribution and a material political contribution to say we think these guys do great work.

Culture Change at Microsoft


How much of a culture change has there been at Microsoft?

Significant. You can't underestimate the influence in our organization of Bob Muglia and of [Chief Software Architect] Ray Ozzie.

Bob is the commander, the senior vice president in charge of server and tools, and he reports to [CEO] Steve Ballmer. Bob is the company spokesperson for interoperability. And to have that coming down from the top is inspiring because he's an engineer.

Then Ray says we live in an increasingly interconnected world, where the value of software is based on how many different systems it can connect to. So in that world interoperability is table stakes. And he goes one up and says information and digital management is part of our social fabric. That's how we pay our taxes, it's how we do our health care, it's how everything happens. So that's all got to be transparent, and it's all got to work together. So he's bringing about a change in perspective.

How would you characterize the steps you've made toward open source thus far? Baby steps? Entry level?

Apart from video games, I'm a really big football fan. After February I really don't watch TV anymore. So I see us as being like on the 30-yard line.

Which 30?

We're on our 30; we have 70 yards to go. In 1996 Bill Gates had to send the Internet tidal wave e-mail to turn the company around. And by 2005 every single product in the company had embraced Internet models. So we went from "missed it" to "completely got it; it's just part of the fabric." To me that's the end zone, that's the touchdown.

I think in 2005 it was pretty reasonable to say we missed open source. In, I think, 2015 we should be doing a touchdown dance. Right now we're three years into it. I'm pretty happy with what we've been able to get done this year with the things we're announcing. So it's not a beginning; we've already begun. It's not an ending; we're not close. But it's good progress. Sometimes you just have to have a pretty good ground game-get 2 yards and 3 yards at a time.

So what's the touchdown?

I can't say for sure yet. I'll know it when I see it.

Microsoft: Irrelevant, Evil or Eternally Optimistic?


All right, so back to the perception issue. Some people say Microsoft's irrelevant, others say you're evil. What are you?

We are eternally optimistic. We're the world's largest software company. We believe that it's the purpose of software to bring to life hardware, wherever it is. So we have a really clear and coherent self-image and mission and purpose. We are bringing the magic of software to every device; everywhere there's a chip we'll be writing software for it. And we'll be working to make it really, really good-quality software. Right now we're in a position where we can deliver some pretty amazing experiences.

I just came out of MGX in Atlanta and watching some of the demonstrations that we'll be showing at PDC [Microsoft's Professional Developers Conference] and that we'll be showing later this year of the future of Office, of the future of the operating system platform.

There are pretty amazing, connected, social computing experiences that take the software that you already know how to use and make it work better. Like almost just waving a wand and saying, "Make Excel a social computing environment." Wow, that's pretty cool. I think in bringing that strategy, that sense of self-identity, that sense of optimism to how we partner with and contribute to developers worldwide-my little corner of the set of portfolios that Microsoft has got as strategies is applying that to open-source developers, to open-source licenses, to open-source practices. ... And seeing how we can be a really strong responsible participant.

And I get so much positive feedback that it really makes up for anything else I hear. When I talk with Jeremy Allison, when I talk with Mike Schroepfer, Mike Shaver and any other name that you choose to pick, or when I talked with Brian Behlendorf to get his sense of what he thought about the ASF sponsorship, [I get] such positive feedback. I'm OK that it takes awhile for a certain broader perception to come around. Perception always carries a tail.

The reason I brought that up is Brian Aker, one of the MySQL developers in the keynote earlier, said Microsoft is irrelevant.

I didn't attend. You have to remember he works with Sun.

And Sun knows they have to interoperate.

Yes, and we have a good partnership with Sun. As a matter of fact, I was the spokesperson on the Sun partnership. I come from a world where you have to make everything work together. I worked at BEA Systems for three years. Our business was very much a Sun business. I come from a point of view that says everything has got to work with everything, or else it's not worth doing.


Rocket Fuel