Microsoft Lab Works Overtime for Open-Source Edge

Researchers at Microsoft's Linux and Open Source Lab are still looking for an edge over Linux and open source.

Though outward appearances may indicate that Google Inc. is now Microsoft Corp.s biggest threat, customers should not kid themselves. Microsoft still has many of its top minds working on the previous holders of that title: Linux and open source.

At its Linux and Open Source Lab in Redmond, Wash., Microsoft has a three-pronged attack to give customers and potential customers more information by testing and comparing Windows and Linux in legacy environments, the effectiveness of each platforms security patching process, and how well Microsoft is working to integrate or support open-source code in its products.

Given Microsofts desire to upgrade every possible customer to the latest version of Windows, it may seem strange to be testing Windows on old hardware. The tests, which found that Windows performed as well as Linux on legacy hardware when installed and run out of the box, were done in part to give Microsoft the data it needed to effectively "put to rest the myth that Linux can run on anything," said Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy at Microsoft and manager of the lab.

There is a pervasive belief that Linux can run on older PCs and that Windows cant, Hilf said. So Microsoft decided to test the premise by installing Red Hat Inc.s RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), Novell Inc.s SUSE Pro 9.2, Mandrake 10, Linspire Inc.s Linspire 4.5, Xandros Inc.s Xandros Desktop OS Version 3, Red Hats Fedora Core 3, Slackware Linux Inc.s Slackware 10.1, Knoppix 3.7, and Microsofts Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 out of the box on older hardware to see what happened.

Hilf said the capability to modify Linux and strip it down to run with a minimal set of services and software so that it can run on all sorts of hardware devices has generated the larger assumption that any type of Linux distribution can run on all sorts of hardware devices. "But the average customer is not a technical expert or a Linux developer, so they do not have the skill or, more importantly, the business need to modify the operating system this way. You could argue that this is why Red Hat and Novell SUSE exist," Hilf said.

/zimages/1/28571.gifSteven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes that Hilfs claims are "pathetic." Click here to read more.

In the tests, Microsoft found that most modern commercial Linux distributions could be installed successfully on systems that have an Intel Corp. Pentium processor with 64MB of RAM and a minimum of 2GB of hard disk space. Minimum requirements for office productivity performance on a Linux system were any Pentium II system with at least 64MB of RAM, Hilf said, adding that playback of sound and video would typically require a PII 400 or better.

"This corresponds to an average PC issued between 1998 and 1999," Hilf said. If Linux was installed on an older system, such as an average PC from 1997, the desktop performance fell below what is typically acceptable for a common user, he said.

Patch Quality, Not Quantity

In other labs projects, Microsoft is moving away from focusing on the number of security patches and updates that are released to concentrating on making it easy for customers to obtain the security fixes and system updates they need.

Microsofts Linux and Open Source Lab simulates production environments across open-source, Microsoft and other commercial software. It has built tests and analysis tools to look at how frequently those systems need to be patched and what the impact of that is. Microsofts "Patch Tuesday" update model issues patches and updates once a month unless they are deemed critical and need to be released earlier. This model is different from those of the various Linux and other commercial software vendors.

Microsoft is running scenarios on an ongoing basis using the latest versions of RHEL and SUSE Linux, as well as the Mandriva, Gentoo, Debian and Ubuntu Linux distributions. Microsoft also tests a wide variety of Unix systems and BSDs (Berkeley Software Distributions).

Next Page: The bigger picture.