Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heterogeneous Environments--The New IT paradigm.



An observation made roughly 2500 years ago by the ancient Greek Philosopher Heraclitus, that the only constant is change, holds as true today as it did then. The Information and Communication Technology (“ICT”) industry is an exemplar of this. Today the entire ICT landscape is witnessing change. Yesterday's paradigms are today's history. Traditionally, we have witnessed a vertical divide between Open Source Software and commercial software, with commentators from both sides espousing the merits of their model as a one size fits all solution. While both models had their respective merits, the divide resulted in precious little interoperability between them, except where mandated by standards bodies.

However, The ICT world is witnessing a change. Environments that often include a mix of Windows, Linux and UNIX are becoming more prevalent. Applications being deployed today are often a mix of open source and commercial software. Customers are increasingly looking for software providers to deliver business value and to respect choice in a heterogeneous world, regardless of the underlying development model. There is no one size fits all solution. A parallel in India is the Telecom space- CDMA and GSM –to most users it is immaterial which technology their phone uses as long as CDMA and GSM 'talk' to each other i.e. are interoperable. We are increasingly seeing a similar interoperability emerging in software, especially between proprietary software and Open Source Software (“OSS”).

Expectedly, Microsoft is also not untouched or unaffected by these changes coming about in the ICT industry. While Microsoft products and technologies continue to offer cutting edge value to customers, alternative choices are also appearing on customers' radars, and in many cases, these are open source offerings. Users today are increasingly driven by optimal solutions for their requirements, often leading to a co-mingling of OSS with commercial software products and solutions. Although OSS has established itself as an enduring part of the ICT Industry, it is neither a panacea for the software industry nor is it simply a passing fad. The truth, as very often is the case, lies somewhere in between.

In the “Always-on Always-connected” world, technology is becoming more heterogeneous with each passing day. Increasingly, in this “world of choice” there is a consumer driven intermingling and co-existence between OSS and commercial software. There is a convergence of maturing technology and evolving business models - an inflection point - underway where more commercial companies are willing to participate in open source projects. This is the underlying essence of a new and emerging model for the software industry, viz. “Mixed Source”.


Microsoft in the Open Source world
As the industry increasingly moves to a mixed source model, one aspect that stands out is Microsoft's participation in the OSS ecosystem- something that gets overlooked in issues such as competition between commercial products like the Windows Server operating system and Red Hat Enterprise Linux. For example, did you know that:
there are over 80,000 OSS applications running on the Windows operating system, of which 30,000 were built specifically to run on Windows.
Microsoft offers an open source project hosting site, www.CodePlex.com, that has over 400 Microsoft open source projects hosted therein.
two licenses propounded by Microsoft- the Microsoft Public License (Ms-PL) and the Microsoft Reciprocal License- are OSI approved and OSD compliant open source licenses.

For Microsoft, the initiatives taken vis a vis OSS has meant energizing our own approach to the “mixed source” world. The aspiration to empower third-party innovation has deep roots at Microsoft. We have long sought to contribute to the growth of an open ecosystem, whether through publicly documenting thousands of application programming interfaces (APIs) or releasing more than 1 million lines of freely reusable code annually through MSDN, newsgroups, and other online channels. But over the last several years, we have expanded the scope and variety of methods and programs for working with others and for sharing information. This has included:

More than 500 commercial IP agreements with companies from a wide range of industries-including companies building their businesses around OSS;
Offering a range of technologies under new, broadened terms defined by the Open Specification Promise ('OSP')-an irrevocable promise from Microsoft designed to be compatible with OSS development; Stated broad openness to noncommercial OSS development through the Patent Pledge for Open Source Developers. Microsoft made open source SDKs available for the Azure Services Platform; shipped the open source Query Library; began promoting open source software developer tools via Web App Installer; extended open source support for Silverlight; and for the first time, released over 20000 lines of device driver code for to the Linux community under the GPL v2 license.

Microsoft and the OSS community:
Microsoft recognizes the contribution of the OSS community to enriching the software industry and is actively looking for ways to enhance collaboration. Microsoft has been actively engaging with various open source projects and looking to add value to the community. Microsoft's sponsorship of the Apache Software Foundation, contributions to the PHP Community, participation in Apache projects like Hadoop and Qpid, and participation in various community events such as OSCON, EclipseCon, PyCon, and Moodle Conference are some key initiatives in this regard.

As part of its ongoing interaction with open source communities, Microsoft launched its Open Specification Promise (OSP) in 2006 , which provides royalty-free patent coverage across proprietary and open source platforms to implement Web services specifications, virtual hard drive formats, anti-spam technologies, and OpenXML, all of which support increased interoperability. It also includes compatibility with the GPL.
The Microsoft Open Source Technology Center (OSTC) is a leading open source technology research and development organization with a charter to serve as a resource to open source communities and Microsoft product development teams. It strives to promote interoperability between Windows and Linux, supports development of OSS that runs on the Windows platform, and investigates and identifies areas of interest for expanded cooperation between Microsoft and open source communities. Microsoft has recently announced the setting up on an independent foundation- CodePlex Foundation- that aims to provide a forum for commercial software developers to participate in and contribute to open source projects.

In India as well, Microsoft has been at the forefront in reaching out to academia and OSS communities. Microsoft's Open Source Technology Program is designed to further open source research and development of open source applications on the Windows platform in collaboration with leading national engineering institutes in the country including IIT-Kanpur, IIT Guwahai, IIIT-Bangalore and IIIT-Hyderabad. Some focus areas of research are interoperability between Windows and Linux platforms, Mobile and embedded devices applications, Web and database applications on Windows, High performance computing applications etc. Currently there are 8 projects funded under this programme which also includes educational research grants to faculty and scholarships to students, who are also provided guidance from an Expert Advisory Council comprising of eminent members of the academic community.

In 2007, Microsoft set up Interoperability Lab at the Microsoft Technical Center in Bangalore where industry, government, and educational institutions can build test applications for their interoperability with open-source and other technologies.

Looking Ahead
Organizations today are looking to strike a balance that allows for a competitive playing field, while rewarding and incentivizing innovation, to enable companies to create new technology and their own differentiated products. Incentives for commercial investment in new innovation should coexist and co-evolve alongside practical mechanisms for sharing intellectual property (IP)-with the overarching focus on a dynamic industry that continues to bring great ideas to customers. In the long run, successful arrangements and collaborations, that are truly beneficial to consumers, will be those that strike a balance between respect for IP rights, incentives for innovation and practical and affordable mechanisms for sharing such IP.

Microsoft has been at the forefront of creating such business arrangements through licensing of our IP. Over the last 5 years, we have entered into over 500 such arrangements. Recent examples include, Microsoft's patent licensing agreement with Brother, a leading printer company, which includes IP coverage for devices running on Linux-based technologies. Microsoft also licensed Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync patents to Google which enabled the launch of a new service -- Google Sync -- that will help their customers better manage their data. These are but two examples of effective collaborations and interoperability which result in a more holistic experience for the end user while bringing together proprietary and open source software.

As the ecosystem evolves, users are increasingly looking at mixed source models to service their software requirements. We will see more and more companies recognizing that the underlying premise for choice will no longer be what model- free, open source or commercial- to adopt, but what is the best tool for the job. If this “best tool” is a combination of proprietary software and OSS, then IT managers will veer towards this mix. Organizations that recognize this paradigm shift in focus will be the ones that are optimally placed to cater to the needs of the industry as a whole. ICT policies will increasingly need to sustain a pro-consumer trend by focusing not on arguments about “doing it my way,” but rather on focusing on “do what works” for customers. The future is not so much about one model versus the other, but about how to combine and integrate the best of what each has to offer. In other words, the future is Mixed Source.

The author is Attorney, Microsoft India, and the views expressed here are of Microsoft Corporation

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