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Microsoft welcomes CentOS Linux onto virtualized Windows

Red Hat support hurdles lowered for Hyper-V

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OSBC Microsoft is taking a swing at Red Hat, promoting freebie Linux CentOS on Windows Server via its hypervisor and offering technical support for service providers.

On Monday, the software giant announced that CentOS now runs as a "first class citizen" on Windows Server R2 Hyper-V, while hinting at more work in the pipeline to improve the way CentoOS runs as a guest operating system in Microsoft's Windows-centric hypervisor stack. CentOS is a based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux.

Microsoft made the announcement at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in San Francisco.

Open Source Solutions Group general manager Sandy Gupta also told The Reg that Microsoft has started providing technical support for CentOS customers. Microsoft shops running CentOS can now get help installing and configuring the penguin on their Windows servers. Microsoft is stopping just short of diving into the actual source code.

"If a customer calls, we will prove installation and configuration support for CentOS as well, and not tell them to go find a vendor for CentOS," Gupata said.

The "customer" in this case is the service provider. This covers a large group of companies lapping up CentOS because it provides RHEL stability without Red Hat's support costs.

The CentOS announcement is a major departure for the usually cautious Microsoft when it comes to supporting Linux: CentOS is a community project with no corporate patron. Until now, Microsoft has partnered with Red Hat and Novell, which split support for Red Hat and SuSE accordingly.

Like CentOS, Red Hat is also popular with hosting providers, and the company knows this. And it knows it has got a problem with potential support dollars leaking away thanks to CentOS. Red Hat reckons it will break the $1bn revenue barrier this year, and so knows it needs to plug such leaks.

Red Hat took steps in March to stop this by changing the way it distributes the code for its Linux kernel. It decided to wrap patches with the kernel in to a single tar ball, making it harder for those outside Red Hat to pick apart and understand what patches have been applied.

Microsoft is now extending a hand to CentOS customers while potentially foiling Red Hat's plan of making it harder to go-it-alone and - ultimately - end up becoming paying Red Hat customers in return for a properly fixed and patched Linux kernel.

Gupta said: "They [Red Hat] may have a real issue that they need to figure out: what is the value proposition of using CentOS versus Red Hat? They have to figure out how to make their services and sols more valuable rather than just repackaging."

"Customers are already using CentOS in a broad way. This helps customers connect CentOS with the rest of the Microsoft infrastructure. We are announcing our first step, which is virtualization. We could be doing more things."

Gupta, who you may or may not remember from never-say-die Linux litigant The SCO Group, didn't say what else Microsoft is working on.

Microsoft isn't just being a Good Samaritan. It knows there's a good chance a CentOS customer could grow up to become either a Red Hat or a Windows customer. If it is the former, that will mean lost Windows business forever. By supporting CentOS, Microsoft keeps CentOS alive and prevents a move to Red Hat as some kind of inevitable outcome while Windows remains a possible option.

When it comes to existing support agreements with Novell and Red Hat, Gupata said as and when Microsoft identifies that a customer's problem is not related to Microsoft's Hyper-V, the company's support people have handed the customer over to their Linux provider. CentOS is harder because of its status as a community project rather than a company product.

"Those are easier, because when it [a support question] comes in and we feel it's not a Hyper-V issue we have a channel to send it to Red Hat or SuSE. This was trickier because there's no vendor there," Gupta said.

The last time Microsoft worked to improve Linux running as guest on Hyper-V, Microsoft donated 20,000 lines of code for four of its drivers under GPLv2 in June 2009. There was no such drop this time, Gupta said. Instead, members of his group worked with individuals in the Linux community.

The company used OSBC to demonstrate CentOS working with Hyper-V and its Systems Center management software. It showed the ability to provision CentOS and manage the Linux using a portal built for service providers, with System Center Operations Manager and System Center Orchestrator running in the background. Microsoft showed off an interface with Spacewalk, which is used in CentOS and was working through the self-service portal to manage updates and patches. Also, there was the ability to provision and spin up a CentOS instance on Hyper-V using a set of graphical controls and workflows. ®

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