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Microsoft waves CentOS club at Red Hat

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Open...and Shut Red Hat is perhaps one of the most understated success stories in the software industry. Each quarter, the company registers roughly 20-percent year-over-year growth, fueled by partners that increasingly cement Red Hat's place at the center of the enterprise data center.

Despite repeated efforts, no other Linux vendor has come close to knocking Red Hat off its perch. Microsoft, in announcing support for CentOS, just may have taken a big step in that direction. The only competitor to cause Red Hat serious consternation is community Linux distribution CentOS.

For years, Red Hat has called out "unpaid Linux" as its chief competition, going so far as to report on "free-to-paid" deals on each quarterly earnings call. Winning against "free" is a big deal for Red Hat. Ironically, the same is true for Microsoft, which is playing a potentially dangerous game in supporting CentOS. Microsoft already fights the plague (or blessing, depending on your viewpoint) of piracy in China and elsewhere. Does it really want to encourage customers to adopt free operating systems, open source or otherwise?

Maybe.

Microsoft general manager Sandy Gupta declared to Open Source Business Conference attendees: "We have been told repeatedly by our customers that we have to work with other vendors to interoperate with different data center solutions." Solutions like CentOS. And most probably like Ubuntu, which was not part of Microsoft's announcement.

But I would hazard a guess that it's coming, as well as a massive shift to managing a new swath of vendors and communities as Microsoft seeks to reassert itself as the center of the enterprise ecosystem. Even as open source renders individual components of the cloud difficult or impossible to monetize, the meta-level of management becomes fertile ground.

In Microsoft System Center, the Redmond giant may be trying to position itself as the trusted, go-to source for management of all assets, proprietary and open source. In other words, Red Hat may simply be collateral damage in Microsoft's CentOS announcement. The grand vision is to control the cloud -- or, rather, enterprises' adoption of cloud computing - and not necessarily to turn the cloud into a Windows-only experience.

Microsoft has grown up, and grown out of its fetish with control of a narrow computing stack. Instead, it seems to have taken heterogeneity as a given in cloud computing, and it's hoping to instill Microsoft's dashboards and management tools at the forefront of the user experience. The data center may be a morass of different components, but the trend is toward datacenter-level APIs and virtualization. Microsoft wants to own these "choke points."

My question? When is Red Hat going to do the same? Microsoft is building interoperability into its solutions, while Red Hat holds a firm line on its openness-only pledge. The most open solutions are those that embrace what the customer already has, and is inclined to use. For Microsoft that means embracing CentOS. For Red Hat, could it mean embracing Windows.

The two companies have done the interoperability dance on virtualization. Is cloud next? And will it originate with Microsoft or Red Hat? Based on Microsoft's CentOS news, the answer may well be Microsoft, and that's to its credit, and possibly Red Hat's hurt. ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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