Microsoft head talks Linux

Microsoft has gone on the warpath trying to convince customers it is safer and, more importantly, cheaper to choose Windows over Linux. In fact it has been the basis of a recent ad campaign.

So it is of little surprise that the subject came up during Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s visit to Toronto to speak at the Can>Win04 Business conference last Thursday. In arguing against the merits of Linux over Windows, especially with government installs, Ballmer said the choice is often a political one.

“None of it has to do with the merits of the case,” he told IT World Canada in an interview. The city of Munich chose Linux over Windows, he said, not based on technology but rather politics.

When queried about the City of Calgary’s choice of Linux [for a migration from Unix], he admitted "we will lose some of those.

Ballmer was so enthusiastic about the topic that when his assistant told him it was time to go he carried on. “Look I've got to finish this,” he said. “I’d be happy to take that test, [Microsoft versus Linux] if they genuinely made the decision,” he said. "If they have Unix skills, or if they are porting folks from Unix I think we have got a winning case, but that's a much tougher argument.

Ballmer’s argument that Linux is not cheaper than Windows is based on the assumption that software is such a small percentage of any install that Microsoft’s “software is not the thing that throws” the balance sheet off. “TCO (total cost of ownership) isn’t about our software licensing fees,” he said. “What are we? Three percent” of a total install. If companies look at all costs (desktops, e-mail, knowledge workers, et cetera) Microsoft is cheaper, he said. “I’ll fall on my sword,” if it isn’t.

For Dan Ryan, manager of infrastructure and desktop management with the City of Calgary, TCO was part of what made Linux a clear winner to replace aging Unix machines. For example, those who work in the Unix environment find Linux an easy learn. Ryan said the city still uses a lot of Windows but that for replacing its 140 Unix servers, Linux was a better long term fit.

“I totally respect Steve Ballmer but realistically [it] isn’t about Linux versus Windows at this point. It was about Unix versus Linux,” he said. “The implications are that now I can do lifecycle management with these servers where I couldn’t do it before. They’re also six to seven times faster. So it’s about better performance. And really the operating cost savings are 75 percent, and our capital costs are 75 percent lower,” he said. “But we have to look at things over the long haul. Definitely with the compression on our budgets, the last thing I would want is an operating budget surprise in two or three years. The other nice thing is that we’re not on the hook for proprietary licensing.”

Ad campaigns aside, Microsoft is also the midst of a rather tumultuous month on the security front: MyDoom at the start, a huge ASN.1 vulnerability in the middle and a code leak to conclude February. Ballmer admitted the company has a way to go and that at present Microsoft “is not what people want in terms of a security experience,” he said. In the years to come “I think that security is going to be a strategic advantage for us...we have to make security an advantage.”

The company has undergone tremendous changes in the recent years most notable around its processes for developing software. The three-pronged approach started with teaching its own developers (10,000 plus) about how to make secure software, he said. The second strategy has been to revamp the milestone process for projects to make security an integral part of development. The result has been nine security patches (in the first months) for Windows Server 2003 versus 40 for Windows 2000 in the same time frame. In fact Server 2003 is the first release to come out of the new processes, he said.

The final piece of the puzzle is better tools and research to help produce more secure code. Some of this comes from a special team which designs new hacking techniques and threat models, and tests it against Microsoft code.

Ballmer also admitted licensing strategies will come out of Microsoft more tentatively in the future, albeit “slowly, ponderously, deliberately."

“I would not make changes lightly,” he said. Ballmer said recent licensing changes were a “triple crown of backfire,” but added that it is almost invariable there will always be those who think any new licensing structure is more expensive.

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