Microsoft adopted Opensource – but why does it matter?

Opensource Initiative https://opensource.org/

Understanding the Biggest Change at Microsoft – and how that helps you.

There have been a lot of changes at Microsoft since the days of Steve Balmer and the long-running sequence of new desktop Windows versions. Do we all still remember buying another cluster of CDs to install the latest version of Windows, or Office? Thankfully those days are long gone.

Instead there’s the embrace of the Cloud with Azure.  There’s the emergence of AI in almost all Microsoft products, and the move of most of their (previously desktop) applications to the cloud.

But there’s one change which you may not have noticed but which may matter than all the rest, and that’s a simple change of Philosophy.

Put simply, Microsoft have switched away from trying to keep everything (technology and customers) within their own “Walled Garden” of Microsoft-only technologies.  Instead now they have embraced Opensource technologies and committed to the interoperability of data and systems everywhere.

So what is the difference between these approaches, and why does it matter to you and me?

Microsoft’s “Walled Garden”

Steve Balmer famously described Linux, which powers most of the world’s web servers, as a “Cancer” back in 2001.  Microsoft’s big idea was to keep customers using their technology for everything they did. 

So if you were using Microsoft Office, you had to use all the office products to work together.  Windows didn’t really run applications outside the Microsoft stable.  Microsoft’s browser “Internet Explorer” was immensely unpopular with web developers, because it didn’t allow the normal flavour of HTML web pages, like most other browsers (Chrome, Firefox, Safari etc).  Instead web developers had to add lots of special code and tricks to their web pages just so they could work in Internet Explorer, it was a real time-waster.  And so it went on – they only allowed you to use or integrate with other Microsoft products, often refusing to accept norms that the world had agreed to.

But outside Microsoft the world was starting to come together and integrate.  The web was mainly run on Linux servers, web pages were written everywhere using PHP and Ruby, Java was popular for building applications everywhere, and Microsoft couldn’t control them.

Microsoft were trying to hold everyone “In” to their systems, but even they could not manage it.  So they changed tack entirely.  One executive explained that Microsoft didn’t really understand how software developers could make a living from free software at the time, it seemed intuitively like a great threat to a commercial software company.  

But others were making a living at it, in fact a very good living, and Microsoft realised they would have to get on board.

Their Opensource Journey

The change became visible when in 2016 Microsoft joined the Linux foundation as a top tier member.

One visible sign was in 2018 Microsoft purchased Github (where most developers store and deploy their code to test and live systems).  Nadella’s quote then was “We are all in on Opensource”, and he has been true to his word.

From Github developers can deploy any type of code, and push it out to any kind of live system.  Developers build most of the Opensource systems, using GitHub.

Microsoft started adding connectors into many of their data products, so that now developers could import and export more easily to other business systems, like Oracle, Salesforce, Netsuite, and all the other popular business systems.

Microsoft’s cloud platform “Azure” became a place where you could host any kind of application, Opensource included, not just Microsoft applications.

Another big shift by Microsoft was to use Google’s Opensource “Chromium” technology in their web browser. Internet Explorer had always been pure Microsoft, it was slower than Google’s chrome browser, and unpopular with developers.  The public flocked to Google Chrome for its speed and numerous useful plugins.  So Microsoft about-turned, started using Chromium themselves, and built Bing, the fastest browser they’d ever had.

One more big change for us, as SAP partners, is the increased collaboration between Microsoft and SAP.  SAP is where a large proportion of the largest organizations keep their core financial and business processes, so you can’t be integrated without SAP.  It seems to go both ways.  Both companies are pushing that the Azure cloud is a great place to host your SAP Applications.  And both SAP and Microsoft now have numerous connectors to help you move data between SAP and other Microsoft systems, wherever you need it.

And Microsoft became the company pushing more contributions into Opensource libraries, on Github, than anyone else.  They appeared really to mean their change of tack.

They became true converts to free software, but for good business reasons.  So how can that work, and why does it matter to you and me?

Why do we care now?

The advantage that we have now is that when using Microsoft applications, we can talk to any other system.  We can get data from anywhere.

This is never more important than for the modern interconnected organisation.  In 2024 we want to report on data from right across the organization, and bring it together in one place for reporting, Analytics, personalisation, or Machine Learning.

A modern integrated business would be fundamentally incompatible with the old “Walled Garden” approach.

By bringing all your data together you can:

  • report on the health and performance of your whole business
  • Understand the drivers between one part of your business and another
  • You can take a customer’s history of communications and transactions, and make that information available to your Ecommerce store so you can personalise when that visitor arrives, and help them find things that most interest them
  • Tills in your stores will need to know a customer’s entire purchase history, so that you can give them loyalty discounts and incentives that are appropriate at the point of sale.
  • Customer service representatives need access to a customer’s information from multiple systems, so they can see and understand the problem that the customer was calling with.

None of the above were possible when Microsoft was only prepared to talk to Microsoft systems.

At Comset we have been delivering solutions in Business Intelligence, Data warehousing and Analytics for over 30 years.  We have used Microsoft technologies alongside others, our team have delivered hundreds of data solutions with Microsoft SQL Server.  But we’ve also been SAP partners since the early 2000s, and used any number of Opensource technologies.

Opensource in Microsoft “Fabric”

We have been very happy to embrace Microsoft’s all-new “Fabric” data product in 2024.  It is there to bring data together from all parts of an organization, manage it, clean and validate it, secure and protect it, and then deliver business insights at speed to every part of your organization.

Fabric is built around a data lake “One Lake”, where all your data is stored on a “Parquet” https://parquet.apache.org/  file format originally developed by (Opensource) Apache foundation, and now widely used in big data applications everywhere.   Another Opensource product deeply embedded in Fabric is Apache Spark https://spark.apache.org/ a language which helps you run big data pipelines and transformations, but with multiple versions of the program running in parallel for greater speed with very large data volumes.

And in Fabric the “Notebooks” which allow you to run machine learning experiments and build predictive models on your data, are all based on Spark, and Pandas, a Python (Opensource) library very well suited to machine learning applications.

All of this means that Fabric is completely in line with what an opensource developer would expect, and this means that interoperability of all your systems and data is a reality.   We are no longer forced to choose between Microsoft or everything else, we’re in an age where we can have Micrososft with everything else.  And that allows us to get your data from all over your organization, every application, system and database, and bring it all together for reporting, business analytics, and machine learning applications.

Along with the massive processing power available in the cloud super-scalers: Amazon AWS, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure, these are the foundations on which the boom in AI and machine learning relies.

Just in Time

Microsoft made the switch just in time, they had been declining relative to the new players (AWS, Google), but since then they’ve returned to being one of the most valuable companies in the world. They’ve been pushing in the Opensource direction for nearly a decade now.  And you and I can benefit from having our businesses connected, far more easily than in the past.  Our systems can work together, not apart as would have been the case in the past.

How do we use this greater interconnectivity?

Talk to the Comset team if you’d like to start planning to build a more integrated business, and more effective Business Reporting and Analytics.  The systems are ready and available to do the job, and we’re happy to work with you to plot the way forward.

If you want to understand more we’d suggest this in depth Microsoft blog post and paper:
“Open Lakes, not Walled Gardens”

If you’d like to talk to Comset about how you can start to put this into practice, please Contact us:  https://www.comset.co.uk/contact-us/