Microsoft fields tough questions about open culture at the company

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A flurry of press coverage came with the news two weeks ago that for the first time Microsoft had made the top-20 list in the Linux Foundation’s annual development report on top contributors to the Linux kernel. 

The announcement generated an audible buzz at the Collaboration Summit as well, where Microsoft engineers K.Y. Srinivasan and Tom Hanrahan presented “Microsoft’s journey to the Linux kernel.” They gave a technical talk, but much of the discussion revolved around Microsoft’s noticeable shift toward open source. And the pair fielded an intense round of questions from attendees, including kernel developers Greg Kroah-Hartman and James Bottomley.

Hanrahan began by asserting that Microsoft hadn’t done anything special to deserve the press attention. It was “just another company that decided to go down the path of contributing,” he said.

But the discussion opened wide when Kroah-Hartman didn’t accept that answer. To be fair, he said, Microsoft isn’t like every other company because it’s been “so anti-Linux.”

That attitude has been slowly changing within Microsoft, Hanrahan said, driven by customer demand for Linux integration. In fact, the biggest challenge Microsoft faced in the development process wasn’t resistance to Linux, but internal pressure to meet release deadlines. The Hyper-V team quickly learned that the open source community isn’t concerned as much with a company’s internal schedule but rather, with the quality of the code.

Hyper-V has benefited enormously from that extensive community exchange. Six Hyper-V drivers have now emerged from the kernel staging tree process with significant stability and performance improvements that expand what the drivers are capable of doing, Hanrahan said. And that was just the first phase of Microsoft’s work on Hyper-V.

The press attention and the obvious improvements to Hyper-V have also started to shift Microsoft’s internal culture to be more open and collaborative, Srinivasan said.

Has it also then, Bottomley asked, changed the way the Hyper-V group works to reflect a “more iterative feedback model?” And perhaps that model is creeping into other areas of the company?

“I’m not sure we’re there yet. But your feedback is important to help fix issues in a way that will help all operating systems on Hyper-V,” Srinivasan said. “We learned the hard way how best to deal with community comments and I suspect other companies have similar issues when they start working with open source.”

Overall, the presenters said, the community has been extremely helpful and welcoming throughout the past four years.

Said Srinivasan in conclusion: "Our goal is to make Linux a first-class citizen on Hyper-V."