Four more years: SUSE extends partnership with Microsoft

The plan makes good business sense, but still angers Linux advocates

Since it's the first day of the popular Open Source Convention here in Portland, there was just a hint of irony in the announcement that hit the wires this morning on the West Coast: SUSE, the Linux division of The Attachmate Group, would be renewing its controversial licensing agreement with Microsoft until 2016.

The agreement, originally set in 2007 between Microsoft and then-Novell, caused huge consternation amongst the Linux and open source community, not openly because, well, it's Microsoft, but the agreement also lent Novell and its customers patent protection from any intellectual property lawsuits Microsoft might someday launch against Linux or related open source projects.

Which was sure to make everyone just peachy-keen happy. 

The patent protection clause in this agreement lit a fire under the Free Software Foundation's revision of the GNU General Public License, which was moving to version 3 at the time. It's not accurate to say that the Novell/Microsoft agreement caused GPLv3, but it sure kicked the creators in the pants to get it done faster, and with specific language that would prevent such patent indemnification deals from affecting GPLv3 software.

From a completely business point of view, the deal makes a lot of sense for both sides. (It you leave out the patent promise nonsense.) Novell, and now SUSE, gets the benefit of cross-marketing and -licensing with Microsoft and Microsoft gets a stable Linux platform that it can tout to customers who are insisting on a heterogenous environment and not pure Windows.

And that's a lot of business for Microsoft, since there are very few enterprise level clients who would deploy a Windows-only IT infrastructure. There are a lot more IT departments who are interested in a homogeneous Linux stack, so Microsoft figured it would be better to get some of Linux's customers rather than lose out to Linux with everybody.

By going with SUSE Linux, Microsoft was even able to cut into Red Hat's business a bit, which I'm sure didn't shed any tears in Redmond. Even today's announcement hints at this new extension as a Red Hat alternative:

"'The Microsoft-SUSE expanded support program has helped a number of our customers standardize on SUSE as an optimized guest on Hyper-V, as well as provide a highly cost-effective support program for non-SUSE distributions, including Red Hat,' said James Largotta, global vice president of sales for BridgeWays [in the press release]"

Come to SUSE, in other words, and we'll support Red Hat too. Which has been a Novell/SUSE things for a while, and Microsoft is only too happy to help.

But leaving all of the smart business stuff aside, there's the patent protection arrangement, which has always rankled Linux advocates, because it implicitly made Microsoft's argument that there is some infringing technology in Linux for them. It puts fear, uncertainly, and doubt on all Linux distros, save SUSE Linux, and enables the ongoing patent/litigation cycle that's pretty much exploded in the mobile world and is sure to engulf the cloud. Novell had a chance to not take the patent promise, and they missed it. Today, SUSE could have has the same chance, and they missed it, too.

Is the Microsoft-SUSE partnership inherently wrong? In pieces, it's actually a smart play which I think benefits the enterprise presence of Linux. But that effect is more than cancelled out by the idea that Microsoft has some sort of legitimate claim over the Linux operating system or kernel. Any benefit Linux gets from Microsoft sales and marketing makes no difference in the face of that kind of Faustian deal.

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