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Proposed Microsoft-GitHub buy confirms open source role in cloud

Microsoft has not always been about the developer. That is just its roots. At a time when software development was limited to people with access to mainframes, the company forged its early fortune on the backs of easily available developer tools.

Some would say the developer focus dimmed at Microsoft with the departure of co-founder Bill Gates — one of the most exemplary programmer nerds there ever was. With the ascendancy of Satya Nadella to CEO in 2014, the developer’s song is being heard again. And it’s being heard particularly loudly now, as Microsoft-GitHub nuptials loom; last week, the company agreed to buy GitHub for $7.5 billion in stock.

Microsoft is a well-established commercial presence. Its status with open source is less established, despite its much-reported cuddle-up to Linux. Because it has often been aggressive in pushing its own standards, its proposed acquisition of GitHub has naturally been met with rumblings of concern.

Satya Nadella, CEO of MicrosoftSatya Nadella

However, the Microsoft-GitHub pairing should not be unexpected, according to Warner Chaves, a long-time Microsoft data developer and principal consultant at technical services provider Pythian, based in Ottawa.

“People have strong memories of the anti-open-source Microsoft, but the fact is that Microsoft is the corporation with the largest number of [GitHub] open source contributors,” Chaves said. “It wants to keep attracting this type of developer to Azure as part of the ongoing war for cloud market share.”

‘Doubling down’ on open source

People have strong memories of the anti-open-source Microsoft, but the fact is that Microsoft is the corporation with the largest number of [GitHub] open source contributors.
Warner Chavesprincipal consultant at Pythian

If nothing else, the GitHub move confirms developers are foremost again at Microsoft and elsewhere. Data professionals don’t really need to be told that is the case. All the hallmark technologies of big data — NoSQL databases and machine learning, as well as Apache Hadoop and all its friends and family — have been driven by developers. Hadoop and its ilk have returned the developer role to prominence in decisions about data architecture — something they hadn’t enjoyed since the early days of the relational database.

In fact, GitHub has been home to important open source projects — many of the big data variety. As many as 1,500 Apache projects and over 500 Eclipse projects are hosted on GitHub. Much of the new machine learning activity reposes on GitHub, not the least of which is TensorFlow — the library of tools open-sourced by Google in 2015.

Merv Adrian, GartnerMerv Adrian

In recent years, the Microsoft Azure cloud has driven more openness in APIs at the company. Apache Hadoop, Hive and Spark are notable cases of open source support on the Azure cloud. The reality is, if Microsoft does not have a heaping helping of open source software on Azure, its cloud could lag in overall developer support. Buying GitHub means the company is “doubling down on open source,” said Gartner analyst Merv Adrian.

Microsoft’s move is “consistent with the need to attract developers to the Azure platform,” Adrian wrote in a blog post on the GitHub purchase. He said the company could increase the connection between GitHub and Azure, but noted its vow to maintain the openness of any such connection.

Home is where the GitHub is

Microsoft could very well be a good home for GitHub, according to Ian Skerrett, a technology marketing consultant and former Eclipse Foundation executive.

“Microsoft definitely understands developers and will be able to help push GitHub into the enterprise development world,” Skerrett said.

Still, open source is very much about choices, and the fact that so many of those choices came to reside on GitHub may give pause, Skerrett indicated.

“GitHub has a near monopoly on open source project hosting,” he said. “There aren’t many alternatives, and this is a problem.” Skerrett added that he hoped one side effect of this blockbuster purchase is competition will arise for GitHub.