Microsoft has created its own version of Linux — a product Steve Ballmer once likened to ‘cancer’

Nadella unicorn shirt
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Microsoft Channel 9

This week, Microsoft unveiled Azure Cloud Switch, a boring-sounding product that’s only interesting to developers and IT professionals working on the bleeding edge of networking technology. 

The scandalous part is actually under the hood: Azure Cloud Switch is, at the core, a specialised version of Linux — a free operating system that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer once referred to as “a cancer.”

Linux, created in the early 1990s by incredibly influential programming firebrand Linus Torvalds and further developed by a veritable army of volunteers from around the world, never quite toppled the dominance of Microsoft Windows on the desktop.

But it’s the operating system of choice in the data center, where “free” is a very important part of the equation when you’re planning on installing the software on hundreds of thousands of servers. Plus, Linux provides an important part of the core of Google Android, giving it an extreme reach. 

Under Ballmer, Microsoft treated Linux as enemy number one, given the threat it posed to its all-important Windows business. Microsoft had an internal “Linux compete” initiative with strategies to combat the operating system in all sorts of ways, from product to marketing.

Ballmer and Bill Gates even recorded a bizarre parody of “The Matrix” where they took potshots at Linux, claiming it was too hard for non-technical people to use (which wasn’t exactly wrong). 

You can watch that parody here:

Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, has softened his stance on Linux considerably. Under his leadership, Microsoft has begun enabling support for Linux on flagship products like its Microsoft Azure cloud computing platform. Nadella even boldly declared that “Microsoft Loves Linux” at a press event shortly after taking command of the company.

Azure Cloud Switch is a super-specialised version of Linux, according to the Microsoft blog post announcing the product. Also of note is that it integrates network management technology from the Facebook-led Open Compute Project, which pushes open standards in the data center. 

Linus Torvalds
Linux creator Linus Torvalds Linux Foundation

It’s supposed to make it easier for IT pros to manage their networking infrastructure across different types of hardware — important when you’re running a bunch of networks across a bunch of data centres at cloud computing scales.

But that’s not the important part. The important part, for right now, is that Microsoft saw a problem, and decided Linux was the best way to fix it. These are strange times we live in. 

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