Microsoft fraternises with old enemy Linux,  moves toward quantum computing

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks November 8, 2017
Microsoft cosies up to Linux in Azure  while trying to pin down and make sense of technology’s latest slippery eel, quantum computing.

The innate small 'c' conservatism of most business managers can often be remarkably beneficial to some vendors, such as Microsoft. But the more beneficial it is the bigger the hill that has to be climbed once the time comes to try and change the perception of those customers once a vendor decides to make some significant changes of direction, such as Microsoft.

The company has now largely transformed its business-related operations from one based solely on proprietary office productivity and business management application firm into one geared for open, cloud delivered services. One of its problems in doing this, however, is that much of this emerging marketplace is moving faster than the company can move its image. That old 'proprietary tech' hang over is still there in many-a user’s mind.

So the company used Future Decoded, its recent showcase event at London’s ExCel, to push further up that hill of user miss-perception and to stress that it is now, very much, a full-on player in the open source arena, particularly when it comes to its important, and successful, Azure Cloud service operation, which in the company’s last quarter saw revenues rise 14% to $6.9bn out of the company’s total for the quarter of $24.5bn.

It also saw the company showcase some interesting new developments out on the bleeding edge of technology – quantum computing, where it is already at the point where it can provide tools for interested parties to 'have a play' and start exploring what might be possible in real applications terms.

Being pragmatic, blatantly

When it comes to the company’s position on Azure it is, of course, one of blatant pragmatism. It’s cloud service, Azure, makes it increasingly imperative that the service is open to working with whatever applications and services customers want to host there.

As Mark Russinovitch, Microsoft’s Azure Chief Technology Officer, not only is open source technology `being allowed’, it is becoming a well-embedded part of the company’s culture. He claimed that the company is now one if GitHub’s most prolific contributors, and lies second in the number of projects now hosted there.

It is now also a member of the Linux Foundation, a move that would have been unthinkable prior to the launch of Azure. That is probably all to the good considering some 40% of VMs running on Azure are now running Linux. In addition, a few of the important `positions’ in the upper reaches of open source are now held by Microsoft personnel. Russinovitch said:

The executive VP of the Apache Software Foundation is an Azure man, while co-creator of Kubernetes is a member of the Azure compute team. We now consider Linux and Windows as equals on Azure and it makes real sense. Whatever the application or operational environment, it has to be good for everything.

As the notion of users running the most appropriate application/operating environment combinations regardless of a technology or brand takes hold, so the need for all cloud service providers to b demonstrably technology agnostic becomes ever-more important.

So it was no surprise when the CEO of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, appeared at Future Decoded to talk through what users might expect from the combination. The key thing for Canonical will be the ability to focus on offering operations at scale, so it will be concentrating on optimising its Ubuntu Linux distribution to run on Azure.

An example of this is with Ubuntu customer, Netflix, where the issue is to ensure performance is not hit by problems in networking of multiple VMs in order to create an application or system. It will also be optimising Ubuntu to work with the new ranges of Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) that are coming along:

We have produced an implementation of Microsoft’s SQLServer that is now available on Ubuntu, as well as a kernel driver in Ubuntu that can take a native call and convert it to a Windows call.

Place your bets

The event was also used by the company to talk through some aspects of what is probably the biggest gamble the company has taken in many a year. This is its decision to enter the quantum computing fray, an opportunity that is still several years away from realising too many tangible results outside the realms of the bleeding edges of science.

Krysta Svore, Ph.D., who heads up the Microsoft research effort here, was on hand to run through a brief outline of the work so far, which is based around the development of what she called a revolutionary topographical approach to creating Qubits (quantum bits, the smallest units of information in quantum computing). Unlike the single state bits familiar to everyone in current IT circles, where a bit is either a Binary 1 or 0, Qubits can be both 1 and 0 at the same time, and only settles on one of the at the moment it is measured.

She indicated that Intel is already looking at market opportunities in privacy and security applications, as well as energy management and transmission, environmental management and machine learning applications. It is also working on nitrogen fixation, which already plays a big part in the production of fertilisers.

The company has got as far as producing some experimental prototype hardware systems that require cooling down to near-absolute zero temperatures – so don’t expect any pocket versions to be appearing any time soon.

Of more interest to techies, however is the coming availability of the first preview of a Quantum Development Kit, which is intended to give interested parties a first chance to relate the technologies to scientific and business problems, and start experimenting with possible solutions.

My take

While it probably ranks as a blindingly obvious move for Microsoft to welcome, even encourage Linux on to the Azure platform, it is clear that it will remain an important marketing tub to thump for a good while yet. But without the thumps Azure could still end up being assumed to be a 'Microsoft-only' cloud service.

The developments in quantum computing are right at the other end of the spectrum, and it is good to see the company taking such an early position in a field which is still so associated with pointy-headed rocket scientists. Here is Microsoft saying it may well be ready for application in the wider ranges of business a lot sooner than expected.


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