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What SQL Server for Linux says about Microsoft's future plans

SQL Server on Linux may just be the start. After making PowerShell open source, Microsoft can build Linux versions of any of its server technologies. And it has reason to do so.

Late last year, Microsoft released the first public preview of SQL Server for Linux, which was built into the latest version of the database management system. This ended speculation that the Linux SQL Server would be a light version, without the same features, capabilities and performance as its Windows counterpart. More importantly, the preview gave users insight into Microsoft's future development plans overall.

Throughout most of Microsoft's history, Windows has been its flagship product, and the company has tried to prevent customers from adopting competing operating systems by developing software almost exclusively for Windows. Under the leadership of CEO Satya Nadella, however, Microsoft has embraced some competing platforms.

Microsoft's newfound love of other platforms has been expressed primarily through its Office products. From the very beginning, Office has run on Apple's Mac OS X operating system and its predecessors -- one of the few nods Microsoft made to non-Windows users. Now, there are also Office mobile apps for Apple iOS and Google Android.

But Microsoft isn't stopping there. The company has launched a concerted effort to bring its server products into Linux environments.

The next version of SQL Server, currently called SQL Server vNext, will be the first time that Microsoft has ported a major server technology to a competing platform. Even so, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that SQL Server for Linux won't be an isolated case.

First steps on Linux, open source

Both Windows 10 and Windows Server 2016 illustrate Microsoft's commitment to the open source world. For example, Windows 10 includes a Bash shell for developing applications with Linux tools and commands. Similarly, Docker containers have made their way into Windows Server 2016. Even the 2016 version of Hyper-V Server, Microsoft's virtualization hypervisor, includes better support for Linux through features such as Secure Boot and the ability to hot-add memory and network adapters to Linux virtual machines.

Microsoft has also ported some of its other software to Linux besides SQL Server. Perhaps the best example was its decision to make PowerShell open source and to allow its use on Linux systems. Although some in the tech media dismissed putting PowerShell on Linux as unnecessary, or little more than a publicity stunt, making it open source was a critically important step for Microsoft.

PowerShell is a command line shell and scripting language for managing Windows Server and most other Microsoft server technologies. However, it isn't used just by systems administrators. Many Microsoft products use PowerShell internally to perform various tasks, giving them a deep dependency on it. By making PowerShell open source, Microsoft is essentially laying the foundation to allow it to port its server products to various Linux distributions.

Change from the new top down

Given Microsoft's seemingly radical departure from its Windows-only philosophy, one may question what's behind the company's change in attitude. Part of the change can undoubtedly be attributed to Nadella, who took over as CEO in 2014. Nadella needed to do whatever it took to rebuild Microsoft following the disastrous Steve Ballmer years, and the open source embrace seems to be a big part of his plan.

Microsoft faces a new reality: Although many enterprise data centers were once dominated by Windows servers, today's enterprises increasingly run a mix of operating systems, including Windows and Linux.

From a business standpoint, Microsoft must go where its customers have gone. Had it not brought SQL Server to Linux, organizations that needed to run a database on Linux would have had no choice but to choose a competing vendor, such as Oracle. With SQL Server for Linux, Microsoft is making an effort to increase its database market share in a rapidly changing IT world.

Microsoft's endgame appears to be to let users run SQL Server applications on any of the major platforms now available. SQL Server vNext can also be run in Docker containers.

When it released the public preview, the company told its customers that they will be able to "develop applications with SQL Server on Linux, Windows, Docker or [Mac OS X] (via Docker), and then deploy to Linux, Windows or Docker, on premises or in the cloud." Hence, Microsoft seems to be conceding the point that its customers don't only use Windows, and it now wants to make SQL Server available on whatever platform they do decide to use.

And there's likely more to come. Porting SQL Server to Linux is a huge step for Microsoft, but all signs point to the idea that it will eventually port other server products to the open source operating system.

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