In what Microsoft itself described as "a break from the ordinary," the software giant this week took the unusual step of releasing software code directly to the Linux community using the GNU Public License (GPL). The release consists of 20,000 lines of device-driver source code. And while some will seek to find a conspiratorial reason for this event, the rationale is purely pragmatic: Microsoft recognizes that many of its corporate customers use Linux as well as Windows, and its new Linux drivers will allow the open-source OS to run in "enlightened" mode under the Hyper-V virtualization platform, providing it with the same performance and interoperability advantages as virtualized versions of Windows.

"Our strategy is to enhance interoperability between the Windows platform and many open-source technologies, which includes Linux, to provide the choices our customers are asking for," says Microsoft Platform Director Sam Ramji. "We are hearing more and more customers and open-source partners telling us they see some of their best value when they deploy new open-source software solutions on top of existing Microsoft platforms. Today's release would have been unheard of from Microsoft a few years ago, but it's a prime example that customer demand is a powerful catalyst for change."

Microsoft's release of Linux drivers is historic in some ways. It represents the first time the software giant has released software code directly to the Linux community. More significant, perhaps, Microsoft released that code under the once-hated GPL, which the company noted "is the Linux community's preferred license."

Previous to this release, Linux could run on top of Hyper-V, the virtualization component of Windows Server 2008 and Server 2008 R2. But it could only do so using traditional virtualization technologies, which come with associated performance limitations. However, Hyper-V offers a better performance mode for virtualized environments. To use this so-called "enlightened mode," the underlying device drivers must be specifically designed to interact with the underlying OS in a more sophisticated fashion. Previously, Microsoft had created enlightened drivers for various Windows versions.

Microsoft has a longer history of working with the open-source community than some would believe. The company cites the following examples: work with the PHP community to improve the PHP Engine and optimize PHP for Windows, participation in various projects associated with the Apache web server, and work with the Firefox community to optimize the alternative web browser for Windows Vista and Windows Media Player