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Linux is now beating Windows on Microsoft’s own turf, and Azure is better for it

Jonathan Terrasi
According to remarks by a developer at Microsoft, there are now more instances of Linux-based operating systems running on the company's Azure cloud platform than Windows-based ones.

A Linux kernel developer working with Microsoft has let slip that Linux-based operating systems have a larger presence on Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform than Windows-based ones. The revelation appeared on an Openwall open-source security list in an application for Microsoft developers to join the list, and was apparently part of an evidently credible argument that Microsoft plays an active-enough role in Linux development to merit including the company in security groups.

The overwhelming prevalence of Linux on Microsoft’s cloud platform may come as a surprise when viewed in isolation, but it makes complete sense from a business perspective. To start with, it’s simply cheaper to run Linux on Azure, as Microsoft’s own price calculator illustrates as clear as day. In this respect, Microsoft basically forced its own hand in terms of monetizing OS licensing into a consistent revenue stream, since Windows 10 Home is essentially free (if you don’t count the “Windows tax“) and Windows 10 Pro works out to a one-and-done revenue opportunity with many enterprise customers.

The fact that Linux conforms closely (enough) to the Unix structure and philosophy also makes Linux instances easier to manage. Because Unix is so prolific, basically any system administrator will instantly be at home in the Linux file system, and the saved time and headaches translate pretty quickly into saved dollars and cents, not to mention fewer complications posed by downtime.

Linux’s dominance also fits perfectly in the context of its gradual, deliberate integration into Microsoft’s long-term development and innovation vision. When Microsoft first proclaimed its love for Linux in 2014, many industry professionals, especially in the open-source sphere, were skeptical, but from that point on, Linux has been rolling steadily ahead at Microsoft. Initially, Microsoft’s embrace of Linux manifested as the Windows Subsystem for Linux, a curiosity mostly aimed at developers.

Last year, though, the company announced Azure Sphere, a cloud-connected platform for internet of things (IoT) devices which includes Azure Sphere OS, an in-house headless Linux-based operating system. This was a masterstroke for Microsoft — even a stripped-down Windows OS is far too bloated to run on practically any IoT device, but most IoT manufacturers could benefit from a secure, off-the-shelf IoT solution to replace their own ill-conceived attempts. Azure Sphere was designed specifically to fill this void.

Taken together, it’s easy to see how the numerous Linux options Microsoft offers on Azure alone — to say nothing of the deeper integration Linux is getting on the Windows 10 desktop — outflanks the comparatively more limited options and higher cost associated with running Windows on Azure. At the rate at which the company finds new and inventive applications for Linux, this trend looks set to continue, and Microsoft seems just fine with that.

Updated on July 15, 2019: Revised with additional information from Microsoft regarding Azure Sphere.