Why Microsoft needs to ‘own’ WordPress


WordPress running on Windows Azure.

You can see it announced, discussed and showcased from the 23:56 minute mark in Ray Ozzie’s opening keynote at Microsoft PDC this week:

Ray Ozzie announcing WordPress on Azure - click to view the video of the keynote

The reason this is so significant is because it represents an important strategic shift in the ‘yes we do support open source’ talk that Microsoft has been peddling pushing. This announcement is much more than Microsoft just supporting open source. This is about embracing open source.

The WordPress announcement came as part of a broader revelation about Azure now supporting PHP, MySQL, Java and other non-Microsoft offerings. As Ray noted in his keynote:

Reaching all developers is incredibly important to us…

But don’t be too distracted by that for now. Here WordPress is the key. Let’s take a look at why.

First, we need to note that Microsoft has been targeting open source for a while. Sam Ramji said as much two years ago in an interview with Mary Jo Foley when he outlined Microsoft’s objective for open-source: get it running on top of Windows and SQL Server. Here’s the slide he used:

Microsoft's open source 'strategy' - run open source on top of Windows

Source: ZDNet.com – All About Microsoft

Mary Jo summarises it nicely:

Microsoft is looking at open-source software (OSS) as just another flavor of independent software vendors (ISV) software. Microsoft’s goal is to convince OSS vendors to port their software to Windows. But Microsoft doesn’t want OSS software to just sit on top of Windows; the company wants this software to be tied into the Windows ecosystem by integrating with Active Directory, Microsoft Office, Expression designer tools, System Center systems-management wares and SQL Server database.

When it came to open source, Microsoft’s vision was for Windows Server to be the foundation. As long as you had Windows underpinning the solution, they didn’t mind what you had running on top. In their ideal world you’d be building Windows + SQL Server+ .NET, but in a non-ideal world Windows + My SQL + PHP is fine. As long as it ran on their servers…

After all, the Server market is one of Microsoft best divisions (source: Microsoft Results) with Server and Tools the only division to grow over the last 12 months).

Microsoft FY09 Report card

Source: Microsoft Investor Relations briefing – slide 2 of CFO Chris Liddell’s presentation (PPT download)

But how do you grow an already significant division?

One way is to analyse what functions those servers are providing and look for opportunities… Turns out most of Microsoft’s server usage is internal to companies and there’s a big opportunity on the web.

Consider the following web statistics and WordPress in particular.

Web Server Statistics

  • As of May 2009, Apache dominates the web server landscape with 71% of all domains world wide residing on an Apache server (source: Security Space). That’s roughly 26.3 million domains.
  • Microsoft by comparison has 17% of the market with 6.3 million domains. Narrowing this to just the .com domains and the results are still similar (68% versus 20%).

Note: figures differ widely depending on who reports them, and what they include. The above stats likely include parked domains, and are thus not necessarily indicative of ‘real world’ domain use.

Note 2: whilst Apache will run on Windows of course, it is very difficult to find a breakdown of the stats. It is likely to be a very small percentage.

PHP language statistics

  • More than 5 million PHP developers worldwide (source: Zend)
  • PHP is used by many leading web sites including Yahoo and Facebook.
  • As at October 2008 PHP was on approximately 33% of web servers world wide (source: Nexen).

WordPress Statistics

In August 2008 Matt Mullenweg reported that WordPress.org (the self-hosted version) had 2.6 million active installed blogs in the wild (source: TechCrunch). This from a company that only got off the ground in 2003. By far the majority of these are running on Apache.

Summary of Statistics

  • The web largely runs on PHP and Apache with 26.3 million domains.
  • Microsoft in total has 6.3 million domains.
  • WordPress alone has 2.6 million domains.

An Opportunity for Microsoft?

When you consider that Microsoft dominates server market share globally (more than 75% of servers run Microsoft) but only hosts 17% of web domains (as per the numbers above), you can see there is a big opportunity. Just imagine for instance if all those WordPress sites were running on Microsoft…

Windows Server Momentum

Perhaps that’s why Microsoft has been actively promoting Windows Server as the premier platform for open source. Consider this slide from Microsoft’s COO Kevin Turner delivered during their recent Investor Relations briefing:

Microsoft Server market share

Source: Microsoft Investor Relations briefing – slide 10 of COO Kevin Turner’s presentation (PPT download)

Yes, even the COO understands the value of open source to Microsoft now!

And to a certain extent Microsoft has been supporting various open source initiatives for a while.

Where Microsoft has been heading

Here’s some of the approaches Microsoft has been using to date.

1. Understanding when to ‘embrace’ versus when to ‘compete’

Instead of dismissing PHP as a threat and putting forward all kinds of bogus apples-vs-oranges comparisons of PHP versus .NET, Microsoft has been gently managing the perception of the languages. This is a smart move, especially since they are now in the process of embracing the language.

You can expect to see more and more guidance coming from Microsoft indicating where and when each language can be used. A cynical person might even suggest there will be less animosity between PHP and ASP.NET than there is between C# and VB.NET developers :-)

This builds on much of the work Microsoft has been doing with PHP over the last few years. It’s not that Microsoft hasn’t been involved, rather it’s just that they haven’t been talking about it much. That’s changing.

Here’s a few examples of where Microsoft has been focussing on PHP:

  • Expression Web. Microsoft has provided a beautiful PHP development environment with its Expression Web product (take a look – it’s pretty good).
  • SQL Server. Microsoft has been providing PHP SQL Server connectivity since the SQL 2000 days (read the Microsoft PHP SQL Server blog for more on that front).
  • IIS7. Microsoft did a lot of work to ensure PHP performance on Windows 2008 and IIS7 was impressive. Time flies, because this has been the case for over 3 years now.

2. Discussing open source

Part of the problem had been lack of promotion of these tools but this has also been changing over the last 12 months. Whereas previous open-source discussions have been little more than ugly-sister recommendations or pushes to open-source contributions using Microsoft technologies, lately there has been more discussion about using non-Microsoft open-source technologies.

For example, at the recent ReMIX conference I was impressed by Nick Hodges’ session on Open Source (view the entire session here). The reason this was impressive was not so much because the session (or the panel) was spell-binding, but rather that Nick was keen to get people talking about open-source from a variety of industries including those not using Microsoft technologies.

This may seem like a small thing, but it represents a willingness for Microsoft (locally at least) to learn and engage with others. It’s shows a reduction in the Microsoft-versus-Others mentality and an increase in the Microsoft-with-Others mindset.

Other examples include the fireside chats Nick and Jorke Odolphi have been having around the country.

3. Microsoft Web Platform Installer

The Web Platform Installer is now in its second version, and provides a simple yet powerful way to implement numerous open source, PHP and non-Microsoft application frameworks on your Windows box. Scott Guthrie’s rundown of the Web Platform Installer post indicates Microsoft places some importance on the success of Web PI.

4. CodePlex.org

Actually this is a bit of side track to the discussion we are having here, so I’ve only mentioned it for interest. You can read my thoughts on CodePlex.org in a previous post here.

5. Improving Relationships with Hosting Partners

There’s a few problems Microsoft is still in the process of solving. But they aren’t technical ones. They are partnering ones.

Consider something simple like URL rewriting. This is a basic need of any web site, and whilst Apache based hosting companies had this sorted years ago, they are still significant hurdles on IIS hosted sites. GoDaddy for example, one of the largest hosting companies in the world, still hasn’t provided support for the Microsoft URL rewriter modules.

Basic issues like this need to be remedied immediately (especially since the technical solutions have been available for more than a year now). And that’s been part of what Microsoft’s Architecture and IT Pro Evangelists have been focusing on.

Microsoft has recognised it needs to be putting huge effort into building a dedicated team of technical specialists that worked with every major Windows hosting company on the planet, ensuring they all provided rock-solid, no brainer PHP support along with all the required plug-ins such as the URL re-writers.

So that’s been Microsoft’s process so far. But it doesn’t really speak in any mainstream way to developers and IT Pros. But that all changed with this weeks’ announcement at PDC.

Windows Azure

Windows Azure is a highly visible, major mainstream play by Microsoft.

Windows Azure

Bob Muglia finished his keynote appearance with the following statement:

There’s no question that the Cloud is the next generation application model. And Microsoft will take you there.

Microsoft considers their so-called ‘3 Screens and a Cloud’ strategy as being absolutely vital to their continued success.

To embrace open-source as a key component in this infrastructure alignment is a significant indicator of Microsoft’s willingness to adapt, and one that perfectly facilitates Sam Ramji’s and Kevin Turner’s ambitions for open source adoption.

To partner with WordPress as a highly credible endorsement of the strategy is a wonderfully clever move.


By Craig Bailey