This was the late 1990s, when Microsoft dominated the tech world, its Windows operating systems running so many of the world’s computers, from desktops and laptops to corporate workstations and servers. During the day, Russinovich built software for a tiny New Hampshire software company, but he spent his evenings and weekends looking for bugs, flaws, and secrets buried inside Microsoft’s newest and most important operating system, Windows NT. Sharing his findings with the press or posting them to the web, he frequently pissed off Microsoft, but never so completely as the time he exposed Windows NT as a fraud.
Windows NT represented Microsoft’s future–its core code would underpin the company’s operating systems for years to come–and at the time, it was sold in two flavors. One was for corporate workstations used by engineers, graphic designers, and the like, and the other was for servers. NT Workstation was much cheaper, but, unlike NT Server, it barred you from running web serving software, the software that delivers websites to people across the internet. Microsoft said that NT Workstation just wasn’t suited to the task. But then Russinovich reverse-engineered the two OSes and showed that the truth was something very different. NT Workstation, he revealed, was practically identical to NT Server. It wasn’t that the OS couldn’t run web serving software. Microsoft just didn’t want it to.
“The story shows that Microsoft is capable of change–however long that change might take”.
The ruse was typical of the software giant, a way of artificially shifting a market in its own favor. It could force all web serving onto a more expensive OS while still selling a cheaper version for other tasks. And after Russinovich exposed the practice, releasing a tool that let anyone transform NT Workstation into NT Server, the company responded in typical fashion. Days later, when employees from his New Hampshire company flew across the country to participate in a Microsoft event, Microsoft barred them from the building. But at the same time, the incident managed to bring Russinovich closer to the software giant. Even as his colleagues were shut out of the company, the head of Windows offered him a job.
Told by the six-foot, five-and-a-half-inch Russinovich in his wonderfully straightforward way, it’s a tale that lays bare the unapologetically ruthless attitude that pervaded Microsoft in the ’90s and on into the aughts, an attitude that brought it enormous success but also landed the company in hot water with regulators and ultimately hampered its ability to compete in the more open and collaborative world of the modern internet. But the postscript to the tale–where Jim Alchin, the head of Windows, tries to hire Russinovich–also shows that Microsoft is more complicated than you might expect, that the company is capable of change, however long that change might take.
When Alchin offered him the job, Russinovich didn’t take it. But after several more years spent running his Sysinternals site–where he published a steady stream of exposés that, in his words, “pissed off” Microsoft and other tech outfits–he did join the software giant. The company made him a Microsoft Technical Fellow–one of the highest honors it can bestow–and today, he’s one of the principal architects of Microsoft Azure, the cloud computing service that’s leading the company’s push into the modern world.
Russinovich is a symbol for a new Microsoft, a Microsoft that’s systematically changing its old ways. Mirroring the company’s technical evolution, he began his career in computer operating systems and has now moved into the cloud. But, more than that, he embodies a new Microsoft attitude. Russinovich has a long history with Microsoft–so he understands the old attitudes and how some of them can still help the company—but, like recently appointed CEO Satya Nadella, he also sees where the company has gone wrong and where it must now travel in order to compete in a world shaped by the Googles, the Facebooks, and the Amazons.
‘I feel that, more and more, Microsoft is embodying the values I’ve always had.’
Today’s Microsoft, he says, is closer to what he wants it to be. “I feel that, more and more, Microsoft is embodying the values I’ve always had,” Russinovich told us last month at Microsoft’s annual Build conference in San Francisco, a conference where the company open sourced its most important software development tools, freely sharing them with the world at large–the sort of thing it never would have done in years past.
Even in small ways, Russinovich belies the Microsoft stereotype. As those inside the company will tell you, he’s unafraid to speak his own mind–something you see not only when he tells the story of his Windows NT exposé, but when he looks back on the NSA spying scandal and its effect on Microsoft. “He’s an independent thinker,” says Rich Neves, who has worked with Russinovich both inside IBM’s research operation and at Microsoft. “He has what you call intellectual honesty.” And as science fiction fans will tell you, he’s more than just a corporate software engineer. He’s the author of three techno-thrillers–Zero Day, Trojan Horse, and Rogue Code–Michael Crichton-esque novels recently optioned by an independent film producer. But he’s also someone who’s actively pushing Microsoft’s into new places, most notably with Azure.
Azure didn’t begin with Russinovich. But, along with Nadella, he’s one of the primary thinkers who pulled the cloud service out of the old Microsoft mindset and turned it into something that can compete for the future. “He has real vision,” says HP cloud chief Bill Hilf, who once worked alongside Russinovich at Microsoft. “And he knows how to listen to customers.”
Cloud World Forum 2014
Speaker: Mark Russinovich
This session will highlight the importance of hybrid clouds whereby we need to use some elements of cloud-based technologies; say a paas for a particular application, maybe Salesforce as alongside existing in-house managed applications and services. This is because this is reality for most and we spend little time talking about the realities of managing such environments. Most cloud conversations tend to focus on how wonderful life will be once all our databases and apps are in the cloud; back on planet earth we have to deal with a much more complex environment; we may be benefitting from virtualisation within our own data centres but the challenge is extending the boundary to encompass applications on similar technologies in someone else’s data centres.