Microsoft is expected to make available for free its Services for Unix software, which helps integrate Unix and Windows and supports migrations of Unix applications to the Microsoft platform.

The software is seen as a key tool in Microsoft’s battle against Unix and Linux. Microsoft has been feeling the heat from the growing popularity of Linux, as well as losing potential Unix converts to the open source platform. It hopes that the free integration software will be just another reason to stay on the Windows platform.

Previously, Microsoft charged US$99 for the software but Services for Unix 3.5 will be available starting as a free download from Microsoft’s website. The 3.5 version adds support for Windows XP Professional and Windows Server 2003, in addition to the existing support of Windows 2000. Microsoft, however, is dropping support of Windows NT 4.0 workstation and server, according to company officials.

Services for Unix 3.5 provides the tools and sub-systems to integrate Unix or Linux with the Windows platform. It also allows users to support the migration of Unix applications to Windows.

"Free is a smart strategy," says Laura DiDio, an analyst with the Yankee Group. "Microsoft is trying to make good and trying to make better with its customers. I’m impressed with what they are doing. They have learned from their mistakes and they don’t want to repeat the sins of past years." One of those sins, DiDio says, was changes in the company’s software licensing program, which served to alienate users.

Services for Unix 3.5 has been upgraded with performance improvements to Network File System (NFS) and Network Information Services (NIS), which are both de facto Unix standards.

"The NFS file system is within 10 percent of the native Win32 file system performance," says Dennis Oldroyd, director of marketing for the Windows server group at Microsoft.

Microsoft has also improved the ability to recompile Unix and Linux applications to run on Windows by adding support for PThreads, or Portable Operating System Interface for UNIX threads, which allows multiple tasks to run concurrently within the same application.

Microsoft has also enhanced integration with Active Directory, which allows users to manage NIS domains from the Microsoft directory. The integration, along with applications from third-party vendors, will help Microsoft flesh out its emerging identity management strategy.

One such partner, Vintela, has upgraded its Vintela Authentication Services (VAS) for Services for Unix 3.5. The VAS software runs on Unix servers and workstations and uses Kerberos, or LDAP, for authentication instead of NIS.

"Ours is a NIS migration strategy, you don’t run NIS on your network any longer," says Matt Peterson, CTO for Vintela. "We are the holy grail of identity management. People want integration not synchronisation (between Unix and Windows)."

Microsoft’s Oldroyd said Services for Unix would remain a separate product and there are no immediate plans to bundle it or build it into the Windows operating system even though Microsoft has the right to do so under a licensing agreement it signed with The SCO Group last year.