Developers of open-source Samba software will find their work a little easier thanks to a deal with Microsoft, signed on Thursday, that will give them access to previously secret data on how the Windows operating system works.

Microsoft was compelled to make this information available following a European Commission antitrust ruling against the company in March 2004. In July 2006, the EU fined Microsoft €280.5m for failing to provide documentation on Windows protocols to its rivals. Microsoft lost an appeal of that decision in September, setting the stage for the deal.

The deal was signed with a nonprofit group called the Protocol Freedom Information Foundation, (PFIF) which negotiated on behalf of the Samba team because Samba is not represented by a corporate entity. PFIF will pay a one-time fee of €10,000 and, in return, will be able to allow open-source developers, including the Samba team, to access the documents.

Developers will have to sign non-disclosure agreements and will not be allowed to redistribute Microsoft's documentation, but they will be able to write open-source software that implements the Windows protocols. The deal will also clarify which patents Microsoft believes are related to this technology, making it easier for open-source developers to avoid patent violations.

Antitrust rulings have forced Microsoft to set up protocol-licensing programs in the past, including the Microsoft Communications Protocol Program (MCPP) and the Work Group Server Protocol Program (WSPP), but these efforts were not compatible with open-source software licenses. That is apparently not a problem with the PFIF agreement.


"They're giving us all the documentation to make everything work," said Jeremy Allison, co-author of Samba. "We will have no more excuses to suck, if we don't have something, we won't be able to say it’s not our fault we don’t know how to do it."

Samba is an open-source version of the file-and-print software used by Windows. It is a standard component of the Linux and Unix operating systems, allowing these systems to share data and work alongside Windows clients.

But development of Samba has traditionally been back-breaking work. Developers would analyse network traffic to try to glean how Windows was working and then build their software based on that knowledge - a process called reverse-engineering.

With the new agreement, developers will have access to Microsoft's own protocol specifications and will be able to build their software based on those documents, Allison said. That, in turn, will accelerate the team's development of its next generation of software, which will implement the new Sever Message Block (SMB) 2.0 protocol, used by Windows Vista.

Though the deal was reached on Thursday, developers were still waiting for the final technical aspects of the document hand-over to be settled, Allison said. He expects to get his hands on the technical specifications fairly soon. "I'm guessing that for my Christmas vacation I'll have some enjoyable things to read," he said.