Samba logoIt's been a long time coming, but version 4.0 of Samba, the open source implementation of the SMB protocol at the heart of Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) ubiquitous Active Directory platform, has finally debuted. And for the first time, it promises to function as a complete replacement for AD functionality in its entirety.

This news may not please Microsoft, but its largest impact is likely to be not in Redmond but within the open source channel, where Samba 4.0 presents a free alternative to similar commercial packages that have been around for a longer time.

Samba, which traces its roots to the early 1990s, has been a staple of the Unix world for decades. It provides a vital solution for connecting Linux and other open source operating systems to IT infrastructures based on Microsoft Active Directory, the platform on which virtually every enterprise computing environment today is based.

Until version 4.0 came along, however, Samba wasn't capable of replicating all of the functionality associated with AD. Now, that has finally changed. According to the project developers, "Samba 4.0 provides everything needed to serve as an Active Directory Compatible Domain Controller for all versions of Microsoft Windows clients currently supported by Microsoft, including the recently released Windows 8."

That means it is now possible to use Samba--which is available in full at no charge under the open-source GNU General Public License version 3--as a complete replacement for the AD infrastructure that previously required licensed Microsoft software. In this way, Samba 4 better positions the open source channel to compete against Microsoft.

Open Source vs. Open Source

But the bigger implications of this change are likely to be felt within the open source channel. Vendors such as BeyondTrust, which in 2011 acquired the AD integration platform for Linux previously known as Likewise, and Centrify provide popular commercial solutions for connecting Linux, Mac OS X and other Unix-like workstations and servers to AD environments via value-added tools that are generally based on Samba and other open source technologies. With a bigger and better base distribution of Samba available for free, those vendors will have to work harder to convince customers that their value-added offerings are worth the extra cost.

In many cases, that is unlikely to be too difficult. After all, the new features that have officially been integrated into Samba with the 4.0 release have already been available for a while--years, actually--in experimental form within the Samba code, so VARs have had plenty of time to prepare for Samba 4.0's coming. And the announcement of Samba 4.0's capabilities is not news to anyone familiar with the project.

More importantly, a great deal of the attraction of solutions such as BeyondTrust's and Centrify's is about ease of use, not technical features. Although Samba developers rewrote a lot of the underlying code in the latest version of their platform, installing and maintaining it still requires more than a little technical know-how, as well as a willingness to work from the command line and edit configuration files that can sometimes be a bit arcane. In contrast, the value-added tools promise AD integration that can be as simple as a few keystrokes or clicks.

Still, Samba 4.0 is likely to drive BeyondTrust and Centrify, and others like them, to pursue further innovation in their niche to ensure the continued value of their platforms. And that will be a welcome move throughout the channel, where user-friendly, feature-rich alternatives to expensive proprietary software are always in vogue.