“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” – Mohandas Gandhi quote at Red Hat headquarters.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Did you feel the earthquake that shook the software world Monday morning just before 11? That’s when Red Hat disclosed a partnership with Microsoft to further the adoption of virtualization.

The Gandhi quote that dominates the lobby at Red Hat’s headquarters suddenly means much more. The little guys are suddenly much bigger in the eyes of the giant.

Egad, what’s next – the Borg (critics love to call Bill Gates just that) makes peace with Jean Luc Picard (maybe we can use Epic Games’ Unreal engine to render a red fedora on Picard’s bald scalp rather than that fedora he wore as a detective in the holodeck!).

The agreement between the Raleigh-based Linux flag-bearer and Microsoft, the epitome of proprietary solutions, simply is earth-shaking. Yes, the agreement is limited to virtualization; yes, the legal scuffling between the two firms over intellectual property goes on; yes, Microsoft is the Great Satan and Red Hat is the freeloader, depending upon one’s point of view.

Still, this deal could set an amazing precedent. Will Red Hat now make peace with Larry Ellison and Oracle, perhaps even Novell? Ellison has made no secret of his disdain for Red Hat in the past. What will he do now? And Novell already is a Judas in the eyes of many in the open-source world for being the first major player to partner with the Microsoft devil. Does the Microsoft-Red Hat partnership mean bad news for Novell?

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat’s still new chief executive officer, certainly wrapped up his first year on the job with a stunner. But he had given a hint of the Hatters’ willingness to partner with anyone in what he called a State of the Red Hat Union blog just a few days ago.

“I’ve met with customers and partners all over the world during the past 13 months and have heard great stories about companies who are not only consumers of Red Hat and open source, but who have also contributed back,” he wrote. “While this is great news, I’d like to develop even deeper relationships with our customers and work together more closely to develop solutions that serve real needs and solve real problems. This continues to be a top priority as we move into 2009 as truly collaborative partnerships are instrumental to delivering value to Red Hat customers.”

But collaboration with Microsoft?

Whitehurst isn’t quite ready to smoke a peace pipe with the Borg, let alone surrender. He also noted in that blog the Hatters would “keep fighting the good fight.”

“There is a Mohandas Gandhi quote that covers the full length of the lobby at Red Hat’s Raleigh headquarters: ‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.’ As I walk through the doors each day, this is a constant reminder of the open source ideals that are the foundation of everything we do at Red Hat,” he wrote.

“While Red Hat may be small in comparison to the proprietary giants we challenge, our open-source culture promotes the free exchange of ideas and enables us to deliver better software, faster. With an endless abundance of creative thinking and collaboration, I’m proud to say that Red Hat is well-equipped to continue to fight the good fight.”

Meanwhile, the earth keeps shaking.