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Microsoft Unveils Interoperability Council Efforts

Microsoft on Friday described what it has been doing to improve software interoperability, especially through its Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council.

The IEC Council, formed in June 2006 by Microsoft, is a corporate outreach effort designed to address the interoperability concerns of Microsoft's customers and other software companies. Bob Muglia, president of Microsoft's Server & Tools Division, directs the council's efforts. The council has existed for nearly four years, but Microsoft has just now publicized the details.

"This is the first time we have gone public with any of the operational details and results achieved by the council," stated Kamaljit Bath, a Microsoft principal program manager and technical lead for the IEC Council, in a blog post.

The council's organization is described in a 26-page Microsoft white paper (PDF, 1.25MB). Essentially, Microsoft has worked with its partners and IEC Council members to address six specific "work streams" where interoperability is the focus. These work streams address the following areas:

  • Office productivity and collaboration tools.
  • Identity management.
  • Business process modeling and service-oriented architecture.
  • Systems management.
  • Developer tools and runtime.
  • Public interoperability policy.

In addition, the IEC "recently commissioned a seventh work stream for cloud interoperability," according to an announcement issued by Microsoft on Monday. Microsoft general managers Craig Shank and Jean Paoli provide the leadership on this cloud interoperability effort. The focus is to enable one cloud platform to work with other cloud platforms, as well as other applications, according to Microsoft's announcement.

The IEC Council has found 50 interoperability issues that apply to Microsoft and the broader software industry. Microsoft and its collaborators have addressed some of them either through "integrating features into Microsoft products," "developing open source bridges between products" or by initiating "protocol documentation, standards evolution, and third-party products," according to Microsoft's white paper.

Microsoft's public image hasn't always seemed to be about promoting interoperability. The company has faced antitrust litigation both in the United States and Europe over competition issues, as well as claims by rival software companies that Windows did not play well with other companies' software products, such as servers. In February 2008, Microsoft issued its "interoperability principles" and pledged to document its APIs. In the case of Windows, the documentation has been overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice in an effort coordinated by Muglia.

Microsoft has also teamed with software vendors on open source interoperability, such as its controversial deal with Novell to enable the interoperability of Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise operating system with Windows. Another example is Microsoft's work with Zend to boost the performance of PHP code on Windows.

With the announcement of the IEC Council, Microsoft appears to have institutionalized its interoperability efforts, even though its collaboration efforts with other software companies aren't new.

"Microsoft has always worked with other companies on interoperability for specific purposes," stated Rob Helm, managing vice president of research at Directions on Microsoft, in an e-mail. "The antitrust cases turned interoperability from something done case-by-case into a corporate imperative."

Microsoft also faces some risks in becoming more open. For example, Google came out with Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook, which allows Outlook users to connect with Google's e-mail servers instead of Microsoft Exchange. Helm cited other such challenges for Microsoft, such as Cisco's PostPath, as well as productivity suites that can read and write Microsoft Office file formats. However, competitor interoperability with Microsoft products may not cause customers to budge from Microsoft's products.

"The question for a customer considering such competitors is always going to be: Is it really going to be cheaper to move to a competitor instead of Microsoft's next version, when migration and training costs are added in?" Helm noted.

Microsoft's announcement suggested that Microsoft even welcomes the competition.

"This may seem surprising, but it [competition] creates more opportunities for its [Microsoft's] customers, partners and developers," Paoli said in a released statement.

Microsoft's latest IEC Council effort on supporting cloud computing interoperability may represent a particularly difficult effort. Microsoft is launching commercial pricing for its Windows Azure cloud computing services on Tuesday. As such, Microsoft is just starting to compete with cloud platform providers such as Amazon, IBM and Google. An earlier effort on establishing cloud computing interoperability, initiated by the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum, was killed after Microsoft complained that the process wasn't open.

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is online news editor, Enterprise Group, at 1105 Media Inc.

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