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Microsoft Lays Out Its 'Open Cloud' Vision

Microsoft used the occasion of an open source conference last month to advance its vision of an open cloud by breaking it down into four basic principles.

The principles were laid out by Jean Paoli, Microsoft's general manager for interoperability strategy, a group that coordinates with Microsoft's product teams. He spoke at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in Portland, OR (video). OSCON might not seem like the most welcoming venue for Microsoft, but Paoli has renown beyond being a Microsoft employee. He's a co-creator of the XML 1.0 standard in conjunction with the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) standards body.

More than anything, XML serves as an example of successful adoption of a standard. It's a good backdrop for Paoli's current interoperability career.

"You know, XML is really pervasive today; it's like electricity," Paoli said in a telephone interview. "I'm very humbled by the level of adoption in the world. I mean, even refrigerators have XML these days. It really became the backbone of interoperability of the Internet, literally, today."

Interoperability or Vendor Lock-in?
Interoperability questions currently seem complex when it comes to the Internet cloud. Organizations face questions about legal, logistical, and technical issues. Will companies have data and application portability in the future, or will they be locked into the vendor's cloud service platform?

Such prospects of vendor lock-in become even more unclear because standards are being debated even as cloud providers promote their platforms and deliver services. Players such as Amazon, Google, Rackspace, Salesforce.com, Microsoft, and others have adopted technologies that may not line up. An open cloud, if possible to achieve, seems to be an important prerequisite for providers and customers alike.

Paoli, speaking to open source software professionals at OSCON, outlined four "interoperability elements" that Microsoft put forth as essential for achieving an open cloud platform. Microsoft's main goal, at this point, is to advance the conversation, connecting with the open source community and customers, Paoli explained in a blog post.

The four cloud interoperability elements outlined by Paoli included:

  • Enabling portability for customer data;
  • Supporting commonly used standards;
  • Providing easy migration and deployment; and
  • Ensuring developer choice on languages, runtimes, and tools.

In Microsoft's case, it has built its Windows Azure cloud computing infrastructure as an "open platform" from the ground up, Paoli said.

"At the base, Azure has been built using the basic XML, REST, and WS protocols," he explained. And because of that, we are able to put multiple languages and tool support on top of it." Windows Azure supports the use of Visual Studio and the Eclipse development environments. It also supports different languages and runtimes, such as .NET, Java, PHP, Python, and Ruby.

Microsoft believes that customers own their data in the cloud, Paoli said. To support data portability in Windows Azure, Microsoft advocates the Open Data Protocol (OData).

"OData originated at Microsoft, and it just basically depends on JSON, XML, and REST," Paoli said. "And it enables you to do basic cloud operations--read, update, and queries and all of that--through a protocol that we opened up." He added that OData is used by IBM's WebSphere, as well as Microsoft's SQL Azure. Microsoft is currently discussing standardization of OData; organizations such as the W3C and OASIS are interested, Paoli said.

Microsoft prefers to rely on existing standards for the cloud. It has an Interoperability Bridges and Labs Center for collaboration with the community. It is working through multiple standards organizations with other vendors on the open cloud concept. And the standards talk already is happening, Paoli said. One of those forums is the Distributed Management Taskforce (DMTF).

"The DMTF ... is a standards body where this discussion around what to do for an open interoperable cloud is happening," Paoli said. "It's the same thing in ISO. Very recently, there is a new group called 'SB38' that has been created to also discuss the cloud, openness, standards and interoperability."

Clouds Are Moving Targets
The concept of an open cloud has come up before. In March 2009, the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum published the "Open Cloud Manifesto," which was backed by 53 companies, but support was missing from some of the larger players. Microsoft claimed at the time that it was excluded from participating in drafts of the document. Allegedly, IBM was lurking in the background and using the document to promote its views. The Open Cloud Manifesto eventually went nowhere; even its backers backed away from it.

So Microsoft's attempt to define an open cloud isn't the first. It's perhaps the third or fourth attempt, according to James Staten, an analyst with Forrester Research.

"One of the challenges here is that everyone acknowledges that it would great to do a common integration among these clouds," Staten said in a phone interview. "All of these clouds are moving targets. They're all adapting and maturing as they are figuring out what their market is, what their specialization is, and as they add new capabilities and change infrastructure choices. Most of them want to have some consistency on the interfaces customers use, but don't have the discipline to ensure that."

Would having open APIs solve the cloud interoperability dilemma? An OSCON debate on whether open APIs equate to an open cloud was resolved in favor of the idea that all cloud platforms entail vendor lock-in. Despite that view, Staten said that some APIs could be considered as candidates for standardization. He explained that some functions should happen the same way. Examples might include functions such as "provision new VM" and "store file," he said. However, despite mature APIs being offered by companies like Amazon, it would be unrealistic "to ask Rackspace, AT&T, Verizon and everybody else to agree on a common set of APIs," Staten said.

Staten added that "there's far more likelihood that there will be a few number of de facto means of integration that the majority of the markets adopt and therefore are easiest for customers to consume."

For those who want the open cloud to be more than just open APIs, there are efforts such as OpenStack, an open source cloud computing approach promoted by Rackspace and NASA. Others joining OpenStack include AMD, Citrix, Dell, iomart, and Spiceworks.

Standards to the Rescue?
Don't count on standards bodies to work things out at this point because standards always lag innovation, Staten said. In addition, "you don't get consensus in a contentious market," he added. Possibly, some progress may come from the DMTF, which is most influenced by VMware. The DMTF has a Cloud Interoperability Lab, which "is probably the likeliest place where this thing is going to play out," Staten said.

Forrester advises its clients looking to the cloud to "not wait for standards," Staten said.

"Pick the de factos [established cloud platform providers], wherein you're going to get business benefits because those are the safest bets," he said. "The de factos are the ones that have the highest probability of being the reference implementation of anything that becomes the standard."

He also advised organizations to develop an exit strategy from a cloud platform provider in place. Organizations must know what it entails to extract all of its data from the platform. Forrester doesn't rank cloud platform providers but depends on surveys as a guide. A "Developer Technographics" survey completed last fall found that developers preferred Amazon over any other cloud platform by a "four times to 10 times degree," Staten said.

Developer Concerns
Developers are greatly concerned with vendor lock-in prospects when it comes to cloud platforms, and service providers have taken notice, according to Janel Garvin, CEO at Evans Data Corp.

"Vendors now seem to understand that vendor lock-in is barrier to cloud, and most are trying to provide interoperability," Garvin stated via e-mail. "It's a significant issue, especially amongst large enterprises."

According to Evans Data's "Cloud Development Survey 2010, Volume I," half of all developers surveyed indicated a preference for greater interoperability with less functionality. They favored that option over having greater functionality with more vendor lock-in. However, that view shifted when surveying developers in large companies (more than 1,000 employees). At large companies, more than 60 percent of developers "shunned vendor lock-in," Garvin explained. They preferred having greater interoperability, even if that meant having less functionality.

Respondents in the Evans Data developer survey picked Google as "the perceived leader for setup, infrastructure and application management in a public cloud," according to an Evans Data released statement. Microsoft was ranked third, after Amazon. However, IBM was perceived as "the top private cloud provider."

Cloud migration (both content and applications) was important for three quarters of the developers surveyed by Evans Data. The study pointed to "Red Hat's Cloud Access and VMware's vCloud Service Director" as solutions to help make such migrations easier. Developers nearly equally relied on hypervisors from VMware and Microsoft for virtualization in the public cloud, according to the survey.

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