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Microsoft Brings Cloud Interoperability Down to Earth

Governments and businesses alike are looking at cloud services as a way to consolidate IT infrastructure

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An interoperable cloud could help companies cut costs and governments connect constituents, say Microsoft executives.

Governments and businesses alike are looking at cloud services as a way to consolidate IT infrastructure, scale their IT systems for the future, and enable innovative services and activities that were not possible before.

To help organizations realize the benefits of cloud services, technology vendors are investing in the hard work of identifying and solving the challenges presented by operating in mixed IT environments, and are collaborating to ensure that their products work well together.

In fact, although the industry is still in the early stages of collaborating on cloud interoperability issues, there has already been considerable progress. But what does ‘cloud interoperability’ mean, and how is it benefiting people today?

Cloud interoperability is specifically about one cloud solution, such as Windows Azure, being able to work with other platforms and other applications, not just other clouds. Customers also want the flexibility to run applications either locally or in the cloud, or on a combination of the two. Microsoft is collaborating with others in the industry and working hard to ensure that the promise of cloud interoperability becomes a reality.

Leading Microsoft’s interoperability efforts are general managers Craig Shank and Jean Paoli. Shank spearheads the company’s interoperability work on global standards and public policy, while Paoli collaborates with Microsoft’s product teams as they map product strategies to customers’ needs.

Shank says one of the main attractions of the cloud is the degree of flexibility and control it gives customers: ‘There’s a tremendous level of creative energy around cloud services right now — and the industry is exploring new ideas and scenarios together all the time. Our goal is to preserve that flexibility through an open approach to cloud interoperability.’

Adds Paoli, ‘This means continuing to create software that’s more open from the ground up, building products that support the existing standards, helping customers use Microsoft cloud services together with open source technologies such as PHP and Java, and ensuring that our existing products work with the cloud.’

Shank and Paoli firmly believe that welcoming competition and choice will make Microsoft more successful in the future. ‘This may seem surprising,’ notes Paoli, ‘but it creates more opportunities for its customers, partners and developers.’

With all the excitement around the cloud, Shank says it’s easy to lose sight of the payoff. ‘To be clear, cloud computing has enormous potential to stimulate economic growth and enable governments to reduce costs and expand services to citizens.’

The public sector provides a great example of the real-world benefits of cloud interoperability, and Microsoft is already delivering results in this area through solutions such as the Eye on Earth project. Working with the European Environment Agency, Microsoft is helping the agency simplify the collection and processing of environmental information for use by government officials and the general public. Using a combination of Windows Azure, Microsoft SQL Azure and pre-existing Linux technologies, Eye on Earth pulls data from 22,000 water monitoring points and 1,000 stations that monitor air quality. It then helps synthesize this information and makes it available for people to access in real time in 24 languages.

This level of openness and interoperability doesn’t happen by accident. ‘The technical work of interoperability is challenging, and it requires a commitment to our customers’ needs as well as a concerted effort on multiple fronts and a measured, pragmatic approach in how technology is developed,’ Paoli says. Microsoft’s efforts in this area include designing its cloud services to be interoperable. The Windows Azure platform, for example, supports a variety of standards and protocols. Developers can write applications to Windows Azure using PHP, Java, Ruby or the Microsoft .NET Framework.

Many of these product developments are the result of diverse feedback channels that Microsoft has developed with its partners, customers and other vendors.

For example, in 2006 Microsoft created the Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council, a group of 35 chief technology officers and chief information officers from organizations around the world. They meet twice a year in Redmond to discuss their interoperability issues and provide feedback to Microsoft executives such as Microsoft Server and Tools President Bob Muglia.

In addition, last week Microsoft published a progress report, sharing for the first time operational details and results achieved by the Council across six work streams, or priority areas. And the Council recently commissioned the creation of a seventh work stream for cloud interoperability, aimed at developing various standards related to the cloud, working through business scenarios and priorities such as data portability, and establishing privacy, security, and service policies around cloud computing.

Microsoft also participates in the Open Cloud Standards Incubator, a working group formed by the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF), a consortium through which more than 200 technology vendors and customers develop new standards for systems management. AMD, Cisco, HP, IBM, Microsoft, Red Hat and VMware are among a handful of IT vendors that lead the Open Cloud Standards Incubator, creating technical specifications and conducting research to expedite adoption of new cloud interoperability standards.

Developers also play a critical role. Microsoft is part of Simple Cloud, an effort it co-founded with Zend Technologies, IBM and Rackspace designed to help developers write basic cloud applications that work on all of the major cloud platforms.

Microsoft is also engaging in the collaborative work of building technical ‘bridges’ between Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies, such as the recently released Windows Azure Software Development Kits (SDKs) for PHP and Java and tools for Eclipse version 1.0, the new Windows Azure platform AppFabric SDKs for Java, PHP and Ruby, the SQL CRUD Application Wizard for PHP, and the Bing 404 Web Page Error Toolkit for PHP. Each is an example of the Microsoft Interoperability team’s yearlong work with partners to bring core scenarios to life.

Though the industry is still in the early stages of collaborating on cloud interoperability issues, great progress has already been made. The average user may not realize it, but this progress has had a significant positive impact on the way in which we work and live today.

Cloud interoperability requires a broad perspective and creative, collaborative problem-solving. Looking ahead, Microsoft will continue to support an open dialogue among the different stakeholders in the industry and community to define cloud principles and incorporate all points of view to ensure that in this time of change, there is a world of choice.

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More Stories By Alin Irimie

Alin Irimie is a software engineer - architect, designer, and developer with over 10 years experience in various languages and technologies. Currently he is Messaging Security Manager at Sunbelt Software, a security company. He is also the CTO of RADSense Software, a software consulting company. He has expertise in Microsoft technologies such as .NET Framework, ASP.NET, AJAX, SQL Server, C#, C++, Ruby On Rails, Cloud computing (Amazon and Windows Azure),and he also blogs about cloud technologies here.

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