OOXML and open clouds: Microsoft's lessons learned

From conflation to inflation

Microsoft may submit its OData web data protocol for standards ratification, but seems eager to avoid the bruising it received on OOXML.

Jean Paoli, Microsoft's interoperability strategy general manager and one of the co-inventors of the original XML whose work ultimately went into OOXML, told The Reg that Microsoft might submit OData to the W3C or OASIS.

OData is on a list of both Microsoft and non-Microsoft technologies that the company is touting as one answer to moving data between clouds and providing interoperability. Data interoperability is a major cause of concern as the initial euphoria of the cloud evaporates leaving a headache of practical concerns such as: how do I move my data to a new cloud should I choose?

Paoli, speaking after Microsoft unveiled its four principles of cloud interoperability recently, said Microsoft and the industry should reuse existing standards as much as possible to solve interoperability problems.

He also believes, though, that the cloud will create new situations in the next three to five years that people can't currently foresee and that'll need new standards to manage. "With the cloud there's new scenarios we don't know about," Paoli said.

The last time Microsoft got involved with portability of data it was about document formats, and things turned nasty given that Microsoft is the biggest supplier of desktop productivity apps with Office, and SharePoint is increasingly Microsoft's back-end data repository.

While open sourcers, IBM, Red Hat, Sun Microsystems and others lined up to establish the Open Document Format (ODF) as an official standard, Microsoft predictably went its own way.

Rather than open Office to ODF, Microsoft instead proposed Office Open XML (OOXML) in a standards battle that saw accusations flying that Microsoft had loaded the local standards voting processes to force through OOXML so it wouldn't have to fully open up.

Then there were the real-world battles, as government bodies began to mandate they'd only accept documents using ODF. Things came to a head in the cradle of the American revolution, Massachusetts, which declared for ODF but then also accepted OOXML following intense political lobbying by Microsoft, while the IT exec who'd made the call for ODF resigned his post.

The sour grapes of OOXML ratification, followed by the bitter pills of local politics, left people feeling Microsoft had deliberately fragmented data openness to keep a grip through Office.

Paoli was once one of Microsoft's XML architects who designed the XML capabilities of Office 2003, the first version of Office to implement OOXML. Today he leads a team of around 80 individuals who work with other Microsoft product groups on interoperability from strategy to coding.

What lessons did Microsoft lean from OOXML that it can apply to pushing data portability in the cloud?

"I think collaboration is important in general and communication," Paoli said. "I think we did a very poor job of communications a long time ago and I think we need to communicate better. People did not understand what we were trying to do [on OOXML]."

This time Paoli said that Microsoft is going into the standards bodies and open-source communities to discuss ways of working together on cloud interoperability, identity, and application deployment. Results from conversations will be posted back to a new Microsoft site listing those four principles of cloud interoperability here.

On OData, Paoli was keen to point out how the technology uses the existing and widely accepted HTTP, JSON, and AtomPub. "We want to deepen the conversation with the industry," he said.

For all the we're-all-in-this-together stuff, there's still a sense that Microsoft is promoting its own Azure cloud as much as trying to champion a common cause.

Microsoft's new site makes great play about how Windows Azure use HTTP, SOAP, and REST, that you can mount and dismount server drives in Azure clouds using NTFS, and the availability of GUI tools for Eclipse and Windows Azure SDKs for Java and Ruby. On the upstanding-citizen side, the site also lists the standards bodies in which Microsoft is participating.

Yet, concerning OData, things have a decidedly Microsoft feel.

OData might be "open" but it's Microsoft products — SharePoint 2010, SQL Azure, Windows Azure table storage and SQL reporting services — that mostly expose data as OData.

IBM's WebSphere does, too, and PHP, Java, JavaScript, and the iPhone can consume OData — but it looks like you're mostly moving data between Microsoft's applications and cloud services.

One major user of OData is Netflix, whose entire catalog is available in OData — Netflix is a premier customer of Microsoft technology already, using Silverlight on its site.

In a world of circular logic, Microsoft needs to get more applications and services using OData to justify Azure's use of it, while OData is important to help sell more copies of SharePoint 2010 on the basis of interoperability with the cloud — Microsoft's cloud, specifically.

Does this mean that Microsoft has an agenda — and should it be trusted? Trust is something Microsoft always has to work hard to achieve thanks to its history and periodic outbursts on things like patents in open source — a community Microsoft is courting to support Azure.

Paoli says skeptics will always exist, but today Microsoft is part of the community through work on things like Stonehenge at the Apache Software Foundation (ASF).

"I'm very, very pragmatic. It reminds me of when I moved from France and was hired by Microsoft... everyone was asking me: 'Hey, wow, is Microsoft really into XML? I said 'yeah'. There was always some skepticism, and that was 14 years ago. We implemented XML — we helped created the basic standards, we had a lot of partners.

"The best approach is to work with people pragmatically and work with people on technology issues and just move on."

He reckons, too, that Microsoft has learned its lessons about dealing with open sourcers — people it's relying on to deploy PHP and Ruby apps on Azure. Microsoft's mistake in the past was to conflate Linux and open source products and the developer community — a community Paoli said Microsoft feels at home in. And we know how much Microsoft loves developers, developers, developers.

"We know the world is a mixed IT environment — this is really ingrained in our thinking," Paoli claimed.

It's early days for cloud and Microsoft's role in shaping it, but the strategy sounds different.

Ten years ago, before OOXML, Microsoft decided it would lead with IBM a push to shape the future of web services, a foundation of cloud, with the WS-* specs. WS-* proved inflexible, and developers moved on to better technologies. On OOXML, Microsoft led again but was left looking isolated and awakard.

Microsoft's needs OData as much as it did the ideas behind WS-* and OOXML. This time, Microsoft seems to be searching for a subtler way to advance its cause. ®

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