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A Microsoft Eye Toward Interoperability

At a conference called Interop, it only makes sense to have a keynote on interoperability. That call went to Tom Robertson, general manager of interoperability and standards at Microsoft, who spoke of the topic this morning at the show in New York.

Robertson argued throughout his talk that Microsoft is open to interoperability and has numerous tools that it uses to be interoperable.

"Why do we need interoperability? It's about customers, individuals companies and governments," Robertson said.

In the beginning of the modern IT era, he said, there were vendor stacks that weren't interoperable. That sort of thing is not what modern IT users want or need. For governments, interoperability is particularly important, he continued, because it creates a level playing field and allows for accessibility and backwards compatibility.

Though the need for interoperability may be clear, in terms of how interoperability should be achieved, there isn't a universal approach.

"Interop cannot equal homogeneity; there can't just be one single approach," Robertson said. "We have more flexibility than the physical world, because software is infinitely malleable."

As an example, Robertson said that in the physical world, different gauges of train tracks are not so easily interoperable; the same goes for pipe fittings or plugs. "In the physical world, there is a need for uniformity."

Uniformity isn't necessarily a bad thing for IT. TCP/IP is a good example where a layer of uniformity exists that, according to Robertson, has been an engine for the growth of the technology sector. So how does a technology vendor achieve interoperability? The first way is to consider the design of a product for interoperability.

"What is the boundary of the product? How does it interface with other systems? It's done via data formats, APIs (define) and protocols. What you do is you document those APIs and make SDKs (define) and code samples available."

Collaboration among companies is also a key part of interoperability. Part of that for Microsoft is its work with the open source community. "Microsoft is participating in over 2,500 open source projects on SourceForge, CodePlex and RubyForge," Robertson said.

And what's the basis for collaboration? According to Roberts, it's intellectual property. Microsoft has a commercial licensing program for licensing its IP. It also has a community licensing program that comes with the Open Specification Promise. Robertson explained that the community licensing effort is about making things freely available via the Shared Source Program at Microsoft.

The Open Specification Promise lets people use Microsoft specifications without patent overhead. "They just implement and they don't have to even let Microsoft know," Robertson told the Interop audience.

So far there are some 38 Web services specifications, virtualization specifications, API data formats and specifications related to anti-spam.

Robertson also touted the importance of standards, though standards aren't always the way to interoperability.

"The cycle of standardization is slower than the cycle of innovation in certain spaces in some cases," Robertson said. "In those instances standardization is counter productive. In those cases you look to other tools to do interoperability."

Working with others to solve interoperability challenges is what Microsoft's Interoperability Vendor Alliance is about. The group, which focuses on systems management and identity management across platforms, hit its one-year anniversary this week and has doubled its membership from 24 vendors to 50.

"Microsoft hasn't solved all the interoperability problems and it never will," Robertson said. "It's about working with customers and using the tools we have to address their issues. As long as there is innovation there will be interoperability challenges. It's a journey and we'll need to make adjustments but we feel that we're generally going in the right direction."



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