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Customer Council Helps Microsoft Gain Ground in Interoperability


Industry and government leaders recently came together for the second time to engage with Microsoft’s senior leadership on the topic of interoperability, focusing their discussion on how Microsoft’s solutions can more effectively deliver interoperability in heterogeneous computing environments. The 37 chief information officers (CIOs) and chief technology officers (CTOs) representing large-scale private and public-sector customers are part of the Interoperability Executive Customer Council (IECC), a global forum created to address the need for software and hardware technologies from multiple vendors to work better together.

Microsoft announced the formation of the council a year ago. The goal of the group’s second full meeting, held on May 8-9, was to identify the tangible results from the past year as well as look ahead to future projects. Architects from the council’s member organizations have worked with Microsoft on technical challenges in recent months, and council member executives discussed these work streams at the meeting.

“I am really pleased with my decision to commit time to participate on this council. My company’s needs are being heard, and Microsoft is responding. I believe that the Interoperability Executive Customer Council will make a difference.”
Douglas Eney
Vice President and Chief Technology Officer
Carnival Cruise Lines

PressPass spoke with the host of the council meeting, Bob Muglia, senior vice president of the Server and Tools Business at Microsoft, to learn about the progress that’s been made to date and to understand how the group’s ongoing work affects overall customers. Muglia, who was joined at the meeting by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Microsoft Senior Vice President and General Counsel Brad Smith, Microsoft Business Division President Jeff Raikes and other company executives, also discusses the challenges that interoperability continues to present and how Microsoft plans to address those challenges in the future.

PressPass: Why did Microsoft set up the Interoperability Executive Customer Council, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Muglia: We wanted to engage in a direct, active discussion with companies that have highly sophisticated IT environments — companies that need to address interoperability issues day in and day out. We wanted their help identifying real-world interoperability scenarios and priorities from the customer perspective, and working with us on solutions. With that in mind, we brought together CIOs and CTOs from large organizations, which included corporate customers in a cross-section of industries and governments in a range of geographies, with the idea of having an ongoing and constructive dialogue about interoperability.

Our goal was partly to talk about the things that Microsoft is doing about interoperability, but far more important, we hoped to encourage frank discussion about those things that we were not currently doing about interoperability. We wanted to create an environment in which we could discuss their needs, both as a group and individually, then define the areas of work that we need to focus on moving forward. As a company, we’ve been dedicated to interoperability for a long time already, but forming this group a year ago has helped us think about it more deeply and in a more balanced way.

PressPass: How does the Interoperability Executive Customer Council work?

Muglia: We announced the council in June of 2006 with the idea that it would meet twice a year. We brought the members together for the first time last October in Redmond. At that meeting, the council addressed some basic issues like forming a common understanding of what interoperability is and what it means to an organization. That first meeting also spurred a great deal of discussion around how to think about interoperability in discrete pieces — essentially, what are the various components of interoperability, and how does that translate into technology solutions?

After two days of discussions, the council identified four core themes, each resulting in a work stream: 1) Office productivity and collaboration tools, which involves making sure that various productivity tools can exchange documents and enable true collaboration and document management across systems; 2) developer tools and run-time, which means facilitating application development across platforms and systems; 3) security and identity management, which entails promoting security across many identity systems on multiple platforms; and 4) systems management, which means enabling end-to-end, cross-platform service management to increase efficiency and control, and to reduce problem-resolution time.

IECC member organizations then signed up to participate in the work streams most relevant to their business. In total, we held about 20 conference calls, each involving dozens of architects from the companies and governments in the council. Additionally, many of the architects met in person in March to take part in focused, technical interoperability discussions. From these meetings we identified more than 40 interoperability scenarios that the members consider to be areas of concern. At the IECC meeting on May 8-9, we reported back to members on the progress we’ve made in addressing these concerns. We also, as a group, identified a few new areas of focus.

PressPass: What progress has Microsoft made on the interoperability issues raised by the council so far?

Muglia: Based on our review, we believe that we’ve addressed and made progress on approximately 70 percent of the interoperability concerns that were raised in the first six months. We are working with the council members’ architects and CIOs to review the final status of each issue to confirm. The outcome of the work to date has fallen into three categories. First, issues raised where technical solutions already exist either through features in our products or through complementary components or projects that we were able to help identify for the council members. The lesson learned for us with these is that we need to do a better job helping customers understand solutions that are available today.

Second, some items on the council’s list were direct requests for us to solve technical problems that have no solutions available today — in other words, activities that we are able to address through direct technical engagement.

Finally, some of the problems surfaced by the council are much harder issues that will need to be worked on over a longer period of time because they reach across many types of products and multiple vendors. Those are issues that we fully intend to participate in, but they will require industry-level discussion and many vendors coming together to create solutions.

PressPass: How does the customer council align with Microsoft’s overall interoperability efforts?

Muglia: We believe interoperability is all about connecting people, data and diverse systems, and our goal is to deliver “interoperability by design.” By that I mean we develop products with compatibility in mind from the start. We take a holistic approach to interoperability. First, we think about how we build our products, which includes deciding which protocols we use, which data formats we use, what sort of documentation we create, what kinds of development tools we make available and so forth — in short, all the things that go into making our products work in customer environments, both with our own technologies and technologies from other vendors.

Second, we focus on community collaboration. In other words, how do we reach out and work with other vendors and customers? The Interoperability Executive Customer Council is one of the cornerstones of that effort. Along those same lines, in November 2006 we formed the Interoperability Vendor Alliance (IVA). Much like the customer council, this group serves as a forum for software and hardware vendors to communicate about interoperability issues. We’ve also forged specific interoperability agreements with companies like Novell, JBoss and Nokia. Through efforts like these, we’re thinking not only about broader issues like intellectual property (IP) relationships between companies but also how we can build bridges from one environment to another, for example, between Windows and Linux.

Third, we strive to provide access to our technologies. By that I mean making our intellectual property available to others. One good example of that is delivering the Open Specification Promise (OSP). The OSP is a very simple method for making our IP assets available so that anyone using any development model — free software, open source, commercial or what have you — can build software without worrying about infringing on Microsoft patents. To date, we have put approximately 40 Web services specifications, SenderID, the Virtual Hard Disk specification and the Open XML specification under the OSP.

Finally, we strive to contribute to the important role that industry standards play in interoperability. We deliver on that by contributing technology to hundreds of standards bodies on an ongoing basis, and we support thousands of standards in our products. One good example of our work in this area is helping Open XML become an international standard. We also work in areas like Web services and security technologies, for example, Network Access Protocol, which are designed to improve interoperability in heterogeneous environments.

PressPass: Can you provide some examples of how Microsoft is solving interoperability problems for customers in line with the council’s input?

Muglia: As I mentioned earlier, some of the specific requests made by the council involved interoperability problems that Microsoft has already solved. For example, one scenario that came up in the developer work stream meetings revolved around .NET-mainframe interoperability. Customers said they wanted to be able to call a legacy COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language) program running on a mainframe from within a .NET application, and to make that call within the scope and context of a transaction. Microsoft Host Integration Server 2006 offers a good solution for this scenario. We have a feature called Transaction Integrator that lets Windows developers publish business processes found in mainframe CICS and IMS applications, as well as those found in IBM AS/400 systems as .NET assemblies or XML Web Services, also referred to as Windows-initiated Processing.

In another developer work stream discussion, customers said they wanted to use third-party and custom authentication schemes with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 as well as the built-in integration with Windows-based authentication methods. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that MOSS has a feature that allows the use of Web-based security standards through custom authentication providers, Internet-style forms-based authentication and Web single sign-on. MOSS also offers granular rights management of business assets such as 2007 Microsoft Office system files, native encryption features and reduced client authentication obligations. This means customers can now employ multiple authentication providers so that, for example, internal users log in via Windows authentication while external users do so with a separate, pluggable provider.

In both cases, customers were happy to discover that those features already existed. And after hearing a Microsoft engineer explain in detail how those features work, they planned to implement them immediately to enable interoperability with non-Microsoft products they already had in place.

PressPass: Can you give an example of an interoperability issue that isn’t solved by existing Microsoft products?

Muglia: One important issue that came up in our dialogue with the council was interoperability with Microsoft Office through the Open XML file format specification. Customers were interested in knowing how organizations can use Java to create XML documents. Because Open XML is an international ECMA standard that anyone can use, many developers are building solutions using the various programming languages available to the Open XML community. When the question of Office interoperability came up during our council discussions, we explained that the Java community has created an Open Source project aimed at facilitating the use of Open XML through Java. The council welcomed that as very positive news. We think that this effort to create a Java toolkit for Open XML is a good way to solve the problem, too. And much like our discussions with government customers produced the Open XML translator as a project, we’re working with this group in a consulting capacity to help determine what the exact needs are in this space and how we may help move the project forward.

PressPass: What are some of the more challenging interoperability concerns identified by the council, and how does Microsoft intend to work on those in the future?

Muglia: The tougher concerns primarily have to do with manageability, identity management and security, and we expect to be tackling issues in the longer term by engaging directly with partners and others in the industry. That’s where the work happening in the Interoperability Executive Customer Council carries over into conversations that we’re having in the Interoperability Vendor Alliance. We look to the vendor alliance to help us reach across those boundaries.

To give you an example of Microsoft interoperability efforts that involve multiple vendors, one issue that’s really important to us is interoperability between the portal functionality in our MOSS 2007 product and document management and content management servers developed by other companies, such as Documentum, SAP, BEA and IBM. We will continue to invest in interoperability in future releases of our MOSS product. We value the input we get from council members, and we want to encourage an ongoing dialogue with them so we can better understand the interoperability scenarios and potential enhancements that are most important to our customers. By the way, this is not the first time Microsoft would be building interoperability bridges. For example, we worked with SAP to develop a solution that created interoperability between an Office client and an SAP product. The space was different and the situation was different, but our commitment to promote interoperability with non-Microsoft products is the same.

Let me give you one other example of how Microsoft products are working on making interoperability a key feature. The upcoming release of the Unified Communications AJAX Service directly addresses a real interoperability scenario raised in the council. This service has an API (application programming interface) that can enable any Web application with zero download XML and JavaScript-based instant messaging (IM) functionality via Microsoft Office Communications Server 2007 — which is our server that manages IM. It will run on any non-Windows-based platform using non-Microsoft browsers that support AJAX, so you can have a secure, enterprise-grade IM conversation, even via a mobile phone.


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