The “One for all and all for one” Cloud…

I was intrigued by this story from the BBC website last night on how 70 big name firms had formed an alliance to drive Cloud standards. The story begins :

Some of the world’s biggest companies are using their market clout to demand that computer equipment makers change the way they make their machines.

The 70 firms, which includes BMW, Shell and Marriott Hotels, said systems that do not work together are holding back the spread of Cloud computing.

The companies have formed the Open Data Alliance Centre to push for unified standards for technology.

Standardisation is something that has been talked about for some time in the industry, and whilst I fully support standardisation and applaud the concept, I have some concerns.

Why do I feel this way?

Well, in my recent post when the industry is crying out for standards, why reinvent the wheel, you can see just how difficult it is to get a simple xml schema adopted for sharing transactions across heterogeneous systems.

I am pro Cloud and pro standards, and I feel a “Cloud standard” would indeed be a fantastic thing as it would remove a number of barriers blocking Cloud adoption today:

  • It would remove the vendor lock in fear and put choice back into the hands of the customer by enabling the movement of customer applications and services between Cloud vendors, should the customer need to.
  • It would allow customers to run and have interoperability between different applications and services hosted on different Clouds, i.e. it is highly improbable for all aspects of a businesses need for systems to be available from a single Cloud provider.
  • It would also help bridge the gap between the Cloud and the millions (billions) of desktop software applications.
  • If we started with a security standard then that would allay the many fears that people have about Cloud Security, almost in the same way that certification works today.

So what would prevent this, well maybe we have to look no further than the Cloud vendors themselves? What would be their competitive advantage if all were equal? What would separate the big guys from the small guys? Would it stifle innovation? And how long would it be before there was a breakaway?

We have seen this many times before in the world of technology, you only have to think back to Java and how Microsoft broke the language when they launched their own flavour … J++ .

Will the Amazons, Azure and Other major players come to the table in the spirit of altruism? Or may they not need to should “Open Source Cloud” gather significant momentum, much in the same way that Linux has become the defacto supercomputer OS.

The seeds may have been planted already… In a very interesting move earlier this year, 25 Cloud vendors including the likes of Rackspace, Dell and Citrix teamed up with NASA on the OpenStack project. The press release started:

San Antonio, TX – July 19, 2010 – Rackspace® Hosting (NYSE:RAX) today announced the launch of OpenStack™, an open-source Cloud platform designed to foster the emergence of technology standards and Cloud interoperability. Rackspace, the leading specialist in the hosting and Cloud computing industry, is donating the code that powers its Cloud Files and Cloud Servers public-Cloud offerings to the OpenStack project.  The project will also incorporate technology that powers the NASA Nebula Cloud Platform.  Rackspace and NASA plan to actively collaborate on joint technology development and leverage the efforts of open-source software developers worldwide.

And goes on to tackle the standards question by saying:

“We are founding the OpenStack initiative to help drive industry standards, prevent vendor lock-in and generally increase the velocity of innovation in Cloud technologies,” said Lew Moorman, President, Cloud and CSO at Rackspace. “We are proud to have NASA’s support in this effort.  Its Nebula Cloud Platform is a tremendous boost to the OpenStack community. We expect ongoing collaboration with NASA and the rest of the community to drive more-rapid Cloud adoption and innovation, in the private and public spheres.”

This could be exactly what’s required to move the standards argument forward, and I for one will be following it with great interest.

When the industry is crying out for standards, why reinvent the wheel?

Dennis Howlett recently blogged here on how some of the newer entrants to the industry are collaborating on a new, Simple Universal Business Language (SUBL), initiative to send and receive orders and invoices electronically between heterogeneous applications.

This sounds highly desirable and will undoubtedly save users time and improve the accuracy of entering transactions into software.

The thing is, like many of today’s new innovations it isn’t new at all… this particular idea has been around for ten years, yes that’s right ten years.

Back in 2000, a recognised industry body called Business Application Software Developers Association (BASDA) developed a similar, if not more refined, schema called eBIS-XML, in collaboration with their members, who comprise most of the business software vendors in the UK.

The eBIS-XML schema was created to cover the spectrum of large systems as well as small ones, it can be very easily applied, BASDA provide a toolkit to aid vendors in development, and it has additional validation built in to check the message hasn’t been tampered with during transport.

As someone who implemented the schema into a range of software products during 2002, I found it very easy to understand and easy to work with. However, creating and parsing XML is the easy bit. What also needs to be considered is the reliability, or not, of the transport mechanism, i.e. most people use email, but we need to remember it’s not guaranteed delivery, or receipt, and can be inadvertently deleted.

You must also trap spam, you must support a moderation process allowing the user to decide what’s sent and received, for larger systems you must support complex reconciliation rules to pair up an invoice with an order and a payment, known as “three way invoice matching”, unique supplier/customer identification can pose a problem (e.g. supplier reference numbers and transaction reference numbers can differ from what you hold in the system), there are multi part orders and invoices to cater for, and you need to be able to make adjustments when part of an order is cancelled or if the payment doesn’t match the invoice.

In addition, in the UK there are also standards that need to be met to adhere to HMRC rules on electronic invoicing you can’t just send XML from one app to another and that’s it… the process needs to conform with audit standards just as a paper invoice does today.

Now, all of that shouldn’t frighten anyone off, because all of these problems have been solved, it’s all been done before.

At this point it’s fair to say that whilst a good number of businesses in the UK are using eBIS-XML to transfer documents electronically, even after 8 years it hasn’t become a defacto standard. Technically it’s a proven solution, so you might look elsewhere for other reasons… was the concept ahead of its time? Is it more attractive to larger business that process more transactions? Are other methods such as PDF used instead? Are people more confident to key transactions? Or did the industry fail to articulate the benefits to users?

What puzzles me is why another schema is being proposed when a perfectly good one already exists and is pervasive across most software vendors… I can only think that the new entrants probably weren’t around in 2000, or that the SUBL initiative is originating from outside of the UK and they don’t have knowledge of the BASDA schema.

Circling back to the original blog from Dennis, he comments:

I really don’t get why eBIS-XML is being avoided. I hear something about paying for the documentation (is that right?) but given the relative size of the market and numbers of customer, is that such a big deal? Alternatively, it can’t take that much pressure to get BASDA (or whomever is the copyright owner) to release eBIS-XML as a freely available standard… Bottom line – I don’t really get why you all are re-inventing the wheel?

I have to agree with Dennis here, and in the pursuit of creating an industry standard, I would ask the new entrants, would it not be better to join with the other BASDA members and build on what they have already produced… that way we all have a better chance of delivering a defacto standard for our customers and for our industry?