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September 7, 2010

Inching Closer to a New Era for Interoperability Standards

Nicole Hemsoth

Over the last few years a number of organizations have emerged to untangle the web of cloud computing, both on an education and governance front. While there are several groups dedicated to security and related topics in order to quell the overwhelming fear of virtualization, some suggest that the organizations that need the thrust of public attention are increasingly those who are attempting to drive interoperability standards forward.

While there are currently a number of groups targeting the current state of rather widespread “un-interoperability” the progress has been rather slow, complicated as it is by the competing voices of users and vendors, all of whom have very clear and easy to identify arguments to make in the face of standardization efforts. For example, the Cloud Computing Interoperability Forum, while growing in numbers, is the site of discussion and education about the need for standardization as well as a wealth of resources for every possible stakeholder but it requires more power to effect actual change on the practical international interoperability standards front.

The time it takes from draft to standards realization on an international level is, as one might imagine, quite long for groups seeking to create new systems for distributing and managing technology that is still in its relative infancy. One organization with recent news on the standards front noted that it took a total of three years for their standards to be accepted, and since the arena is evolving, so too must those standards; the cycle repeats, but with three year spaces at stake, one has to wonder if the effort to push forward standardization measures for cloud computing is not moving fast enough to keep pace with changes in the industry.

DMTF Delivers Announces Workload Portability Standard

The Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF), which is one of several groups pairing vendors and institutions to create and refine cloud standards, hit a milestone last week following international acceptance of their cloud workload portability standard. While interoperability across the cloud ecosystem continues to boil in the pot of hot topics surrounding cloud computing in general, we might be entering an era of increased standardization and portability as greater emphasis on standards continues to be pushed as a primary topic of engagement from governments and large institutions.

At its core, DMTF is focused on management of distributed systems. Since its beginnings in 1992 addressing desktop and server management, then branching into network and IT management, the group has made the natural migration to virtualization management and has accordingly been addressing the multitude of items on the “cloud worry points” list, most notably along the lines of general management and interoperability.

The group’s mission statement declares that the effort aims to enable “more effective management of millions of IT systems worldwide by bringing the IT industry together to collaborate on the development, validation and promotion of systems management standards.” With 160 member organizations (50 of them universities) and around 4,000 participants globally, this recent news might draw more significant attention to their projects. But coming up with standards that suit the tastes of the industry and the organizations that rely on vendors is no easy task, given the nature of competing interests. While the group’s president insisted in an interview that there is “remarkable collaboration” in weekly calls across these disparate groups, its not difficult to see why standards creation is a multi-year process.

DMTF’s Open Virtualization Format (OVF), which has recently been accepted by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), is now in a better position to become an international standard in the eyes of the International Standards Organization International Electrotechnical Commission (ISO/IEC). The group’s president stated that this effort is similar in ways to the USB standards that were once a difficult hurdle for all parties to leap but eventually fed a strong, healthy ecosystem following standardization. One organization adopts the standard, followed by other leaders, and over time these standards acculumate to become truly international and truly standardized across the board.

The Open Virtualization Format (OVF), which was first published in mid-2009, attempts to simplify interoperability, security and machine lifecycle management by “describing an open, secure, portable, efficient and extensible format for the packaging and distribution of workloads consisting of one or more virtual machines and applications.” The goal is to allow developers to ship “out of the box solutions that will permit users to distribute applications into their chosen environment without the hassles created by the lack of interoperability.

According to DMTF President, Winston Bumpus, “We’ve been chasing this whole notion of distributed computing for a long time. Just as the web transformed how we thought about getting information—cloud computing is that same fundamental change. It is going to allow us to do things we never dreamed of doing five years ago; it’s a huge enabler and will have a major impact on compute infrastructure. Once we get these standards adopted we’ll see this fundamental change.”

In addition to seeing increased standardization at the heart of cloud adoption and a revolution in computing, Bumpus notes that these standards are a gateway for governments to begin taking stock in the movement toward cloud adoption. He states that financial services sector and the federal government both have been paying close attention to the process of standards creation, particularly as the latter looks to the possibilities offered by cloud computing as a way to cut costs.

Many Groups, Many Goals, One Mission?

Bumpus feels that the challenges facing standards development for the new cloud era are not related to what many might imagine—namely, that there are too many competing interests and vendors don’t have great incentive to pump enormous effort into standards development. “From the view of someone who’s been working in standards for 20 years, I think a lot of people have it wrong. They think there is not a lot of participation or collaboration but we have members from around the globe who are willing and ready to work together. The biggest challenge isn’t this, it’s general perception about standards. Interoperability and these related issues matter a lot; this is very important. OVF being adopted as a national standard is a huge achievement.”

In response to a loose question about how their group differs from the many others competing to become the “standard for standards” Bumpus again suggested there is a great deal of misinformation about standards groups. In fact, he says, these organizations, including the Cloud Security Alliance among others, work together to match and compare their results in what is much like a “departmental model” where each group brings to bear its own expertise. The expertise of the DMTF is in the management arena while other groups bring their own experiences into the mix to enhance the discussion.

If there is such a great degree of collaboration among the many groups who are working toward creating sustainable, workable interoperability solutions it seems that we could be entering a new era for cloud standards. However, with the three-year (plus) concept to standards timeline, these standards could languish in draft stages while the industry moves swiftly forward without them.

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