Microsoft and Customer Executives Team Up to Improve Interoperability

REDMOND, Wash. — Jan. 29, 2010 — Carnival Cruise Lines Chief Technology Officer Doug Eney sees “interoperability” on every one of the company’s 22 ships. “We have staff from over 80 countries on a typical ship,” Eney says. “So just like our crewmembers, software itself has to work efficiently in a heterogeneous environment.”

Eney says that Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies are no longer committed to one particular vendor or technology platform. That makes interoperability critical to running a business. It can help organizations greatly reduce money and resources dedicated to managing layers of complexity, so they instead can focus on using the technology to deliver great products and services to their customers. But the requisite degree of industry collaboration and agreement makes interoperability a challenge.

Founded by Microsoft in 2006, the Interoperability Executive Customer Council is composed of 35 senior executives from industries, government agencies and academic institutions around the world.

To help solve this dilemma Eney and a cadre of C-level technology executives from around the globe joined the Interoperability Executive Customer (IEC) Council, which was founded by Microsoft in 2006. The goal of the IEC Council was to identify the industry’s greatest areas of need and to work together to create solutions. The IEC Council released a white paper today describing its activities and areas in which it has helped improve interoperability thus far.

These improvements are the result of semiannual meetings held at the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond. During these meetings, IEC Council members participate in two intensive days of discussions with company executives about the unique interoperability challenges they face, and offer suggestions about how these challenges can be better addressed by Microsoft and the industry at large.

Eney recalls that at the IEC Council’s very first meeting, Microsoft Server and Tools Business President Bob Muglia offered up a definition of interoperability as being the connection of people, data and diverse systems. Council members spent more than half a day in heated discussions about that definition.

Over time, the Council has become a trusting group of people, says Eney. “We’re very blunt with Microsoft on where we are within our respective IT projects, the challenges we face and the opportunities in store.”

As the top executive sponsor for the Council, Muglia understood that improved interoperability was critical for Microsoft’s customers.

“We recognized that it’s a mixed IT world and our customers wanted their technologies to work better together,” Muglia says. “Our customers told us that interoperability is a significant obstacle — and that they need better support, both from us and other vendors, to resolve many of these issues.”

To date, the IEC Council has identified more than 50 opportunities where Microsoft can work with the industry at large to make enhancements to improve interoperability. Roughly 70 percent of those have already been addressed or are in the process of being resolved.

Says Muglia: “Active engagement and a high degree of trust among Council members and Microsoft executives and senior architects have been a critical factor of the Council’s success.”

Debating Interoperability Improvements

Many of the IEC Council’s contributions are the result of six work groups that were formed to carry on the Council’s recommendations throughout the year. Engineers and technical architects from each of the IEC member organizations, along with technical experts from Microsoft, participate in conference calls once a month and meet in Redmond twice a year.

John Masseria, manager of IT engineering at Carnival, characterizes the working groups as a bit like focus groups. Microsoft executives and the IEC Council form an agenda for each work stream, group members develop relevant questions and issues to discuss at each session, and members of Microsoft product development work with the groups to create solutions.

“With some vendors, it’s as if developers are in an ivory tower, but I don’t get that feeling with Microsoft,” says Masseria. “They bring in their marketing product managers and technical teams and we get pretty deep down into the nuts and bolts of different products.”

Masseria adds that conversations can get pretty heated at times because some of the customers are “heavy, heavy” Java shops, for example.

But this debate is an essential part of the process because it ensures that solutions are created in a balanced, pragmatic fashion. Once working groups have completed a solution, Microsoft engages members of the Interop Vendor Alliance (IVA) to help with testing and implementation.

At a big VMware shop such as Carnival it’s important that Microsoft support VMware in its virtual machine manager and in Microsoft Systems Center. Masseria considers this solution among the IEC Council’s most significant because it provided his team with a single point of management.

Support of Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) was a “big, big win” for Vandy Johnson, vice president of global IT at Medtronic. Based in Minnesota, Medtronic works with doctors and medical clinics around the world, developing medical therapies for patients who suffer from a variety of diseases. Consequently, a big part of the company’s growth path requires that medical professionals across the globe can access Medtronic’s network. Microsoft’s decision to support SAML makes it easier for Medtronic to manage external access to its networks while providing its customers and partners with the information they need.

“I think the IEC Council has been really successful in bringing things up that might not have been considered otherwise,” says Johnson. “The work we’re doing with Microsoft is a great example of this, and I don’t think it would have been on the radar if it weren’t for Medtronic having a seat at the table.”

The white paper provides details on the IEC Council and how it fits within Microsoft’s overall interoperability efforts. Also included in the white paper are descriptions of the solutions generated by each of the IEC Council working groups. Among these solutions are support of the Unified Modeling Language (UML), the application modeling standard in Visual Studio 2010 and the upcoming release of code-name “Oslo” modeling technologies, support of the Open Document Format in Microsoft Office, and support of SAML in Active Directory.

Listening With an Ear to Change

The IEC Council is one of several avenues through which Microsoft is seeking feedback on how to improve interoperability and collaborate with the community at large. Others include the aforementioned IVA and continued collaboration with Novell, which began in 2006 and continues to help organizations bridge the gap between proprietary and open source technology.

Collectively, these efforts have led to progress in a variety of areas, including the Document Interop Initiative and the Eclipse Tools for Silverlight project, a cross-platform development environment designed to help developers build Silverlight applications on Windows and Mac.

Microsoft’s willingness to listen to its customers and make visible changes is quite rare, in Professor Radu Popescu-Zeletin’s estimation. In addition to being a member of the IEC Council, Popescu-Zeletin is director of the Berlin-based Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems, which brings technology through the research phase at the university level into use within various industries and government bodies across the European Union. The institute focuses primarily on telecommunication, automotive engineering, e-government and software development.

Popescu-Zeletin says he appreciates Microsoft’s willingness to share its current interoperability policy and listen to the Council members’ feedback based on their experience with its products. “It’s my perception that Bob Muglia is trying to pioneer interoperability at Microsoft both inside and outside the company,” he says. “I think this is having an impact on how others view Microsoft.”

Johnson concurs, noting that there’s been a clear change in Microsoft’s direction around interoperability and the principles that guide its approach to interoperability. “You can see product teams thinking about those things very early now, rather than as an afterthought,” says Johnson.

“Initially, discussions with the IEC Council were very much focused toward products already in the market,” says Muglia. “However, many of the lessons we have taken away from the experience serve broader needs than these customers alone and inform the delivery of new products and services that are optimized to promote a better experience.”

Improving interoperability is a much larger task than any one company can handle, and the biggest challenge could be balancing the breakneck speed of technology development with the arduous process of establishing industry standards.

But Popescu-Zeletin is relatively optimistic. “The IEC Council is generally made up of very big customers, so I think we can succeed in pushing interoperability as a major issue. Each member of the group has different vendors, and together we can be the catalyst that pushes vendors toward creating interoperable solutions.”

He might be on to something, if the cultural change in Microsoft is any indication.

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