Microsoft plans to reach out and work more closely with IBM and Cisco Systems on the interoperability front, as this is what its customers have told the software maker they want.
Specifically, these moves follow feedback from members of Microsofts Interoperability Executive Customer Council, which was established in June 2006 to solicit input from enterprise-level customers about exactly what they wanted from Microsoft.
While the company expected to get a lot of feedback, some critical, and suggestions about what to do going forward, said Bob Muglia, Microsofts senior vice president for the Server and Tools division, executives have been surprised by the level of dialogue and the issues that have been raised and, in some cases, already addressed. Muglia hosts the council meeting at the companys headquarters in Redmond, Wash., every six months.
One of the most useful pieces of feedback that customers gave Muglia was when they talked about how important Web Services are in terms of defining a standards-based implementation for supporting interoperability, he told eWEEK.
“They basically told me, pretty directly, that while Microsofts implementation was in great shape, IBMs and others were not, and that Microsoft needed to do a better job helping them do a better implementation,” Muglia said. “And I had to think about that, as it is one thing for us to work with customers around interoperability, but quite another to go out and help a competitor build a better product to enable interoperability.”
But Microsoft has now decided to go and talk to IBM and BEA Systems and a few others to help improve and define their interoperability. “Ultimately these guys have to make their products good, but there is a lot we can do working with them to make their products interoperate better with us,” Muglia said.
IBM could not be immediately reached for comment on Muglias remarks or its thoughts about improving interoperability with Microsoft.
Muglia said Microsoft had also heard “loud and clear” that customers wanted it to focus on Cisco Systems with regard to interoperability work. “There is no enterprise that doesnt have both Cisco networking and Microsoft software. Its ubiquitous,” he said.
Customers want Microsoft to work with Cisco to make their identity and directory systems work more effectively together, he said.
Customers also want Ciscos basic networking infrastructure to work more effectively with the overall Microsoft infrastructure that sits above it and to make their respective unified communications systems work better together, Muglia said. “There is a desire for interoperability between us at almost every layer of the stack,” he said.
A network administrator for a large academic institution told eWEEK that strong interoperability between the two product lines was especially important for any corporation that deploys Cisco IP telephones or Cisco desktop security products.
“There is a very complex infrastructure management system that needs to coordinate user services with the underlying equipment in terms of electronic directory information, access privileges, communications priority and unified messaging,” he said.
Microsoft provides all the soft services like directory information, e-mail, desktop-based audio conferencing and videoconferencing, secured authentication, and authorization, all of which are based on a single management platform drawing on one database of user information, the network administrator said, while Cisco covers the hardware side, such as routers, switches, phones and other gear.
Microsofts Active Directory contains all the user information being requested by the various Cisco applications that control the network hardware, so the integration has to be tight, or otherwise things do not work properly, he said.
“But, if Cisco becomes the premier VOIP [voice over IP] provider and focuses on integrating with Microsoft, no one else will stand a chance. Together, they really would be impossible to beat,” the network administrator said.
To Some Customers, Interoperability
The council has also helped Microsoft prioritize those areas where work is still needed, as in the Office productivity and collaboration tools area, Muglia said.
“We realized that, as we start thinking about Office integration, there is a lot of interoperability that needs to get defined between what we do with Office and all of the business applications—the literally thousands of those that exist in the marketplace, and defining ways to enable that interoperability in an approach that can work across multiple heterogeneous platforms,” he said.
To council members like Lt. Gen. Ulrich Wolf, director of the NATO NCSA (Communication and Information Systems Services Agency) based near Mons, Belgium, better interoperability is critical.
NCSA connects NATO personnel to the computer, telephone and videoconference networks they use on a daily basis within NATO and with the national networks of its allies, and uses Microsoft software on the front end. “Behind that, we have everything you can think of, because NATO is an organization of 26 nations,” Wolf told eWEEK in an interview.
Wolf said the councils work was important because it provided the opportunity to share the challenges that were common across the IT industry, and to identify potential solutions. “It saves me time, energy and money because I dont have to invest my own resources to find those solutions. The council provides a forum for our architects to meet and share solutions, ultimately accelerating our ability to roll these out,” he said.
NATO cant function without its communication systems, so interoperability is a key issue for it, Wolf said. With 26 member nations, “We must be able to communicate seamlessly and quickly. For example, its important for us to work in close collaboration with industry to ensure that commercial operating systems used by NATO have adequate security configuration settings to protect NATOs information. Its much easier for us if this is done during product development rather than having to re-engineer products after introduction,” he said.
Wolf also said he has no doubts about Microsofts commitment to interoperability. “Im hearing back from my experts and engineers that they have already solved a number of the interoperability problems and challenges that we have in our day-to-day operations,” he said.
Muglia, asked about interoperability and support for Linux distributions other than SUSE Linux, with which Microsoft has a technical cooperation agreement, Muglia confirmed that the topic had come up at the council. “But our message was really very simple: Go and talk to Red Hat, because we very much would like to do that,” he said.
With regard to Microsofts goal of building better relationships with the open-source community, Muglia said, “Of course we need to build bridges to open source, but we also need to work with all of the other major enterprise players—Sun, Oracle, HP—as well as with those companies that are not direct competitors.”
He added, “We are kind of not your fathers Microsoft anymore. We have learned a lot, as we have become a major partner in the enterprise. The role of our software has shifted and the need for Microsoft to take a different role in terms of working with others in the industry has shifted as well. We need to be in a leadership role, but in a way that works with others, and interoperability is, in a sense, a very substantive guiding light of that and is something we can believe in. Solving customer problems and growing our business are synergistic,” he said.
With regard to the concerns expressed by some Microsoft customers on the council about Microsofts recent statements that free and open-source software infringed on 235 of its patents, Muglia said nothing had changed in that area and the announcement about the number of patents affected came “right in the middle of an ongoing conversation.”
Daniel Gasparro, chief technologist for information services at global consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, based in McLean, Va., said Microsoft has done the right thing by establishing the Interoperability Executive Customer Council and working on a set of prioritized interoperability initiatives. However, Gasparro acknowledged that he and other members of the council have the realistic expectation that it will take time before the results are seen.
“Even though the council has only held two meetings, I do believe that its goals of interoperability are achievable based on the approach being taken today. Intracompany collaboration like document protection and standards around how information is exchanged [are] extremely important to us and [are] being tackled in the council workgroups that have been set up,” he told eWEEK in an interview.
Gasparro said Booz Allen Hamilton was also interested in the infrastructure side, particularly as it relates to management capabilities and cross-platform management, as the company runs a mixed environment that includes technologies from Novell, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.
“The fact that we are having these discussions with Microsoft and that they are listening and coming back with different capabilities to test and with responses—unlike other companies out there with whom you have a lot of dialogue, but never get anything in return—is a positive,” Gasparro said.
But Booz Allen Hamilton was concerned about Microsofts attitude toward software patents and the open-source community, as this could affect the company if some of the products it was using today were found to violate those patents, he said.
While there had been an ongoing discussion in the industry about going after software patent violators, “This is a slippery slope, not only for the business software industry, but also, more importantly, in terms of what it does to consumer confidence,” Gasparro said.
“I would hope that Microsoft would do the right thing and not let this get out of control … I do feel that [there] is something of a paradox to what we are talking about here [in the council] where we are trying to bring enterprises together and actually help all of us deal more effectively with our complex, heterogeneous environments,” he said.
Muglia said Microsoft needs to continue having a full and complete conversation with all of its customers. “Our focus here is [the need] to build bridges to open-source software and to find ways in which business can use open-source software and having fully licensed intellectual property included in that. …. In conjunction with that, we want to find ways we can interoperate better with open-source technologies, make investments in that space and get feedback from customers,” he said.
In addition to the council, Microsoft has held some 30 interoperability meetings with customers around the world, and plans to increase the councils membership over time, he said.
“As we resolve more issues, it becomes important to get new customers into the mix to hear about different issues. I dont think the journey ever really ends,” Muglia said.