Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cloud Standards and Governments

As any activity evolves from product (+rental) to more commodity (+ utility services) due to the forces of competition then a number of factors come into play. There is a period of re-organisation as a new market emerges, a co-evolution of practice due to the changing characteristics of the evolving activity along with inertia caused by past practices and past means of operation. We see this with abundance in the cloud market today. 

Under normal circumstances a set of defacto standards would appear in the market and a period of consolidation then occurs.  Ideally, one common standard emerges but in some cases we get a limited set of alternatives. As the market continues to develop then multiple implementations of the defacto standards tend to form and a competitive market is created. 

It doesn't always happen like this, sometimes competition is restricted by the development of a monopoly / oligopoly. In such circumstances when user needs are not met or competition is restricted in a mature market then it may become necessary for Governments to force a set of standards onto that market in order to create a level playing field e.g. document formats.

There are also variations in the type of market that is formed. For a free competitive market (as opposed to a constrained or captured market) then the means of implementing the standards must be open to all. This is why the ability to reverse engineer an implementation is often critical to forming a competitive market. In the most ideal form the standard would be implemented in an open source reference model.

IaaS however is not a mature market but an emerging market for which we already have a defacto standard being formed in the AWS APIs. The rapid growth of AWS is testament to its meeting of user needs but nevertheless for reasons of buyer / supplier relationship and second sourcing options then a competitive market of many providers is desirable.  Fortunately, for the core parts of the AWS APIs (there is a long tail of functionality) there are already multiple open source implementations from Eucalyptus to CloudStack to Open Nebula and even parts of OpenStack. APIs themselves are also principles in US / EU law despite the best efforts of Oracle. Hence we have the basic pieces that are necessary to form a competitive market of AWS clones and possibly also GCE clones.

For an emerging market this is a reasonable position to be in at this stage. If anything Governments should push forward to consolidating the market by reaffirming APIs as principles and even limiting any disguised software patents that may limit re-use. This would all be positive.

However, vendors have inertia to change particularly when that change threatens their business.  So today, I increasingly hear calls from vendors for 'Open Standards' in IaaS on the grounds of meeting user needs for interoperability.  However,  what I normally hear from users is they'd like a number of alternative providers of the AWS APIs i.e. homogeneity in the interface but heterogeneous providers. There is a conflict here because the 'Open Standards' proposed are not AWS APIs whilst users rarely say they need another set of APIs other than AWS.  However, this difference in needs isn't going to stop vendors trying to pull a fast one by trying to ban competitor's interfaces through Government imposed 'Open Standards'. 

So when your local vendor comes and starts talking to you about the importance of 'Open Standards' ask yourself some basic questions ...

1) Is this an emerging market?
2) Is there a defacto standard developing in the market?
3) Is there one or more open source reference implementations of the defacto?

If the answer to all three is yes (as is the case with IaaS) then there is no need to force a standard onto the market and everything seems to be healthy. A good response to the vendor would be to tell them to come back with a service offering that provides the defacto.

If the vendor insists that you need their 'open standard', then ask yourself ...

1) Is the vendor 'open standard' different from the defacto?
2) Does the vendor's products / services offer the 'open standard'?
3) Is the vendor trying to create an advantage for themselves regardless of actual user needs because they cannot compete effectively in the market without this?

In all likelihood, the call for 'open standards' in an emerging market is just an old vendor play of 'if you can't beat them, try and ban them'. 

Caveat Emptor.