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Microservices Expo: Article

The Golden Thread of Interoperability

Interoperability is not just about the IT systems. It is also about the ecosystem of user organizations

SAN DIEGO -- There are so many things going on at every Conference by The Open Group that it is impossible to keep track of all of them, and this week’s conference here is no exception. The main themes are cybersecurity, enterprise architecture, SOA and cloud computing. Additional topics range from real-time and embedded systems to quantum lifecycle management.

But there are a number of common threads running through all of those themes, relating to value delivered to IT customers through open systems. One of those threads is interoperability.

Interoperability panel session

The interoperability thread showed strongly in several sessions on the opening day of the conference, Monday Feb. 7, starting with a panel session on Interoperability Challenges for 2011 that I was fortunate to have been invited to moderate. [Disclosure: The Open Group is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

The panelists were Arnold van Overeem of Capgemini, chair of the Architecture Forum’s Interoperability project, Ron Schuldt, the founder of UDEF-IT and chair of the Semantic Interoperability Work Group’s UDEF project, TJ Virdi of Boeing, co-chair of The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group, and Bob Weisman of Build-the-Vision, chair of The Open Group Architecture Forum’s Information Architecture project. The audience was drawn from many companies, both members and non-members of The Open Group, and made a strong contribution to the debate.

What is interoperability? The panel described several essential characteristics:

  • Systems with different owners and governance models work together;
  • They exchange and understand data automatically;
  • They form an information-sharing environment in which business information is available in the right context, to the right person, and at the right time; and
  • This environment enables processes, as well as information, to be shared.

Interoperability is not just about the IT systems. It is also about the ecosystem of user organizations, and their cultural and legislative context.

Semantics is an important component of interoperability. It is estimated that 65 percent of data warehouse projects fail because of their inability to cope with a huge number of data elements, differently defined.

There is a constant battle for interoperability. Systems that lock customers in by refusing to interoperate with those of other vendors can deliver strong commercial profit. This strategy is locally optimal but globally disastrous; it gives benefits to both vendors and customers in the short term, but leads in the longer term to small markets and siloed systems. The front line is shifting constantly. There are occasional resounding victories – as with the introduction of the Internet – but the normal state is trench warfare with small and painful gains and losses.

Blame for lack of interoperability is often put on the vendors, but this is not really fair. Vendors must work within what is commercially possible. Customer organizations can help the growth of interoperability by applying pressure and insisting on support for standards. This is in their interests; integration required by lack of interoperability is currently estimated to account for over 25 percent of IT spend.

SOA has proved a positive force for interoperability. By embracing SOA, a customer organization can define its data model and service interfaces, and tender for competing solutions that conform to its interfaces and meet its requirements. Services can be shared processing units forming part of the ecosystem environment.

This is in some ways reinforcing SOA as an interoperability enabler.

The latest IT phenomenon is cloud computing. This is in some ways reinforcing SOA as an interoperability enabler. Shared services can be available on the cloud, and the ease of provisioning services in a cloud environment speeds up the competitive tendering process.

But there is one significant area in which cloud computing gives cause for concern: lack of interoperability between virtualization products. Virtualization is a core enabling technology for cloud computing, and virtualization products form the basis for most private cloud solutions. These products are generally vendor-specific and without interoperable interfaces, so that it is difficult for a customer organization to combine different virtualization products in a private cloud, and easy for it to become locked in to a single vendor.

There is a need for an overall interoperability framework within which standards can be positioned, to help customers express their interoperability requirements effectively. This framework should address cultural and legal aspects, and architectural maturity, as well as purely technical aspects. Semantics will be a crucial element.

Such a framework could assist the development of interoperable ecosystems, involving multiple organizations. But it will also help the development of architectures for interoperability within individual organizations – and this is perhaps of more immediate concern.

The Open Group can play an important role in the development of this framework, and in establishing it with customers and vendors.

SOA/TOGAF practical guide

OA is an interoperability enabler, but establishing SOA within an enterprise is not easy to do. There are many stakeholders involved, with particular concerns to be addressed. This presents a significant task for enterprise architects.

TOGAF has long been established as a pragmatic framework that helps enterprise architects deliver better solutions. The Open Group is developing a practical guide to using TOGAF for SOA, as a joint project of its SOA Work Group and The Open Group Architecture Forum


The discussion resolved all the issues, enabling the preparation of a draft for review by The Open Group, and we can expect to see this valuable guide published at the conclusion of the review process.

This work is now nearing completion. Ed Harrington of Architecting-the-Enterprise had overcome the considerable difficulty of assembling and adding to the material created by the project to form a solid draft. This was discussed in detail by a small group, with some participants joining by teleconference. As well as Ed, this group included Mats Gejnevall of Capgemini and Steve Bennett of Oracle, and it was led by project co-chairs Dave Hornford of Integritas and Awel Dico of the Bank of Montreal.

The discussion resolved all the issues, enabling the preparation of a draft for review by The Open Group, and we can expect to see this valuable guide published at the conclusion of the review process.

UDEF deployment workshop

The importance of semantics for interoperability was an important theme of the interoperability panel discussion. The Open Group is working on a specific standard that is potentially a key enabler for semantic interoperability: the Universal Data Element Framework (UDEF).

It had been decided at the previous conference, in Amsterdam, that the next stage of UDEF development should be a deployment workshop. This was discussed by a small group, under the leadership of UDEF project chair Ron Schuldt, again with some participation by teleconference.

The group included Arnold van Overeem of Capgemini, Jayson Durham of the US Navy, and Brand Niemann of the Semantic Community. Jayson is a key player in the Enterprise Lexicon Services (ELS) initiative, which aims to provide critical information interoperability capabilities through common lexicon and vocabulary services. Brand is a major enthusiast for semantic interoperability with connections to many US semantic initiatives, and currently to the Air Force OneSource project in particular, which is evolving a data analysis tool used internally by the USAF Global Cyberspace Integration Center (GCIC) Vocabulary Services Team, and made available to general data management community. The participation of Jayson and Brand provided an important connection between the UDEF and other semantic projects.

As a result of the discussions, Ron will draft an interoperability scenario that can be the basis of a practical workshop session at the next conference, which is in London.

Complex cloud environments

Cloud Computing is the latest hot technology, and its adoption is having some interesting interoperability implications, as came out clearly in the Interoperability panel session. In many cases, an enterprise will use, not a single cloud, but multiple services in multiple clouds. These services must interoperate to deliver value to the enterprise. The Complex Cloud Environments conference stream included two very interesting presentations on this.

The first, by Mark Skilton and Vladimir Baranek of Capgemini, explained how new notations for cloud can help explain and create better understanding and adoption of new cloud-enabled services and the impact of social and business networks. As cloud environments become increasingly complex, the need to explain them clearly grows.

Consumers and vendors of cloud services must be able to communicate. Stakeholders in consumer organizations must be able to discuss their concerns about the cloud environment. The work presented by Mark and Vladimir grew from discussions in a CloudCamp that was held at a previous Conference by The Open Group. We hope that it can now be developed by The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group to become a powerful and sophisticated language to address this communication need.

The second presentation, from Soobaek Jang of IBM, addressed the issue of managing and coordinating across a large number of instances in a cloud computing environment. He explained an architecture for “Multi-Node Management Services” that acts as a framework for auto-scaling in a SaaS lifecycle, putting structure around self-service activity, and providing a simple and powerful web service orientation that allows providers to manage and orchestrate deployments in logical groups.

SOA conference stream

The principal presentation in this stream picked up on one of the key points from the Interoperability panel session in a very interesting way. It showed how a formal ontology can be a practical basis for common operation of SOA repositories. Semantic interoperability is at the cutting edge of interoperability, and is more often the subject of talk than of action. The presentation included a demonstration, and it was great to see the ideas put to real use.

The presentation was given jointly by Heather Kreger, SOA Work Group Co-chair, and Vince Brunssen, Co-chair of SOA Repository Artifact Model and Protocol (S-RAMP) at OASIS. Both presenters are from IBM. S-Ramp is an emerging standard from OASIS that enables interoperability between tools and repositories for SOA. It uses the formal SOA Ontology that was developed by The Open Group, with extensions to enable a common service model as well as an interoperability protocol.

This presentation illustrated how S-RAMP and the SOA Ontology work in concert with The Open Group SOA Governance Framework to enable governance across vendors. It contained a demonstration that included defining new service models with the S-RAMP extensions in one SOA repository and communicating with another repository to augment its service model.

Architecture governance must change in the context of cloud-based ecosystems. It may take some effort to keep to the principles of the SOA style – but it will be important to do this.

To conclude the session, I gave a brief presentation on SOA in the Cloud – the Next Challenge for Enterprise Architects. This discussed how the SOA architectural style is widely accepted as the style for enterprise architecture, and how cloud computing is a technical possibility that can be used in enterprise architecture. Architectures using cloud computing should be service-oriented, but this poses some key questions for the architect. Architecture governance must change in the context of cloud-based ecosystems. It may take some effort to keep to the principles of the SOA style – but it will be important to do this. And the organization of the infrastructure – which may migrate from the enterprise to the cloud – will present an interesting challenge.

Enabling semantic interoperability

he day was rounded off by an evening meeting, held jointly with the local chapter of the IEEE, on semantic interoperability. The meeting featured a presentation by Ron Schuldt, UDEF Project Chair, on the history, current state, and future goals of the UDEF.

The importance of semantics as a component of interoperability was clear in the morning’s panel discussion. In this evening session, Ron explained how the UDEF can enable semantic interoperability, and described the plans of the UDEF Project Team to expand the framework to meet the evolving needs of enterprises today and in the future.

This meeting was arranged through the good offices of Jayson Durham, and it was great that local IEEE members could join conference participants for an excellent session.

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More Stories By Chris Harding

Dr. Chris Harding leads the SOA Working Group at The Open Group - an open forum of customers and suppliers of IT products and services. In addition, he is a director of the UDEF Forum and manages The Open Group?s work on semantic interoperability. He has been with The Open Group for over 10 years. Dr. Harding began his career in communications software research and development. He then spent nine years as a consultant, specializing in voice and data communications, before moving to his current role. Recognizing the importance of giving enterprises quality information at the point of use, he sees information interoperability as the next major challenge, and frequently speaks or writes on this topic. Dr. Harding has a PhD in mathematical logic, and is a member of the British Computer Society (BCS) and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

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