IT leaders need to pressure cloud providers for open standards

If there is one area more than any other that the IT industry has consistently let its customers down, it is standards.

The old adage says that the great thing about standards is there are so many of them. But the history of IT suppliers agreeing to open and interoperable standards is pathetically poor, despite the vast array of standards-setting bodies that spring up.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were extensive attempts to agree open standards across the whole technology stack – the so-called seven-layer model. Those discussions took so long that users eventually ignored them and jumped on whatever technologies they found easiest to use, and they became de facto standards.

That’s a reason why TCP/IP is the dominant networking protocol, and also contributed to why Windows became the common platform for PCs.

We are seeing the whole problem start to repeat itself today in the cloud. The chief of the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) – the guardians of web interoperability – this week slammed the cloud industry for making such poor progress on standards.

Early adopters of cloud say the one piece of advice they would give to IT leaders moving into the cloud now is to make sure you have a way out. Once your data is in a cloud, getting it out and into someone else’s cloud is far too difficult. Try getting interoperability between cloud apps from one supplier, and cloud apps from another – good luck, you’ll need it.

There are initiatives such as Openstack, the open source cloud project started by Rackspace and Nasa, but these are more about creating standards within an ecosystem than standards that unify competing ecosystems. Just because something is open source, does not necessarily mean it will be open in terms of interoperability.

Even Amazon Web Services (AWS) – the most likely platform to become a de facto cloud standard – is still essentially a closed environment. Unless rivals start to produce Amazon clones, it is likely to stay that way.

It’s easy to imagine a future where you have a choice between AWS, Openstack, Google Compute Engine and Microsoft Azure, but with little or no interoperability between them. Once you commit to one cloud, you’re locked-in.

Cloud is undoubtedly the future for commoditised provision of computing resources, and IT managers will expect and need to see interoperability standards before they make a significant commitment.

But so far, they can have little confidence in their suppliers to comply. CIOs need to pressure the cloud industry now to force them to agree standards before history repeats itself yet again.