Thursday, July 29, 2010

Standards Are About the Money

Nonstandard Cloud
Standards for cloud computing are a never-ending topic of cloud buzz ranging all over the map: APIs (programming interfaces), system management, legal issues, and so on.

With a few exceptions where the motivation is obvious (like some legal issues in the EU), most of these discussions miss a key point: Standards are implemented and used if and only if they make money for their implementers.

Whether customers think they would like them is irrelevant – unless that liking is strong enough to clearly translate into increased sales, paying back the cost of defining and implementing appropriate standards. "Appropriate" always means "as close to my existing implementation as possible" to minimize implementation cost.

That is my experience, anyway, having spent a number of years as a company representative to the InfiniBand Trade Association and the PCI-SIG, along with some interaction with the PowerPC standard and observation of DMTF and IETF standards processes.

Right now there's an obvious tension, since cloud customers see clear benefits to having an industry-wide, stable implementation target that allows portability among cloud system vendors, a point well-detailed in the Berkeley report on cloud computing.

That's all very nice, but unless the cloud system vendors see where the money is coming from, standards aren't going to be implemented where they count. In particular, when there are major market leaders, like Amazon and Google right now, it has to be worth more to those leaders than the lock-in they get from proprietary interfaces. I've yet to see anything indicating that they will, so am not very positive about cloud standards at present time.

But it could happen. The road to any given standard is very often devious, always political, regularly suffused with all kinds of nastiness, and of course ultimately driven throughout by good old capitalist greed. An example I'm rather familiar with is the way InfiniBand came to be, and semi-failed.

The beginning was a presentation by Justin Rattner at the 1998 Intel Developer Forum, in which he declared Intel's desire for their micros to grow up to be mainframes (mmmm… really juicy profit margins!). He thought they had everything except for IO. Busses were bad. He actually showed a slide with a diagram that could have come right out of an IBM Parallel Sysplex white paper, complete with channels and channel directors (switches) connecting banks of storage with banks of computers. That was where we need to go, he said, at a commodity price point. 

Shortly thereafter, Intel founded the Next Generation IO Forum (NGIO), inviting
 other companies to join in the creation of this new industry IO standard. That sounds fine, and rather a step better than IBM did when trying to foist Microchannel architecture on the world (a dismal failure), until you read the fine print in the membership agreement. There you find a few nasties. Intel had 51% of every vote. Oh, and if you have any intellectual property (IP) (patents) in the area, they now all belonged to Intel. Several companies did join, like Dell; they like to be "tightly integrated" with their suppliers.

A few folks with a tad of IP in the IO area, like IBM and Compaq (RIP), understandably declined to join. But they couldn't just let Intel go off and define something they would then have to license. So a collection of companies – initially Compaq, HP, and IBM – founded the rival Future IO Developer's Forum (FIO). Its membership agreement was much more palatable: One company, one vote; and if you had IP that was used, you had to promise to license it with terms that were "reasonable and nondiscriminatory," a phrase that apparently means something quite specific to IP lawyers.

Over the next several months, there was a steady movement of companies out of NGIO and into FIO. When NGIO became only Intel and Dell (still tightly integrated), the two merged as the InfiniBand Trade Association (IBTA). They even had a logo for the merger itself! (See picture.) The name "InfiniBand" was dreamed up by a multi-company collection of marketing people, by the way; when a technical group member told them he thought it was a great name (a lie) they looked worried. The IBTA had, in a major victory for the FIO crowd, the same key terms and conditions as FIO. In addition, Roberts' rules of order were to be used, and most issues were to be decided by a simple majority (of companies).

Any more questions about where the politics comes in? Let's cover devious and nasty with a sub-story:

While on one of the IBTA groups, during a contentious discussion I happened to be leading for one side, I mentioned I was going on vacation for the next two weeks. The first day I was on vacation a senior-level executive of a company on the other side in the dispute, an executive not at all directly involved in IBTA, sent an email to another senior-level executive in a completely different branch of IBM, a branch with which the other company did a very large amount of business. It complained that I "was not being cooperative" and I had said on the IBTA mailing lists that certain IBM products were bad in some way. The obvious intent was that it be forwarded to my management chain through layers of people who didn't understand (or care) what was really going on, just that I had made this key customer unhappy and had dissed IBM products. At the very least, it would have chewed up my time disentangling the mess left after it wandered around forwards for two weeks (I was on vacation, remember?); at worst, it could have resulted in orders to me to be more "cooperative," and otherwise undermined me within my own company. Fortunately, and to my wife's dismay, I had taken my laptop on vacation and watched email; and a staff guy in the different division intercepted that email, forwarded it directly to me, and asked what was going on. As a result, I could nip it all in the bud.

It's sad and perhaps nearly unbelievable that precisely the same tactic – complain at a high level through an unrelated management chain – had been used by that same company against someone else who was being particularly effective against them.

Another, shorter, story: A neighbor of mine who was also involved in a similar inter-company dispute told me that, while on a trip (and he took lots of trips; he was a regional sales manager) he happened to return to his hotel room after checking out and found people going through his trash, looking for anything incriminating.

Standards can be nasty.

Anyway, after a lot of the dust settled and IB had taken on a fairly firm shape, Intel dropped development of its IB product. Exactly why was never explicitly stated, but the consensus I heard was that compared with others' implementations in progress it was not competitive. Without the veto power of NGIO, Intel couldn't shape the standard to match what it was implementing. With Intel out, Microsoft followed suit, and the end result was InfiniBand as we see it today: A great interconnect for high-end systems that pervades HPC, but not the commodity-volume server part the founders hoped that it would be. I suspect there are folks at Intel who think they would have been more successful at achieving the original purpose if they had their veto, since then it would have matched their inexpensive parts. I tend to doubt that, since in the meantime PCI has turned into a hierarchical switched fabric (PCI Express), eliminating many of the original problems stemming from it being a bus.

All this illustrates what standards are really about, from my perspective. Any relationship with pristine technical discussions or providing the "right thing" for customers is indirect, with all motivations leading through money – with side excursions through political, devious, and just plain nasty.


admiyo said...

Great read! I've done a bit of InfiniBand work, and was always astounded at the political nature of the networking word in general. I suspect that anything with the potential to drive IP in a most/all interconnected hardware is bound to be a battleground.

I don't recall who said it, but there was a quote I heard that went something like this: I don't know what the networking interconnect of the future will look like, but I don't know that it will be called Ethernet.

Anonymous said...

What exactly is the point? Yes, business are in business to make money, not support their competitors. Look - there are powerful reasons that standards have emerged. They are essentially a balance between customers desire for interoperability and vendors desire to continue to do business with those customers. Stop cying about the dymanics of the standards is what it is. And with the emergence of geopolitical power blocks like China and the EU joining in, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Anonymous said...

I remember the launch of VIA by Intel at the beginning of 1997 in Arizona which mutated into NGIO, so they had been at it quite a while. I always wondered why they dropped it after having spent so much time developing and pushing it, but then PCI Express is not too far removed from some of the things they were pushing for at the time.

Greg Pfister said...

Anon #1 - I guess the point of the post didn't come across. I certainly didn't intend to be complaining about the standards process. I was trying to tell people who seem naive about standards what the real motivations are, and what really happens. For example, there was a IaaS cloud API standard published recently by a group that did not include Amazon. What good is that?

Greg Pfister said...

Anon #2 - Yes, the IB Ts & Cs were copied from those used in VIA. Beyond that I'm unsure; I don't know much about it.

But: Wasn't that an IO standard for intelligent devices that included, as part of the standard, the instruction set of a non-x86 Intel uP?

Strange things happen when one company has veto power.

=paulo.calcada said...

Great Read! Definitly it's very important for guys like me (the naive guys :)) to become acquainted with this kind of experience.

While I've only 10 years experience on the IT market, I had the oportunity to participate in a large set on enthusiastic discussions where people were not familiar with kind of process, and most important, they were not understanding that standars could only work, as you say, if they are closely developed with business. One could argue that are exception - and alternative way, and it's true. This morning I was talking with a friend about SPF (Sender policy Framework), which It's not really a standard by definition but it works as one. And I believe that this is a good example because it's extremely simple, easy to use (cheaper to implement), and it helps solve a very specific problem. And in my perspective, these could be the alternative way for successful standards.

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