Interoperability and Portability in Cloud Computing

As businesses around the world increasingly turn towards cloud-based solutions to drive their digital transformation, cultivating competition between different cloud service providers has become a key objective for governments and regulators. Appropriate interoperability and portability between cloud computing systems is crucial and therefore frequently referenced in government policies, especially in the EU.

In order to attract new customers who may already be using a competing service, cloud computing companies like Microsoft are making significant efforts into achieving interoperability and portability. To advance better understanding of the technical complexities of this topic, a new international standard (ISO/IEC 19941) has been written by international cloud computing experts, many of them based in the EU.

This particular standard, which also takes European policy needs into account, is important as it establishes a common terminology and reference framework for understanding the different facets and technical issues of interoperability and portability in cloud computing.

Clarity around terminology is fundamental. The following terms are distinct and not synonymous:

  • Interoperability means the ability of two cloud systems to talk to another, i.e. to exchange messages and information in a way that both can understand.
  • Data portability means the ability to move data (files, documents, database tables, etc.) from one cloud system to another, and have that data usable in the other system.
  • Application Portability means the ability to move executable software from one cloud system to another, and be able to run it correctly in the destination system.

For each of these cases there are multiple facets that all require engineering solutions that are described in detail in the ISO/IEC 19941 standard. However, it does not seek to identify all of the different engineering approaches that may be considered, even though it discusses some related issues.

For example, using the same software stack on both systems is not a panacea since there are often elements, such as digital identifiers, security certificates, or URLs that are specific to a cloud system and must be converted anyway.

One possible approach to solving this issue is to enable adaptation tools. A protocol converter might be used for interoperability. Some kind of translator between intermediate data formats might assist with data portability. Software environment emulators might sometimes be used to support application portability. Such tools will often be obtained from third-party vendors.

In conclusion, interoperability and portability are distinct terms with specific meanings. Each is a complex topic which involves many layers of engineering. The ISO/IEC 19941 standard provides the necessary clarity for understanding these concepts and should therefore be a helpful reference in ongoing EU policy discussions and future policies. The adherence to such standards continues to be crucial when it comes to realizing Europe’s digital single market.

Mark Jeffrey
Technical Diplomat / Standards Officer

Mark Jeffrey is a Technical Diplomat / Standards Officer in Microsoft’s global Corporate Standards Group. He currently acts as vice-chairman of the UK standards committee on cloud computing (BSI IST/38). Coming from a background in telecommunications and standards, Mark has been with Microsoft since 1995 (working in the USA, the UK, and since 2003 in Switzerland). His work has included representing Microsoft in standards work across many different standards organizations including ETSI, the ITU, the EBU’s DVB project, and more recently in the ISO and IEC’s joint JTC1 work on cloud computing. He acted as a project editor for the ISO/IEC 17788 standard for cloud computing “Overview and Vocabulary”, and has made major contributions to several other international standards on cloud computing topics. Although Mark’s background and work is in engineering, he also holds an LL.M in International Legal Practice from the University of Law in the UK.