Zooming into the Installed Base

Does Microsoft really care about interoperability with other vendors' products? Historically, I’d argue that the answer has been no. Acting the role of an 800-pound gorilla, the company has been content to let the world interoperate with it, assuming -- quite correctly -- that the market its products represent is too big to ignore. But the challenge of selling Windows 2000 and its importance to Microsoft’s bottom line appear to have had some impact on this traditional perspective.

Case in point: Active Directory. Moving fully to Windows 2000 requires deploying Active Directory, but most organizations already have several directories in place. Installing another one, then making it work well with existing directory services, is hard to make attractive. Ideally, every organization ought to have one central directory that gets used for everything. For reasons both political and practical, however, this won’t be the reality for most people. If Microsoft can’t convince customers to add Active Directory to their current mix, it can’t sell them Windows 2000. Because it’s arriving a bit late at the directory party, Microsoft needs to try something new.

It has. By acquiring Zoomit, the leading provider of a metadirectory product, Microsoft has admitted the need to make Active Directory play well with others. According to Peter Houston, lead product manager for Active Directory, "Microsoft believes that a very important factor in directory success is the level of integration that a directory can provide. Active Directory is not the first directory people will use -- people already have lots of directories or directory-like repositories of information. Microsoft believes ensuring that Active Directory works well with existing directory investments will make it easier to adopt Windows 2000."

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t the perspective I’ve come to expect from Microsoft. Admitting that its enterprise technologies must fit well with what customers already have, then making an expensive acquisition to help make this possible, isn’t Redmond’s conventional modus operandi. Yet given the importance of directory interoperability, it certainly makes sense.

A metadirectory, the technology pioneered by Zoomit, acts as a directory of directories. Its goal is to present a consistent picture to users, even though the data that makes up that picture is extracted from many different sources. Some of those sources may be conventional directory services, such as LDAP directories, while others may not be. Potentially, any source of information could be folded into the view provided by a metadirectory. It’s a very appealing idea, although one that presents significant technical challenges.

Microsoft has announced other technologies for connecting together different directories. The most interesting of these is DirSynch, a generic component for building links with other LDAP directories. Microsoft is using this component for its own synchronization technology between Active Directory and NDS, and we’ll probably see it used in other ways as well.

Whatever Microsoft ultimately ships as a metadirectory, it’s probably safe to assume that it will work best with Active Directory at the center. If I were Microsoft, this is what I’d do. Allowing Active Directory to work well with an existing installed base is one thing, but making it anything less than essential won’t help the stock price.

Once again, Microsoft is demonstrating what may be the single strongest asset of their corporate culture: utter pragmatism. If winning in a market requires changing what the company has been doing, then that change will happen. It’s too soon to know, but Microsoft may also be demonstrating another aspect of their culture, one that has left many of their customers unhappy: a commitment to forcing customers to put Microsoft products at the center of their computing world. This is a rational thing for any vendor to do, especially one as dominant as Microsoft. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. --David Chappell is principal of Chappell & Associates (Minneapolis), an education and consulting firm. Contact him at david@chappellassoc.com.

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