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Hailstorm: Open Web Services Controlled by Microsoft
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In the press surrounding HailStorm, Microsoft refers to its "massively distributed" nature, its "user-centric" model, and even makes reference to its tracking of user presence as "peer-to-peer." Despite this rhetoric, however, HailStorm as described is a mega-service, and may be the largest client-server installation ever conceived.

Microsoft addressed the requirements for running such a mega-service, saying:

Reliability will be critical to the success of the HailStorm services, and good operations are a core competency required to ensure that reliability. [...] Microsoft is also making significant operational investments to provide the level of service and reliability that will be required for HailStorm services. These investments include such things as physically redundant data centers and common best practices across services.

This kind of server installation is necessary for HailStorm, because Microsoft's ambitions for this service are large: they would like to create the world's largest address registry, not only of machines but of people as well. In particular, they would like to host the identity of every person on the Internet, and mediate every transaction in the consumer economy. They will fail at such vast goals of course, but succeeding at even a small subset of such large ambitions would be a huge victory.

Because they have decentralized their support of the client, they must necessarily make large parts of HailStorm open, but always with a caveat: while HailStorm is open for developers to use, it is not open for developers to build on or revise. Microsoft calls this an "Open Access" model -- you can access it freely, but not alter it freely.

This does not mean that HailStorm cannot be updated or revised by the developer community; it simply means that any changes made to HailStorm must be approved by Microsoft, a procedure they call "Open Process Extensibility." This process is not defined within the white paper, though it seems to mean revising and validating proposals from HailStorm developers, which is to say, developers who have paid to participate in HailStorm.

With HailStorm, Microsoft is shifting from a strategy of controlling software to controlling transactions. Instead of selling units of licensed software, Hailstorm will allow them to offer services to other developers, even those working on non-Microsoft platforms, while owning the intellectual property which underlies the authentications and transactions, a kind of "describe and defend" strategy.

"Describe and defend" is a move away from "software as unit" to "software as service," and means that their control of the HailStorm universe will rely less on software licenses and more on patented or copyrighted methods, procedures, and database schema.

While decentralizing client-code, Microsoft centralizes the three core aspects of the service:

  • Identity (using Passport)
  • Security (using Kerberos)
  • Definitions and Descriptions (using HailStorm's globally standardized schema)

Identity: The goal with Passport is simple -- ubiquity. As Bill Gates put it at the press conference: "So it's our goal to have virtually everybody who uses the Internet to have one of these Passport connections."

HailStorm provides a set of globally useful services which, because they are authentication-centric, requires all users to participate in its Passport program. This allows Microsoft to be a gatekeeper at the level of individual participation -- an Internet user without a Passport will not exist within the system, and will not be able to access or use Passport services. Because users pay to participate in the HailStorm system, in practice this means that Microsoft will control a user's identity, leasing it to them for use within HailStorm for a recurring fee.

It's not clear how open the Passport system will be. Microsoft has a history of launching web initiatives with restrictive conditions, and then dropping the restrictions that limit growth: the original deployment of Passport required users to get a Hotmail account, a restriction that was later dropped when this adversely affected the potential size of the Passport program. You can now get a Passport with any email address, and since an email address is guaranteed to be globally unique, any issuer of email addresses is also issuing potentially valid Passport addresses.

The metaphor of a passport suggests that several different entities agree to both issue and honor passports, as national governments presently do with real passports. There are several entities who have issued email addresses to millions or tens of millions of users -- AOL, Yahoo, ATT, British Telecom, et al. Microsoft has not spelled out how or whether these entities will be allowed to participate in HailStorm, but it appears that all issuing and validation of Passports will be centralized under Microsoft's control.

Security: Authentication of a HailStorm user is provided via Kerberos, a secure method developed at MIT for authenticating a request for a service in a computer network. Last year, Microsoft added its own proprietary extension to Kerberos, which creates potential incompatibilities between clients running non-Microsoft versions of Kerberos and servers running Microsoft's versions.

Microsoft has published the details of its version of Kerberos, but it is not clear if interoperability with the Microsoft version of Kerberos is required to participate in HailStorm, or if there are any licensing restrictions for developers who want to write SOAP clients that use Kerberos to access HailStorm services.

Definitions and Descriptions: This is the most audacious aspect of HailStorm, and the core of the describe-and-defend strategy. Microsoft wants to create a schema which describes all possible user transactions, and then copyright that schema, in order to create and manage the ontology of life on the Internet. In HailStorm as it was described, all entities, methods, and transactions will be defined and mediated by Microsoft or Microsoft-licensed developers, with Microsoft acting as a kind of arbiter of descriptions of electronic reality:

The initial release of HailStorm provides a basic set of possible services users and developers might need. Beyond that, new services (for example, myPhotos or myPortfolio) and extensions will be defined via the Microsoft Open Process with developer community involvement. There will be a single schema for each area to avoid conflicts that are detrimental to users (like having both myTV and myFavoriteTVShows) and to ensure a consistent architectural approach around attributes like security model and data manipulation. Microsoft's involvement in HailStorm extensions will be based on our expertise in a given area.

The business difficulties with such a system are obvious. Will the airline industry help define myFrequentFlierMiles, copyright Microsoft, when Microsoft also runs the Expedia travel service? Will the automotive industry sign up to help the owner of CarPoint develop myDealerRebate?

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