The Tragedy of the Commons in Cloud standards

I wasn’t at the OSCON Cloud Summit this past week, but I’ve spent some time over the weekend trying to collect the good bits. Via Twitter, I had heard echos of an interesting debate on Cloud standards between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black. Today I got to see Benjamin’s slides and read reports from two audience members, Charles Engelke and Krishnan Subramanian. Sam argued that Cloud standards are needed, Benjamin that they would be premature.

Benjamin is right about what to think and Sam is right about what to do.

Let me put it differently: Benjamin is right in theory, but it doesn’t matter. Here is why.

Say I’m a vendor and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I truly believe the industry would be better served if we all waited. Does this mean I’ll stay away from Cloud standards efforts for now? Not necessarily, because nothing is stopping my competitors from doing it. In the IT standards world, your only choice is to participate or opt out. For the most part you can’t put your muscle towards stopping an effort. Case in point, Amazon has so far chosen to opt out; has that stopped VMWare and others from going to DMTF and elsewhere to ratify specifications as standards? Of course not. To the contrary, it has made the option even more attractive because when the leader stays home it is a lot easier for less popular candidates to win the prize. So as a vendor-who-was-convinced-by-Benjamin I now have the choice between letting my competitor get his specification rubberstamped (and then hit me with the competitive advantage of being “standard compliant” and even “the standard leader”) or getting involved in an effort that I know to be counterproductive for the industry. Guess what most will choose?

Even the initial sinner (who sets the wheels of premature standardization in motion) may himself be convinced that it’s too early for Cloud standards. But he has to assume that one of his competitors will make the move, and in that context why give them first mover advantage (and the choice of the battlefield). It’s the typical Tragedy of the Commons scenario. By acting in a rational and self-interested way, participants invariably end up creating a bad situation, one that they might all know is against everyone’s self interest.

And it’s not just vendors.

Say I’m an officer of a Standard-setting organization and Benjamin convinces me

If you expect that I would use my position in the organization to prevent companies from starting a Cloud standard effort there, you live in fantasy-land. Standard-setting organizations compete with one another just as fiercely as companies do. If I have achieved a position of leadership in a given standard organization, the last thing I want is to see another organization lay claims to a strategic and fast-growing area of the IT landscape. It takes a lot of time and money for a company to get elected on the right board and gets its employees (or other reliable allies) in the right leadership positions. Or to acquire people already in that place. You only get a return on that investment if the organization manages to be the one where the key standards get created. That’s what’s behind the landgrab reflex of many standards organizations.

And it goes beyond vendors and standards organizations

Say I’m an IT buyer and Benjamin convinces me

Assume I really believe Cloud standards are premature. Assume they get created anyway and I have to choose between a vendor who supports them and one who doesn’t. Do I, as a matter of principle, refuse consider the “standard-compliant” label in my purchasing decision? Even if I know that the standard shouldn’t have been created, I also know that, all other things being equal, the “standard-compliant” product will attract more tools and complementary solutions and will likely ease future integration problems.

And then there is the question of how I’ll explain this to my boss. Will Benjamin be by my side with his beautiful slides when I am called in an emergency meeting to explain to the CIO why we, unlike the competitors, didn’t pick “a standards-based solution”?

In the real world, the only way to solve problems caused by the Tragedy of the Commons is to have some overarching authority regulate the usage of the resource at risk of being ruined. This seems unlikely to be a workable solution when the resource is not a river to protect from sewer discharges but an IT domain to protect from premature standardization. If called, I’d be happy to serve as benevolent dictator for the IT industry (I could fix a few other things beyond the Cloud standards landgrab issue). But as long as neither I nor anyone else is in a dictatorial position, Benjamin’s excellent exposé has no audience for which his call to arms (or rather to lay down the arms) is actionable. I am not saying that everyone agrees with Benjamin, but that even if everyone did it still wouldn’t make a difference. Many of us in the industry share his views and rationally act as if we didn’t.

[UPDATED 2010/7/25: In a nice example of Blog/Twitter synergy, minutes after posting this I was having a conversation on Twitter with Benjamin Black about my interpretation of what he said. Based on this conversation, I realize that I should clarify that what I mean by "standards" in this post is "something that comes out of a standard-setting organization" (whether or not it gets adopted), in other words what Benjamin calls a "standard specification". He uses the word "standard" to mean "what most people use", which may or may not be a "standard specification". That's a big part of the disconnect that led to our Twitter chat. The other part is that what I presented as Benjamin's thesis in my post is actually only one of the propositions in his talk, and not even the main one. It's the proposition that it is damaging for the industry when a standard specification comes out of a standard organization too early. I wasn't at the conference where Benjamin presented but it's hard to understand anything else out of slide 61 ("standardize too soon, and you lock to the wrong thing") and 87 ("to discover the right standards, we must eschew standards"). So if I misrepresented him I believe it was in making it look like this was the focus of his talk while in fact it was only one of the points he made. As he himself clarified for me: "My _actual_ argument is that it doesn't matter what we think about cloud standards, if they are needed, they will emerge" (again, in this sentence he uses "standards" to mean "something that people have converged on").

More generally, my main point here has nothing to do with Benjamin, Sam and their OSCON debate, other than the fact that reading about it prompted me to type this blog entry. It's simply that there is a perversion in the IT standards landscape that makes it impossible for premature standardization *not* to happen. It's something I've written before, e.g. in this post:

Saying “it’s too early” in the standards world is the same as saying nothing. It puts you out of the game and has no other effect. Amazon, the clear leader in the space, has taken just this position. How has this been understood? Simply as “well I guess we’ll do it without them”. It’s sad, but all it takes is one significant (but not necessarily leader) company trying to capitalize on some market influence to force the standards train to leave the station. And it’s a hard decision for others to not engage the pursuit at that point. In the same way that it only takes one bellicose country among pacifists to start a war.

Benjamin is just a messenger; and I wasn't trying to shoot him.]

[UPDATED 2010/8/13: The video of the debate between Sam Johnston and Benjamin Black is now available, so you can see for yourself.]

6 Comments

Filed under Amazon, Big picture, Cloud Computing, DMTF, Ecology, Everything, Governance, Standards, Utility computing, VMware

6 Responses to The Tragedy of the Commons in Cloud standards

  1. If we use Nicholas Carr’s metaphor that the cloud will evolve like electric utilities, then we only need the 120V at 60Hz equivalent as a standard.

    I would argue we already have that with TCP/IP running on x86. Anything else built on top of that is fair game in the cloud.

  2. Jayadeep Purushothaman

    If you look at the Unix standardization efforts where every unix vendor was involved, the ultimate winner was Microsoft! And finally a de-facto standard evolved in the form of Linux! So I am not so sure about your thoughts here.

  3. I thought about this more, and I don’t want to belabor the point too much, but I still think the standards situation is more appropriately labeled an nxn prisoners dilemma.

    My rationale is that a ‘tragedy of the commons’ is typified by the depletion of a shared common resource while the ‘prisoners dilemma’ is typified by the choices made changing the dynamics and consequences of the choices of others.

    Your standards for choosing metaphors is clearly flawed.

    I’m suggest we settle this the gentlemanly way all standards debates should be… a duel with pistols.

  4. Andrew, I think there is a good argument to be made that this is indeed a “prisoner’s dilemma” type of situation if we assume that preventing premature standardization increases the size of the “Cloud market” pie, which I can easily believe.

    The “duel” suggestion makes me realize that it may be for the better that we failed to find a mutually convenient time and place to meet when you were in town a week ago…

  5. Well I don’t really care about these low-level Cloud Standards. They will just become commodities. In fact the faster we can commoditize the Infrastructure as as Service (IaaS) layer the better. The real standards benefit will be in the Platform as a Service (PaaS) layer that will be built on top of the IaaS layer.
    -Think SQL database services that auto scale etc etc all you do is drop in your SQL.
    -Programming services where similarly you just drop in your code and it all runs.
    -lots more.
    These services will appear once the IaaS layer is commoditized and will have alot of business benefit. Currently there is too much variety in the IaaS clouds to build these. I expect a lot of effort going on in the IaaS layer will just go up the river when commoditization happens. I think Amazon understand this. They just create commodities as cheap, reliable, secure and scalable as possible. Everything else is irrelevant for Infrastructure as a Service.

  6. If there is the potential for a “tragedy of the commons” in the cloud, it would be that large cloud companies are building on open source (taking) and technically are not violating the GPL when not giving back their enhancements because “redistribution” doesn’t extend to a server hosting context.

    Fortunately, Google and other companies have built sufficient goodwill by giving back to the open source community in many different ways, so few developers want to force the issue (Most OS project leads are even hired to work at these companies). But still, many forks are being held close to the chest.

    http://www.infoworld.com/t/applications/gpl-author-google-must-share-code-288