Open Data, Open Microsoft
I've always been a data guy. I think data maintenance, sharing and analysis is the inspiration for almost all line-of-business software, and technology that makes any or all of it easier is key to platform success. That's why I've been interested in WCF Data Services (previously ADO.NET Data Services) since it first appeared as the technology code-named "Astoria." Astoria was based on a crisp idea: representing data in AtomPub and JSON formats, as REST Web services, with simple URI and HTTP verb conventions for querying and updating the data.
Astoria, by any name, has been very popular, and for good reason: It provides refreshingly simple access to data, using modern, well-
established Web standards. Astoria provides a versatile abstraction layer over data access, but does so without the over-engineering or tight environmental coupling to which most data-access technologies fall prey. This elegance has enabled Microsoft to do something equally unusual: separate Astoria's protocol from its implementation and publish that protocol as an open standard. We learned that Microsoft did this at its Professional Developers Conference (PDC) this past November in Los Angeles, when Redmond officially unveiled the technology as Open Data Protocol (OData). This may have been one of Microsoft's smartest data-access plays, ever.
Data Lingua Franca
The brilliance behind separating and opening Astoria's protocol has many dimensions. Microsoft is already reaping rewards from OData in terms of unprecedented interoperability among a diverse array of its own products. Windows Azure table storage is exposed and consumable using OData; SharePoint 2010 lists will be accessible as OData feeds; and the data in SQL 2008 R2 Reporting Services reports -- including data visualized as charts, gauges and maps -- will be exposed in OData format. To tie it all together, Microsoft PowerPivot (formerly code-named "Gemini") will be able to consume any OData feed and integrate it into data models that also contain table data from relational databases. PowerPivot models can then be analyzed in Excel, making OData relevant to the vast majority of business users.
But the benefits go beyond Microsoft products and technologies. The Microsoft cloud data feed platform, code-named "Dallas," is based on OData and already serves a wide array of commercial and United Nations agency data. It provides an easy way for any organization to publish its data online. In the same vein, a group within the Microsoft field organization has created something called the Open Government Data Initiative (OGDI), on which platform -- and open source starter kit -- local governments and even the U.S. General Services Administration are publishing their data online.
Dallas and OGDI data is easily accessible from .NET using Astoria client technology, and from Excel using PowerPivot. And because Microsoft created Astoria "bridges" for both PHP and Java, developers on those platforms have easy access to Dallas and OGDI data as well. Because OData is based on XML, HTTP and REST, anyone with a Web browser has direct access to these data streams, too. For one technology to enable so many data-consumption scenarios -- each with a minimum of special setup requirements -- is pure poetry in software.
OData Beyond Microsoft
IBM has used OData to implement its WebSphere eXtreme Scale REST data service, providing access to the IBM eXtreme Scale data grid from all the client endpoints I've discussed. The best part is that IBM did this without any help from the OData team; the technical friction was that low.
Microsoft is doing great things here, and I wonder if people are taking notice. While pundits and luminaries debated technology and government at confabs like the Personal Democracy Forum in New York this past summer, an off-campus group of Microsoft employees applied their company's technology to make government data sharing concrete and easy. And while many in the industry fault Microsoft for not innovating or serving interoperability, OData shows that Microsoft does both.
Meanwhile, the innovation and benefits of OData remain a well-kept secret. It's true that Microsoft needs to promote OData better. But the industry press and analysts need to discard their stereotypes of Redmond and cover OData for the newsworthy technology that it is, as well.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!