In praise of Open Spirit

Neil McNaughton follows up last month’s promise to investigate commerciality and openness with a potted history of interoperability initiatives. COM for Energy, Project Synergy, POSC Business Objects are long forgotten. But Open Spirit is still alive, almost 20 years on. How come?

Industry software developments fall along a spectrum of standards, consortia, in-house and outsourced and commercial vendors. There is and has always been a sort of yin and yang thing between the idea that software, especially that which is concerned with data access, should somehow be open and that a vendor tool with the best data access in the world is missing something if it does not have an ‘open’ API. Folks blow hot and cold about the different approaches.

Looking back through the first few years of Oil IT Journal (then Petroleum Data Manager) I was reminded how lively the interoperability debate was back in the day, from 1996 to the end of the millennium. The interop issue was lively and complex with many facets and contributions from the two major standards bodies, PPDM and POSC (now Energistics), the two major vendors Landmark and Schlumberger and the oil and gas majors, particularly Chevron and Shell. These majors have, over the years, divested themselves of bits and pieces of intellectual property, either to standards bodies or to consortia, in the hope that they might be ‘taken up.’

The year 1999 was something of a high-water mark for IT at large, with great expectations and investment before the dot com bubble finally burst. The upstream shared in the general enthusiasm and there were several ‘initiatives’ targeting interoperability between upstream data stores. COM for Energy, Project Synergy and the POSC Business Objects are history, albeit interesting history, but OpenSpirit is still standing. Let’s try and see why…

The OpenSpirit Alliance was announced at the December 1997 SEG conference. OSA built on Shell’s in-house Spirit II development, an application-independent software platform that promised ‘plug and play’ upstream application interoperability. Chevron was also a backer of the OSA, bringing its own ‘object integration server’ to the table. Chevron’s Clay Harter was a strong advocate of the technology and the possibility of a move from ‘bloated applications’ to a ‘more modular computing environment with slimmed-down apps talking to data stores through an OSA middleware layer.’ The Shell spin-out PrismTech was named development contractor for the project.

Throughout these early years, there was some overlap and confusion as to the respective interoperability initiatives. COM for Energy was eventually replaced by the vaporware of Microsoft’s ‘upstream reference architecture,’ now also off the radar. POSC’s business objects and Open Spirit evolved in parallel and were to a degree, in competition with each other. I say to a degree because in a 1999 interview with the Oil and Gas Journal, CEO Keith Steele described Open Spirit as ‘the first commercial implementation of the POSC business objects standard.’ A careful trawl through Oil IT Journal’s record of the events suggests that this might have been an over simplified categorization of the relationship between POSC and OSA. Whatever.

With the bursting of the dot com bubble and the general disenchantment of things IT, those holding the purse strings decided that two initiatives was one too many. Thus, in 2000, the OSA was incorporated as Open Spirit Corp. with Shell, Chevron and Schlumberger as stakeholders and Harter as CEO. Open Spirit V2.0, the first commercial release, shipped in the same year. The ‘standard business object’ ideal was downplayed in favor of a more pragmatic approach. Open Spirit was to devote its resources to adding interoperable functionality to the major vendors’ software platforms, rather than realizing the vision of a building a stand-alone componentized platform. In an interview with Oil IT Journal, Harter explained, ‘Standard is a bit misleading. OpenSpirit is rather an interoperability solution although we would love it to become the de-facto standard for upstream interoperability.’

The next chapter is the OS saga was writ in 2010 when the company was acquired by Tibco which, a couple of years earlier, had acquired Spotfire. Combining Spotfire’s analytics with data access was a smart move. Tibco has raised Spotfire’s profile in oil and gas into a strong position as our short summary of presentations made at the 2016 Spotfire Energy conference (page 5) shows. Spotfire, rather like Esri, has raised itself to the enviable position of providing an integration platform that is also an application. Both Spotfire and Esri fill niches in the portfolio (analytics for Spotfire, GIS for Esri) without competing directly with the mainstream E&P vendors. OpenSpirit provides the connectivity with Spotfire (and in some cases with Esri) into the E&P platforms.

As the only game in town, OS has its detractors. Some hanker after the days of an ‘open’ standard and bemoan the fact that OS is owned by a single vendor, Tibco. One criticism that is levelled at OS is that it suffers from the deployment issues that come with any enterprise level software that crosses operating system boundaries and software releases.

There is a feeling that there ought to be something less vendor dependent, more open, less hard to maintain. Such a desire for a ‘true’ business objects-based solution was expressed at this year’s PNEC in the surprise announcement of ‘yet another’ business objects proposal from EnergyIQ.

But stepping back from the fray it is almost twenty years since the Open Spirit Alliance launched. Attendees to tradeshows, the SEG in particular, will have witnessed Clay Harter’s countless demos of the technology. His indefatigable, hands-on approach to promoting the technology contrasts with many who delegate such activity. Harter has seen the technology from inception to widespread deployment. Hats-off to Clay for this technology’s long-term success.


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