Semantic interoperability: Small example of large cost of misunderstanding

Who says that the current preoccupation in IT with “semantic interoperability” are not relevant to business? Here’s an all too common story, even if the actors remain anonymous.
A company sells its popular server-based document management solution to a public administration, dealing directly with the service that will use the application. A deal is struck for the price of a single server license.
The service concerned is more than happy with the software and asks the in-house IT department to take over its management in its central data centre. They readily agree and install the software on separate pre-production and production servers, and in two physical locations in line with their recognised best practices.
Everyone is happy with the software, the supplier, the IT department’s professionalism and the service unit that has overseen the whole operation…or are they? There is a little problem.
On a routine visit, the company’s account manager learns of the move of his software to the data centre. His problem is that the contract is for a single server license and the software is now running on four servers. The service concerned maintains they are running a single server, certainly from a business perspective. The IT department maintain that their service level agreement is aimed at securing maximum availability and security, and the decision to deploy the software on four servers is standard practice.
I know, the contract spells it out and the lawyers have checked eveything. Except a serious software company is claiming to be three server licences out of pocket. All the terms are clear, no? No need to drag in the lawyers. So what is a “server”, a “licence”, a “single use”? Well it transpires in this case, that there wasn’t any common agreement over the terms. In such a seemingly straightforward scenario, the lack of clear bsuiness semantics is costly. It’s not for me to judge who is right or whether the software company or the administration are pulling a fast one, but the fact that there is a margin of doubt of more than a 100,000 dollars is surely cause for concern.
Semantic interoperability is all about ensuring that different systems understand each others needs and requests properly and without ambiguity. But to get there, as this anecdote shows, will firstly require some clear understanding among human, business managers, about the terminology in use.

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