FDC3 creator sets sights on cloud-based interop with new company

Nicholas Kolba’s new venture aims to provide cloud-based interoperability for financial services apps—free of desktop containers and proprietary implementations.

His name may not be immediately recognizable to everyone, but if you’ve worked in the capital markets over the last 25 years, you’ve encountered technology engineered by Nicholas Kolba.

He was a key architect on the Thomson Reuters Eikon platform, pioneered large open-source projects, such as Chromium and the Dojo library, and created a patented communication protocol and APIs responsible for integrating business-critical content and functionality.

In 2016, he joined OpenFin, where he became chief technology officer and led the creation of the FDC3 protocol, a set of codified specifications for writing APIs and for messaging that enables traders’ desktop applications to interoperate and share information that is now an open standard under the governance of the Fintech Open Source Foundation (Finos). Kolba presided as chair of the standard’s working group from 2017 to 2021.

His work over the last two decades has culminated in the launch of his own new company, Connectifi, and with it, he’s stepping on the turf that’s been dominated over the last decade by three popular desktop app interoperability platforms: OpenFin, Cosaic, and Glue42.

But Kolba’s taking a novel approach—desktop interop, no longer confined to the desktop.

Connectifi promises the same functionality that his now-competitors do—applications can “talk” to one another and work in sync, while users can build their own custom workflows as a result—but through the cloud, instead of through a container, such as Electron.

Kolba was inspired, in part, by the industry’s push toward the cloud, which accelerated through the rise of remote working and by targeted offerings from Big Tech firms such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, and Microsoft Azure.

“Interop benefits from web tech because it puts everything on an equal footing, and you have less fragmentation in the technology stack. But at the same time, the way it’s implemented today means you end up with another fragmentation across different container platforms,” Kolba says. “What I wanted to do was create interop that’s not platform-dependent, not desktop-dependent, not container-dependent, not install-dependent; that can run anywhere; and that’s truly native to the web and truly native to the cloud.”

A whole new world

Interoperability for the trader desktop has become a hot topic over the last five years, with big-name institutions contracting the services of OpenFin, Cosaic, and Glue42. In 2020, Citi—an investor in Cosaic—implemented Cosaic’s desktop interop platform Finsemble across its institutional client groups, including capital markets and private banking. OpenFin proved transformational for Royal Bank of Canada, as WatersTechnology previously profiled. And just last month, asset manager AllianceBernstein enlisted Glue42 to support and organize its trader interface into a collection of micro-applications that form a single workflow.

The trio of vendors each does one similar, fundamental thing: enable applications to work in sync and share context by wrapping traders’ desktop applications in a proprietary container that’s based on the open-source Electron container. On top of that, they each add their own bells and whistles, such as notification centers, charting and visualization capabilities, and application directories.

However, most of the emphasis has been placed on the in-office desktop, and less attention has been given to mobile devices such as laptops, smart phones, tablets. And despite their compliance with—or at least use of—the FDC3 standard, the opposing proprietary implementations create a different kind of fragmentation, where applications running on OpenFin, for example, don’t interoperate with applications running on Cosaic and Glue42, and vice versa.

An FDC3 project maintainer tells WatersTechnology that for some in the industry, themself included, it’s become frustrating that interoperability and desktop applications have become synonymous.

“People seem to be fixated on this idea of creating a lot of windows with different web components on the desktop, then snapping them together and creating workspaces. That’s great, but it’s very superficial,” they say. “What adds the true value is unlocking the economical potential that is latent to organizations because they’ve got so many disparate systems that can’t connect to each other, that have been written by different people at different times over the years, and use different technologies. The promise of interoperability is about providing an avenue for that.”

Kolba maintains that the point of Connectifi isn’t to displace the existing vendors and that he isn’t interested in locking people in as users, but he is interested in making interoperability more democratic by making Connectifi an open-core product with an open interface. He plans to initially target the buy side, particularly those that don’t have large, dedicated technology teams.

A critical use-case that he sees lacking in the market is a meaningful workflow that unites desktop and mobile work for “continuity of state.” Picture, he says, a mobile app that allows a user to pick up context from the desktop, make decisions, send that information back, and have those decisions executed. If something happens while the user is out of the office—perhaps at lunch—that person should be able to manage an event on their phone and have that new state reflected back to them on their desktop when they return.

“I think that moving past the open-washing—using the word ‘open’ just because it’s ‘cool’ and because it’s something people do latch onto in the sales process—and having a thought-through commercial, open-source business model is a high-potential differentiator for [Kolba],” says a person familiar with Connectifi and involved in the FDC3 community since its inception. “Especially if you pair it with this idea of finally moving this interoperability layer to the cloud and onto the server side. I never fully understood why people are doing all this on the desktop in 2022. Why can’t we just do the complex, auditable and enterprise-level stuff on the server side like in modern cloud architectures?”

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (Nist), part of the US Department of Commerce, defines the five characteristics of cloud as on-demand self-service, broad network access, resource pooling, rapid elasticity or expansion, and measured service.

An ex-Morgan Stanley managing director says that as long as Kolba can align his company with those principles—those of a cloud company, not a container-enabled interop company—that should hedge his bet when it comes to the cultural infighting that has plagued the niche space.

FDC3 aims to solve a way to send messages agnostically between different applications, and it’s a pretty significant milestone. And it does have adoption,” they say. “But I don’t think it’s been the sea change that it could be because the implementations are currently locked into proprietary platforms.”

Interop oracle

Kolba has a knack for anticipation. Around 2006, when he was at Thomson Reuters, part of his work there included advocating for web technologies, such as HTML, and convincing—not easily—the organization’s technology brass that web was the future, and that it was quickly coming.

To help in his persuasion efforts, he brought in the then-CEO of Lightstreamer, an early company to commercially offer near real-time financial data, to give a demo to one of the architects. The demo showed low-latency, high-speed streaming data using a standard Internet Explorer browser. Until that point, the only tools commonly available for anything similar were the writing-intensive C++ and Java programming languages.

“So what?” the architect said to Kolba when the demo was over. “To him, it was just a toy. There was no way that this could ever be the future.”

That time, Kolba had the last laugh.

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