Kearns's column: The problem with 'uberdirectories'

(07/19/99) - It's been a very busy fortnight on the directory services front, especially for fans of metadirectories.

Microsoft started the ball rolling with the announcement of its acquisition of Zoomit, the creator of Via, a prominent metadirectory. Then Novell announced its Connect4Commerce technology, which incorporates an XML engine to create a virtual metadirectory in Novell Directory Services (NDS).

In my world, a metadirectory is one that holds metadata -- not actual objects, but descriptions of objects and their locations in other physical directories. Unfortunately, vendors such as Zoomit took the term "metadirectory" and redefined it so it could be used to describe what I'd call an überdirectory -- a directory that gathers and holds all the data from all your other directories.

The problem with überdirectories is they must become the authoritative source of all directory changes throughout the myriad directories within your organisation in order to maintain synchronisation. This presents a political problem -- IS wants to control the network directory, human resources wants to control the personnel directory and every other department wants sole control of its directory.

Real metadirectories (which we'll call "virtual directories" to differentiate them from überdirectories) consist, for the most part, of database views of directory objects throughout the enterprise. Each department can continue to maintain its own directory and choose to expose to the virtual directory only the information it wants to disseminate.

Add the problems of size and the accompanying use of bandwidth for synchronisation, and it's easy to see that a virtual directory is by far the way to go.

Novell chose to add virtual directory features to NDS while (it would seem) Microsoft wants to make Active Directory an überdirectory. It may be that Microsoft's acquisition of Zoomit was simply to acquire the expertise to create a virtual directory within Active Directory -- at least I hope so.

Both companies should incorporate the technologies into their directory products early next year, and a lot can happen in the next six to nine months. But from this perspective, it looks like a home run for Novell and just a long fly ball for Microsoft.

Kearns, a former network administrator, is a freelance writer and consultant in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at

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