XML could be key to directory interoperability

The search for directory interoperability gained momentum last week as five powerhouse organisations joined forces to promote a standard way for directories to exchange data.

IBM, Microsoft, Novell, Oracle and the Sun/Netscape Alliance all lined up behind the proposed Directory Services Markup Language (DSML), an extension to XML that lets directories exchange information about their data.

The ability of directories to exchange "schema" information, data about a directory's content, in a standard way is important for interoperability. The Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), the existing standard, currently lacks that ability. A directory schema is used to name objects, such as users, and attributes, such as addresses and telephone numbers. Directories typically have their own unique schema.

The goal of DSML developers is to create a method for a directory to present its schema in a language common to all directories. The proposed standard would make it easier to develop "connectors" that link directories.

DSML would be the mechanism for exchanging schema data, such as employee names or privileges, and for supporting user management and Web-based applications. But it is certainly not a panacea for interoperability.

"Interoperability means you need some form of common directory schema," says Durwin Sharp, electronic commerce advisor for Exxon. "However, time will tell if DSML's second-to-last initial stands for 'magic' or 'markup'."

Sharp and others attending The Burton Group's Catalyst Conference in Lake Tahoe last week said they need time to learn about the advantages of XML and DSML. XML is a set of tags, much like HTML, for describing data.

"We keep looking for nirvana and new ones keep popping up," says Don Bowen, directory architect for a large heavy-equipment manufacturer in the Midwest. "But they're all non-nirvana solutions. ... It's just that some are better than others."

But one thing is certain -- connectors are a key element of metadirectories. The technology is fast gaining favour as a way to unify directories in a single logical infrastructure that supports distributed computing and security.

Both Microsoft and Novell have made significant moves to incorporate metadirectory technology into their products. IBM plans to ship the technology later in the year as part of its SecureWays directory, while Netscape is currently shipping the technology with Directory Server.

"Vendors are backing metadirectories because users are saying directories are too hard to deploy without these tools," says Jamie Lewis, president of The Burton Group. "Metadirectories show that directory technology is maturing."

The five vendors, along with Bowstreet Software, say they intend to present the DSML specification to a standards body later in the year, although they did not specify which one. The World Wide Web Consortium oversees the development of XML.

DSML was created by electronic commerce vendor Bowstreet as a way for its Web-based application framework to take advantage of a directory. Bowstreet will release its DSML implementation in the third quarter.

"DSML gets directory information into a format that can be used by XML-based electronic commerce applications," says Todd Hay, product manager for Bowstreet. "It helps pull the power of the directory into electronic commerce."

DSML fulfills a baseline requirement for directory interoperability, and the fact that rivals Microsoft and Novell are among those committed to it makes it more significant.

"These vendors will never agree on standardised schema, but they have agreed on how they describe their schema, and that's important," Lewis says.

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