Standards: A high-stakes game

More than ever, businesses rely on IT products and services built around standards. But that demand, and the evolution of the industry, is changing how standards are created -- and who creates them. The old image of a group of engineers working together to find the best technology to solve a problem is giving way to new realities.

As the market for IT products and services has grown, the stakes for vendors and users have increased. An emerging technology such as ultrawideband (UWB) may open up a market worth US$1 billion or more. With so much at stake, participation in standards groups has swelled, and vendors have pushed harder to have their technologies adopted as standard. That has made it difficult to reach consensus in some cases and created deadlock in others. And increasingly, vendors are trying to generate revenue by licensing intellectual property rights on the technologies they advocate as standards, rather than donating them for the common good.

"You now have compromises that are not just mathematical compromises or technical compromises but have major marketing compromises behind them," says Jim Carlo, president of the IEEE Standards Association.

Meanwhile, the evolution of more sophisticated systems has increased costs and worked against interoperability. At MasterCard International, the challenge lies in getting industry-standard equipment to interoperate when inserted into complex systems such as its storage-area network (SAN).

"There are issues as you drill down into the management and interoperability of complex environments," says Jim Hull, vice president of engineering services at the financial services company. "You need to ask vendors whether they interoperate and at what level."

But some changes are also paying dividends for business users. "What's better is the testing and verification. The companies are taking it upon themselves to ensure that their products work as advertised and are expanding their test labs and their testing," says Hull.

Successful industry standards are issued by authoritative organizations and are widely accepted by the market. "A standard is an indication that you are buying a technology that has proved itself," says Alan Bryden, secretary general of the International Standards Organization (ISO). And while standards in and of themselves don't ensure interoperability, they are a necessary precondition.

Opportunity Beckons

To Hull, a successful standard is one that lets him find a second source and receive competitive pricing for storage networking equipment that will plug and play with his SAN. "Because I approach it from a standards perspective, my interoperability issues go way down," he says.

For vendors, standardization results in the opportunity of a broader market and the expense of increased competition. "The companies involved need to decide when it is to their advantage to enlarge the pie even though they may lose market share," says Carlo.

Authoritative organizations used to include mainly those standards development groups accredited by the American National Standards Institute, which represents the U.S. in the ISO and in other national standards bodies. Now many specifications come from hundreds of organizations, including vendor alliances, consortia and other industry groups.

Such groups have proliferated in recent years. Organizations pop up when existing standards bodies are seen as being too slow to respond, lacking expertise or disinterested in an emerging technology. In some situations, vendors strike out on their own, believing that their technologies won't get a fair hearing if they go to an established group.

That was the reasoning behind the formation of DCML.org, a vendor consortium founded by Opsware a year ago to promote the Data Center Markup Language for exchanging information between management systems in data centers.

"If you bring it to a standards organization too soon, it will not have a chance to evolve on its own merits," says Tim Howes, Opsware's chief technology officer and chairman of the DCML Framework Technical Committee. But DCML.org was ignored by major data center software vendors.

"DCML may have been an attempt at a standard, but it certainly wasn't open," says Alan Ganek, vice president of autonomic computing at IBM. But DCML.org recently became part of the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), and Ganek says IBM may take a second look.

It's not uncommon for large players to join a standards effort late, says Patrick Gannon, president and CEO of OASIS. "It's only when there's a clear indication from the market that they come on board," he notes.

Harald Alvestrand, chairman of the Internet Engineering Task Force, says what's often missing in standards organizations is significant user participation. In most cases, IETF standards efforts are driven by vendors.

"The standards process would deliver better standards if users were more active within it. [Users] inform the discussion in ways that other people can't," Alvestrand says.

Making It Work

One subject on which customers continue to speak loudly is interoperability, and many industry associations are doing both compliance and interoperability testing.

For example, early implementations of both 802.11 and 802.11b wireless LAN cards and access points were "somewhat proprietary" and wouldn't interoperate, says Ken Pasley, director of wireless systems development at FedEx Services, part of FedEx. "We put enough pressure on the manufacturers that they began to comply more," he says.

The situation has improved since the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying equipment for interoperability, Pasley notes. But vendor claims still go beyond the levels actually supported. "Many times, they will say it will run with your application, but they don't know what your application is," Pasley says. He says he trusts the specifications but adds, "We have to test on our own."

Vendors are also testing earlier in the standards development process, says Scott Valcourt, managing director of the University of New Hampshire Interoperability Laboratory, which does testing for vendor groups working on communications technologies. Increasingly, the lab is getting involved with standards right from the start. The result is better interoperability, he says. "When a technology exists, in this day and age, every device using that technology should be interoperable," Valcourt says.

But that's still not the reality, says MasterCard's Hull. "It's not a perfect world, and there's a long way to go to ensure that [products] interoperate."

Even when vendors are interested in developing a standard, they don't always agree on the details. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc.'s study group for the UWB specification for wireless communications remains deadlocked after two years. Neither of two competing camps, led by Intel and Motorola's Freescale Semiconductor, has the votes needed to move forward. "The engineers are not listening to each other anymore," laments Martin Rofheart, director of UWB operations at Freescale.

"Today, because there is the perception that [UWB] could be a major business opportunity and major vendors are involved, it makes it very difficult to compromise," says the IEEE Standards Association's Carlo.

Stephen Wood, technology strategist at Intel, says the failure was not starting the standards process earlier, before Freescale had committed resources to developing its own technology. But other consortia have collaborated to develop specifications before bringing them to a standards body.

That's how Serial Attached SCSI came about, says Skip Jones, Speed Forum chairman at the Fibre Channel Industry Association. Whether in a standards group or vendor alliance, key vendors must to be willing to compromise. "My view is to let the marketplace decide [about UWB] rather than spend years in standards meetings trying to work a solution," says Carlo.

Both technologies may well move forward without a standard or even an agreement to prevent interference. And ultimately, such competition may be good for the market. But the short-term cost to customers will be compatibility problems and confusion.

Increasingly, vendors have an interest in more than just selling products based on a standard, says Carlo. "There are two types of companies developing standards. One wants to build products that are interoperable. The other wants to generate money from intellectual property in those standards," he says.

The most obvious examples are in the area of digital rights management, where vendors own patents for different types of encryption and copy-protection schemes, Carlo says. So far, however, the IEEE and other respected standards groups have resisted the pressure. "We have a royalty-free patent policy," says Steve Bratt, chief operating officer and acting chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium.

For most users, however, having consistently interoperable products is still the immediate concern. "I'd still like to see a longer-term commitment to certification between [vendors] for their products. This would help ensure that what was tested and worked last year still works even though new releases of the products have been implemented," says Hull. But, he adds, "it's still far better today than it was 20 years ago."

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More about EvolveFedExFibre Channel Industry AssociationIBM AustraliaIEEEIEEE Standards AssociationIETFIntelInternational Standards OrganizationInternet Engineering Task ForceISOMastercardMotorolaOpswareOrganization for the Advancement of Structured Information StandardsWorld Wide Web Consortium

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