Groups spar over Web standards

In their haste to assume a leadership role in Web services standards, IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. are said to be stepping on toes by fostering proposals that compete with those of other groups. The moves have raised the possibility of such standards becoming fragmented, as well as questions about intellectual property rights, both of which critics fear could ultimately hurt adoption.

The issue was highlighted last week when IBM and Microsoft, along with BEA Systems Inc. and Tibco Software Inc., unveiled two specifications for reliable messaging standards. The announcement came just two weeks after all four companies refused invitations to join the newly chartered Web Services Reliable Messaging (WS-RM) technical committee at the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), which is developing a nearly identical specification to the IBM/Microsoft group.

It's the second major area in which IBM and Microsoft have joined to introduce a protocol to compete with existing proposals before established standards bodies. The other area is business process workflow, for which the two have proposed the Business Process Execution Language for Web Services (BPEL4WS), which competes with efforts under way at the World Wide Web Consortium, OASIS and BPMI.org.

Over the past year, the IBM/Microsoft tandem has become the leading force in developing standards protocols that fill major holes in Web services technology, including reliability, security and business process workflow. The two also created the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), which offers guidance for developing interoperable Web services. WS-I gained notoriety because IBM/Microsoft initially denied rival Sun a board seat in what was deemed an obvious power play. This week, WS-I will vote on Sun's bid to join the group's board.

"Most vendors see Web services as a land-grab opportunity and are seeking to stake claims on territory," says Ron Schmelzer, an analyst with ZapThink LLC. "Customers are far from implementing many of these immature specifications so we have to interpret this land-grab standards mentality as a way for vendors to position their companies and their products as the platforms of choice for implementing this new breed of application."

Schmelzer says to expect more major standards battles this year.

"There is little incentive for vendors to get along these days. They are each pitching products at different locations on the Web services continuum, and thus have their own agendas when proposing a specification," he says.

IBM and Microsoft officials don't deny their recent efforts are part of a broader Web services environment they have been proposing for more than a year. The two say they are proposing protocols that will help their customers integrate products, but said standardization is the end game. Steven VanRoekel, director of Web services marketing for Microsoft, says the reliable messaging work had been underway for a year and was so close to completion they decided to continue instead of joining WS-RM.

"You can count on the fact that our goal is to work with the industry to arrive at one standard, but the drive toward a single standard doesn't always follow a straight path," says Karla Norsworthy, director of dynamic e-business technologies for IBM.

But members of the OASIS committee that were snubbed by IBM/Microsoft see things differently.

"It's unfortunate that there is this type of politics at the major vendor level," says Dave Chappell, chief technology evangelist at Sonic Software Corp., which along with Fujitsu Ltd., Hitachi Ltd., Oracle Corp., NEC Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. created the foundation specification for the OASIS WS-RM technical committee. "In the grand scheme of things, customers want to see vendors cooperate, not compete, for the establishment and adoption of standards. The long-term effect is that it causes rifts and the user base will not adopt anything."

Many users agree that standards work should happen within recognized standards bodies or consortiums.

"You start this proprietary junk and it will kill us," says John Picanso, CTO at the Colorado Department of Agriculture. "If we don't have standards to support what we are doing, we are cooked. All this does is slow down the process."

Sun, itself accused of polluting the waters around Web services standards development with its early objections to XML and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), says IBM and Microsoft are undermining the true value of standards.

"They are driving fragmentation and creating confusion with no good business rationale," says Ed Julson, group manager for Web services standards and technologies at Sun.

IBM and Microsoft are following a path they laid out last year when they released their first tag-team specification called WS-Security, which is now on a standards track at OASIS, and a white paper outlining their plan of attack.

The two are building a framework where security, reliability and provisioning requirements are expressed in a standard way within one policy extension, called WS-Policy, to SOAP, instead of attaching a series of individual extensions to a SOAP message. Their work on BPEL4WS and reliable messaging align with that policy model.

But none of the specifications have been submitted to a standards body, including WS-Policy.

However, the two are using that model to dominate the development of Web services standards deemed most critical for corporate technology adoption.

"IBM and Microsoft drive anything that has to do with Web services," says Anne Thomas Manes, research director at Burton Group and an active participant in many Web services standards organizations. "It worries me that they have that much control, but at the same time they are providing good stuff and they are teaming with experts."

IBM and Microsoft teamed with VeriSign to develop WS-Security. They worked with BEA on process workflow; and Tibco and BEA on reliable messaging.

"But the real concern," Manes says, "is over intellectual property rights. Both companies are still reserving the right to their intellectual property on a lot of this work. It gives them so much more control in the long run."

IBM has offered its contribution to WS-Security royalty free, and Microsoft says it has done the same. But the same issue over the duo's BPEL4WS and reliable messaging work won't be addressed until those proposals are submitted to a standards body.

One source at OASIS says Microsoft didn't join their efforts on reliable messaging because the company balked at the intellectual property rights (IPR) statement adopted by the OASIS WS-RM technical committee. The source says IBM was fine with the statement.

Tom Rutt, co-chair of WS-RM, holds out hope that IBM and Microsoft will join his technical committee soon to assure that their ideas get woven into the group's final specification, due in September.

"I'd like to invite IBM and Microsoft to submit their specifications on Web services reliable messaging to our [technical committee], assuming they are willing to go royalty free on the IPR," Rutt says. "We have enough momentum to get a real workable spec."

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