Standards muddy 'open' waters

Amid the convergence of technologies across the IT stack, a host of products emerging from the world of open source, XML, and Web services are challenging traditional notions of open solutions.

IBM Corp., Apple Computer Inc., Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., and Nokia Corp. are passionate about their "open" mantra in the quest to address interoperability concerns. But the strategy itself is under threat of collapsing under its own weight.

While many vendors ascribe to all the right Internet-based open standards, layers of proprietary technology that limit a company's ability to build a genuinely open infrastructure can lurk beneath the surface.

For example, companies can still find themselves locked into certain components of legacy ERP systems, despite the proliferation of Web services, said Ismael Ghalimi, chief strategy officer at San Mateo, Calif.-based Intalio and chairman of business process management initiative

Part of the solution lies with a number of standards-making bodies that rose to prominence over the past two years. "I hope that WSI and Liberty Alliance would work together and really come up with a stable stack for Web services," Ghalimi said.

"There are a lot of people motivated by standards. But the choices of proprietary and open standards just isn't what it used to be," said John Rymer, a senior analyst at Giga Information Group, in Cambridge, Mass.

"We used to talk about open systems compared to very proprietary systems like the AS/400 where you could only get it from one vendor. It just isn't the same type of discussion any more," Rymer said.

Al Gillen, an analyst at IDC, based in Framingham, Mass. agrees. "Open is one of those convenient marketing terms. People bend it to meet their needs," he said.

Yet the march towards a convergence of technologies across IT infrastructures continues unabated. Linux, XML, Apache, MySQL and PHP and other open source technologies are "huge enablers of convergence", according to Michael Tiemann, CTO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Red Hat.

Ten years ago the vast majority of corporate shops had fragmented environments made of up of jagged hardware and software pieces that could never be pieced together smoothly. If they did not buy everything from a single vendor they had to live with the fragmentation.

"When the people are invested with the power to control their own destiny, they take an interest," Tiemann said, reflecting the aspirations of the Linux community at large.

Yet non-Linux vendors are also trying to glue together dozens of fragmented pieces. This is particularly true among the J2EE-based application server vendors, and is increasingly evident in the enterprise applications space.

"Users don't want all this fragmented stuff. They want a more converged software infrastructure that they can then build out to meet their specific needs," said Scott Hebner, IBM's director of marketing for WebSphere. "Lots of people are now building networked-based applications based on things like Java, Apache, and Web services, which are helping converge the differences of all the underlying hardware and operating systems," Hebner said.

IBM, for instance, over the past couple of years has converged its portal server, tools, integration products together with Websphere turning it from just an applications server into more of a platform environment.

"We built all the components of the Websphere software platform out of converged portals and integration parts and so it looks more now like a converged platform," Hebner said. "Websphere is open as a piece of infrastructure where partners can just plug-and-play their capabilities," he said.

Enterprise applications vendors SAP (with Netweaver) and Oracle (with its Business Flow Accelerators) are pushing to open their architectures with support for both J2EE and .Net development environments.

PeopleSoft boosted its integration capabilities with its recently announced AppConnect pre-integrated portal, integration and warehouse solutions. But AppConnect fails to deliver the Java development and run-time advantages of the SAP and Oracle offerings, said Jon Derome, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston .

On the middleware side, Vitria's process management capabilities surpass its competitors, according to Derome. Vitria unveiled its BusinessWare 4, the next generation of its business process management technology in October. BusinessWare 4 includes graphical solution-level modeling and solution lifecycle management capabilities to allow users to visually and logically unify an integration solution throughout all phases.

(Mark Jones contributed to this report.)