Standards Matter: The Battle For Interoperability Goes On
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Veteran standards bodies such as the IEEE, International Telecommunication Union, and Internet Engineering Task Force have established procedures for taking a standard from a twinkle in an engineer's eye to publication. However, with the fast pace of technology innovation, work in these bodies can drag on to the point where the standards they're developing aren't delivered until long after demand has peaked.
"The time to build standards is when knowledge is high, because you know what functions need to be worked on and politics are low, because no one has an entrenched stand to defend," says Steve Hanna, a distinguished engineer with Juniper Networks and another longtime member of various standards groups. That can be a narrow window that vendors often step through with proprietary functionality.
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One answer: small, targeted industry consortia, like the Trusted Computing Group and the Metro Ethernet Forum, that can move faster than the large standards bodies. Hanna, who's co-chair of the Trusted Network Connect and IETF Network Endpoint Assessment working groups, says the TNC completed initial work on its NAC spec in just about a year. Industry consortia are more nimble than the big bodies because their working groups are smaller and more focused. Also, they provide interoperability testing and certificate programs and coordinate work with other entities.
The Metro Ethernet Forum provides a good example of how to work with veteran standards bodies, vendors, and customers (in this case, carriers). The MEF decided early not to be a standards body, but to act as a liaison between its members and standards bodies and to communicate customer needs to the standards groups, says Craig Easley, VP of marketing at Matisse Networks and co-chair of the MEF North American Marketing Committee. The MEF recruited vendors and customers to become members. Carriers started making MEF certification a requirement in their requests for proposals, and now carriers are seeing MEF certification requirements showing up in RFPs from prospective enterprise customers. The result: a set of products that interoperate, reducing costs for all involved.
You Say Tomato ...
Standards bodies try to limit overlap and redundancy. Competing specs for the same functions benefit no one; proposals should be fought over in a single work group and a winner chosen based on technical merit. The IETF, IEEE, and others follow those guidelines and reuse each other's specs where it makes sense. They aren't in competition.
Unfortunately, politics can get in the way when a vendor has such a large stake in a format that it simply won't budge. Case in point: The ITU's International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the spec for the Open Document Format, or ODF, a file format developed by Sun Microsystems for its Star Office/OpenOffice. ODF is missing some critical components, like a definition for related apps such as spreadsheets and presentation files, but Oasis, the sponsoring organization, is working on those. Microsoft, with its huge investment in its own software, countered by submitting its own Office Open XML (OOXML) proposal to the Ecma International standards group, which in turn submitted it to the ISO, which published the standard in 2008 amid much controversy.
The ISO sidestepped the issue, stating that competing standards aren't unprecedented and that the market should decide. By that logic, since most of the world uses Microsoft Office applications, Redmond's formats are the de facto standard.
But critics take issue. "De facto standards are contradictory because they are held by one company and implemented only by those allowed to implement them, and the permission to do so can be changed," says Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager for Sun's OpenOffice.org.
Microsoft won't fully implement ISO Office Open XML until its next version of Office, Office 14. The European Union is pressuring Microsoft to support ODF. OpenOffice already supports OOXML, and Microsoft wrote a module for Office 2007 to read and write ODF.
Yeah, it's a mess.
The takeaway: If you're guilty of relegating standards support to a "nice to have" feature rather than a requirement, you're part of the problem. If you want products to interoperate, be prepared to walk away if a vendor can't prove compliance. Don't be brushed off with promises of standards support "on the road map." The alternative is vendor lock-in and higher costs, including the cost of maintaining systems that don't work together. Standards bodies are imperfect and must do better. The alternative: splintered networks and broken promises.