Setting a Standard

With a stable XML and the need to tackle Web services, the time is right for IT managers to enter the fray.

Standards play a huge role in enterprise applications—as well as the decision companies make to use a product or not—and that role will only get bigger as Web services gain momentum. However, as vendor-led consortia increasingly define the standards that shape enterprise products, its getting tougher to separate standards from vendor politics, posturing and power.

But the worst thing enterprise IT managers could do is to simply sit by and watch it all happen. Indeed, there are a couple of reasons why the time is right to band together with suppliers, customers—even competitors—and dive into the standards process.

First, XML has reached the "recommendation" stage, the highest level of approval from the World Wide Web Consortium. This means that XML—arguably one of the most important standards to come along in the past five years—has stabilized to the point that industry-specific schemas can be developed without fear that drastic changes will convulse the foundation of the W3Cs work.

Second, IT managers still have a chance to make a significant impact on the groups that are trying to wrestle Web services to the ground. During discussions with industry leaders such as Tim Bray, co-inventor of XML and founder and chief technology officer at Antarctica Systems Inc., eWEEK Labs was pleased to find a desire for feedback from potential customers. (For more on what IT managers should consider before getting involved, click here.)

Inviting as some groups may be, however, the standards world is small and populated with its fair share of technocrats and sharp operators. But participation can be extremely beneficial for IT managers who judiciously allocate staff members to participate in the groups. Engineers from the biggest IT vendors routinely participate in standards groups, and face-to-face networking with these people can yield blunt and sometimes priceless answers and advice on strategic IT projects.

Corporations that assign an IT staff member to work with a standards body will almost certainly have a solid understanding of impending standards. "People on the inside knew well before anyone else that SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] and WSDL [Web Services Description Language] were significant and that UDDI [Universal Description, Discovery and Integration] was falling behind," said Bray, in Vancouver, British Columbia.

However, the barriers to participation are significant with most standards groups. These include a commitment of several hours per week just to read and respond to e-mail, not to mention attending as many as six face-to-face meetings a year. Finally, most standards groups support themselves on membership dues that range from nothing at the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) to $50,000 or more per year.

eWEEK Labs defines a good standard as, pretty simply, one that is implemented in a large number of products, can be tested for compliance and creates the greatest amount of interoperability with the lowest incremental cost.

But being "good" isnt enough—standards must be championed. IT managers should make it clear to vendors that they will use only that portion of a product that conforms to a standard; one that has been enhanced with special extensions will no longer be considered standard-compliant but a proprietary implementation.

To illustrate the point, consider this: SQL is one of the most successful standards in the IT world. Technicians with a proven track record working on one SQL platform are very likely able to work on another with a minimal amount of additional training. Further, and even more importantly, technical staff who can maintain projects produced by these individuals are readily available.

Understanding how standards bodies work is one of the keys to determining which standards to follow. (Learn more about how standards bodies work.) We chose for this report the IEEE, IETF, W3C and OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards) organizations because they cover the gamut—from open membership to exclusive vendor groups, from long-standing names familiar to everyone in IT to relatively new formations. (Find out more about these organizations.)