Industry standards?

They can take much of the hard work out of developing and integrating e-business systems, but finding truly open standards is not...

They can take much of the hard work out of developing and integrating e-business systems, but finding truly open standards is not as easy as it sounds. E-Business Review asked two experts to explain

What standards can do for you
Standards have a crucial role in ensuring that the vision of an interconnected world in which information flows freely between organisations comes to fruition. Their importance can be highlighted in terms of interoperability, development and customer benefits. Standards are necessary at an infrastructure level to define how networked devices communicate, but also to define business processes. They ensure that different implementations of technology will work together in a predictable manner and provide the structure upon which Web services can be built. Over the past couple of years the importance of seamless interoperability has become clear to both suppliers and users of IT. As organisations extend their influence up and down the supply chain, and increase contact with customers and stakeholders through customer relationship management and similar implementations, standard-based interoperability of diverse systems becomes ever more critical.

Secondly, as cost and speed to market become ever more important, organisations need to streamline their development resources. Standards help them do this in a number of ways - applications can be referenced from standard documents rather than developed from scratch. And development time and resources can be used more efficiently by using standards to de-couple the development process and allow parallel development of server and tools.

Let me explain: If the server represents information in an industry standard format and stores it in standards-based repository then the tools to access and manipulate this information can use standard-based pathways to reach the data. Teams developing each element can therefore concentrate on their tasks without significant liaison or concerns over the integration of the finished system.

Finally, customers benefit greatly from standards. Not only do they give them flexibility in their choice of implementation, but the ability to change scope and supplier as circumstances dictate. Organisations need not fear supplier lock-in as they can be sure of compatibility of successive implementations based on the standard.

Publicly published standards are even more beneficial as they give customers the option to build or extend their systems themselves using in-house developed software conforming to the standard. There is also the benefit of a wide-ranging community of users providing support and experience to those adopting and working with the standard for the first time.

Standards provide a clear and reliable structure that is critical for the development of the next generation of technology solutions.

Oisin Hurley, IONA Technologies

The 'Open Standards' Trick
Certain technology vendors are creating 'open standards' with the sole aim of gaining critical mass. Are we now just dealing with 'vendor' standards, which attempt to lock organisations into proprietary standards in perpetuity?

XML is a perfect example. Widely hailed as the universal language for e-commerce, XML is meant to revolutionise the way in which data is shared and distributed by defining interfaces between systems that lack interoperability. However, there are now over 230 XML derivatives. Most of these come from different industry sectors, and some even within the same sector. How can XML be a truly open standard? Making e-business collaboration sometimes impossible, 'open' standards are being introduced by certain major players to lock customers into their software systems. Some vendors convey the software as 'compulsory' and make sure that it cannot interoperate with other competitive technologies. Instead of using a standard to promote universality, suppliers with the greatest financial clout hijack standards and develop applications to ensure that companies can't benefit from them unless they upgrade to the latest version of their software.

Some standards are truly independent - free from Machiavellian agendas and widely adopted across industries. One example is HTML. HTML is generally adhered to by the major browsers - Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator. Another independent one is structured query language (SQL), a standard interactive and programming language for getting information from a database, as well as updating it. But, in my opinion these are the exceptions - most standards are open in name alone.

So how can you avoid getting locked in to vendor standards? The first thing is to realise that most of the work needed for successful e-business integration is preparation. Companies need to plan, prepare, discuss and plan again.

Second is freedom of choice. Nowadays, companies need the ability to quickly plug and play with new partners and services and keep ahead of the markets. Make sure you are aware of all the possibilities by not blindly following the vendor's 'requirements'. Also, retain some control by not outsourcing all of your projects. Remember that you have more home-grown business process knowledge than your outsourcer.

Furthermore, do not homogenise integration projects into one huge, inflexible task. Adopt incremental changes instead, retaining control over the standards used at each stage. Finally, think carefully about choosing a supplier. Considering the issues and values that are important to you will help you make the right decision in finding the right vendor.

Kevin Brown, business development executive, Attachmate

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