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Standards Matter: The Battle For Interoperability Goes On

We all say we want our gear to work together, but are you willing to hold vendors accountable for breaking faith?

Used to be, vendors didn't brazenly fracture standards. Sure, they sought lock-in opportunities, but most knew that if they played too fast and loose, the market would mete out punishment, as in the '90s when TCP/IP rule breakers lost sales.

Times have changed, and not for the better. Take network access control. Cisco has all but abandoned its NAC framework and partner program. Microsoft threw some of its Network Access Protection specifications to the Trusted Computing Group, but Cisco consistently has refused to even acknowledge the TCG's legitimacy. So much for interoperability.

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Want more? First proposed in 2004, 802.11n was hung up as Wi-Fi Alliance members hashed through competing technical interests. The widely used 802.1X is being revised because critical features were missed the first time. In the realm of cloud computing, you can't get two people to agree to a definition, much less what should be standardized, as evidenced by the recent finger-pointing around the IBM-led Open Cloud Manifesto initiative.

And this lack of interest in creating functional, universal standards seems to be accelerating. Cisco's EnergyWise, which proposes building-wide energy management, should have gone to the International Telecommunication Union three years ago. And how confident are you that Fibre Channel over Ethernet will be more interoperable than Fibre Channel?

If we're not careful, standards for nascent technologies could be so splintered as to be worse than none at all.

There's plenty of blame to go around, starting with the big vendors that try to game the process. "The larger vendors know the 'flaws' in the current system," says David O'Berry, director of IT systems and services for the South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services. "They know it takes awhile for things to progress--especially when you want it to take awhile--and so they use that gap to create de facto lock-in at critical junctures."

For their part, vendors counter that standards bodies have devolved to the point that they're almost immobilized by politics and squabbling. Consensus can take years, and the market won't wait that long. "Standards bodies tend to be more focused on the process than achieving the desired result in the shortest time possible," says Mike Healey, CTO of GreenPages Technology Solutions and an InformationWeek Analytics contributor.

chart: What Matters: How important is it that your NAC system adheres to these frameworks?
Case in point, says Healey, is the 802.11n wireless standard. The a, b, and g iterations had hit a performance wall that was hindering business, but the new spec languished for a year in a draft format that didn't significantly change from its final release. "Vendors that were willing to 'cheat' and release products based on the draft established a competitive advantage," he says. "Those that followed the rules were left behind. The IEEE delays were less about technical specifications or design issues but revolved around meeting schedules and documentation timelines."

Healey says he asked Aruba Networks what it would do about its prerelease 802.11n product if the standard changed. "Two words: 'firmware upgrade.'"

Another high-profile standards failure is browser support for HTML and Cascading Style Sheets. Designers who don't know--or care--about the implications of proprietary extensions to HTML spew out Web sites that work only in Internet Explorer for Windows.

IT organizations bear some of the blame as well. We state that standards compliance is a nonnegotiable check box in purchasing decisions, yet we haven't been consistent in insisting on adherence. Storage networking is a prime example. Even though Fibre Channel is an ANSI standard and, in theory, any FC device should communicate with any other FC device, the reality is that vendors competing for storage area network switch and director market share have little incentive to interoperate. Customers take the path of least resistance by purchasing from certified product lists rather than selecting components based on price or feature set.

Is it a coincidence that high-end storage is about the most expensive technology that IT purchases--with the least number of competing products? We think not. So will we let the next big thing in storage, Fibre Channel over Ethernet, follow the same path? Why not insist on an FCoE Alliance with a logoed testing program?

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Balky SANs aren't all we have to worry about.
Of course, standards aren't magic pixie dust. IT organizations often can't get even supposedly compliant products to interoperate without hacks and workarounds. But that's no reason to throw up our hands and write off the process. We need to advocate for a smart, independent standards track.

"The secret sauce to a successful 'working standard' isn't necessarily IETF or another longstanding body," says Jonathan Feldman, director of IT services for the city of Asheville, N.C., and an InformationWeek Analytics contributor. "Rather, an earnest and honest effort by a group that has governance outside of a single corporation's control is what's important."

Along with vendor independence, interoperability testing is critical. We have interoperable 802.11 wireless products not just because there's a standard, but because vendors backed the Wi-Fi Alliance and decided to cooperate. As the Wi-Fi Alliance certification took hold, it started showing up as a requirement in requests for proposals, which motivated more vendors to participate and get certified. The result: Certified WLAN products interoperate--unlike SANs.

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