Stand by Your Standards

A new report released by IDC Wednesday says that U.S. businesses aren’t as involved as they might be in helping to set standards for software and business services.

The Framingham, Mass.-based research firm queried IT decision-makers at the vice president or director level and found that while 70 percent thought standards for enterprise software are important, a full 50 percent are not actively pursuing standardization within their companies.

One quarter of the respondents had no standardization plans, either because they lacked the resources or it wasn’t pertinent to the business. Another 25 percent is in the “just looking” stage.

While these IT folk were overall fairly positive about how standards are developed, they did have concerns. The biggest was interoperability of applications. Users were very engaged in watching how a proposed standard impacts their own organization, said Sandra Rogers, program director for IDC’s Web Services Software service. “They’ve seen industries with two competing standards, where a company invests in one, and it goes away,” she said.

Corporate users were concerned that it takes too long to develop standards and that there were too many competing ones. The survey also evaluated perceptions of vendors’ motives for supporting various standards. Rogers said vendors need to educate their potential customers and bring them further into the process.

She said most enterprises don’t get involved in standards organizations. “They’re focused on preparing [for new technologies], educating for skill sets, understanding how best to deploy, but they aren’t as engaged in the actual development.” But Rogers believes that vendors should educate and encourage their potential customers to get involved. “The cost of change is imposed on a company, so if they can have influence into how the standard is developed, theyre better off.”

Rogers said that vendor initiatives such as publishing white papers that inform potential users of the issues are helpful, and certain standards organizations have sought to bring in users’ perspectives. “As they try to pursue more of the business process standards, moving up the chain of semantics into the actual business, there’s a real need to get user organizations involved,” she said.

One such body that takes a novel approach is the Object Management Group (OMG), according to Edward Cobb, vice president, architecture and standards at San Jose, Calif.-based BEA Systems . Cobb said that instead of developing specs, it develops requirements documents and then solicits proposals from vendors. The advantage, he said, is that this process results in software that solves real problems so that customers actually want to buy it.

Cobb heads BEA’s participation in a number of standards bodies, from the Java Community Process to the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I). He said that his strategy is to try to identify which standards are most important and will give his company insight into and influence on what’s coming, and to get his engineering staff involved at the point where standards are close to being decided and its time to start building products.

He said that while standards are necessary, market forces may be a better driver than the deliberations of standards bodies. “I think it’s worth experimenting and seeing what kinds of solutions the market accepts,” he said. “When it becomes obvious, then you go through the standardization process.”

While there’s a lot of activity outside the standards process, Cobb said, that process hasn’t really slowed down. “One reason why peoples’ perception is that the standards process is moving slowly is that a lot of the easy problems have been solved,” he said. “It’s more difficult to figure out what the right answers are for more difficult problems.”

Rogers said that many companies are evaluating their infrastructure platforms and data transformation standards, assessing the best way to move forward on integrating systems. While a fair amount of companies report that they’re actively using Web services and plan more, others are dabbling. She said, “It’s a slow march toward that end goal.”

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