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Standards: taking interoperability to the next level.

Over the last year, there has been a significant increase in the use of the word "interoperability" in the computer software industry. Interoperability is something we have come to expect in our day-to-day lives. For example, it used to be that only certain credit cards worked at some stores, ATM cards only worked at your bank's ATMs, or components worked together only if they came from the same manufacturer.

Interoperability is Different Than Integration

Integration means making things work together. In the case of the components mentioned above, an integrated solution would typically require an adapter that connected the components from one manufacturer to the other. If you have additional component manufacturers, you would need more adapters. A better approach is one based on a standard interface, one that provides interoperability between an array of components.

In the past, it was not uncommon for businesses to build proprietary solutions that addressed specific areas. For example, customer relations, billing and support systems were completely separate. These systems have continued to become more and more interdependent. As a result, integration in the software business is very common. Pick any software application (Siebel, SAP, WebSphere, Weblogic, etc.) and do a Web search for related adapters and you will get a lot of hits.

Currently, the focus has changed from integration to interoperability. Concepts such as the Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) rely on interoperability as their foundation.

Why the Increased Focus on Interoperability?

There are several reasons, but key are advances in technology and the state of the economy.

Technology: Interoperability usually comes at an expense. Proprietary interfaces can be designed that are highly efficient. Interoperable interfaces are typically generalized and not the most optimum. However, as an example, technology advances such as increased bandwidth have opened the door for XML, which only a few years ago would not have been practical. Technology advancements in this area are also continuing; for example, XML-related appliances now exist which optimize XML usage. The end result is that binary interfaces (while once several factors more efficient) are no longer compelling requirements in many cases.

Economy: The economy has also been a significant trigger in this area. Companies are looking for any opportunity to reduce costs. Developers no longer have the luxury of developing every component from scratch; nor do they not have the luxury of building or using an array of adapters for every unique requirement. Instead, applications that are built using interoperable techniques speed up development and reduce cost.

Global Enterprise: A third reason is that software development is now a global enterprise. This is a result of technology (making it possible to develop software anywhere in the world) and the economy (increasing the development of software using less expensive developers). This type of development lends itself to exploitation of interoperability as it reduces interdependencies that are traditionally difficult to manage.

The Role of Standards in Interoperability

While there are examples where proprietary interfaces became the de facto standard for interoperability, it is not common. Proprietary interfaces expose several risks. First, by their nature, there are legal implications. In today's industry, patent litigation is becoming more and more common. Additionally, proprietary interfaces are always subject to change and can, in fact, increase the cost of development.

Standards, on the other hand, do not typically carry the same exposure. While not all standards are "free", all have specific statements about the intellectual property rights on which they are built. In many cases, even where intellectual property rights may be an issue, the holder of these rights will have made public statements about their position. Web services is one of the areas where standards are playing a key role in expanding interoperability. In the case of Web services, the standards are still evolving. Key standards groups in the development of XML and Web services include the World Wide Web consortium (W3C)) and Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS).

As noted, in the area of Web services, the standards are evolving and there are some gaps and inconsistencies. To increase the ability to interoperate, the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I)) was formed. This group, while not a standards body, was formed to address several issues. First, they identified areas where the existing standards were ambiguous, or conflicting. In the WS-I basic profile, these areas were addressed; creating a profile that new services can use to ensure interoperability.

Network and Systems Management and Interoperability

There also has been an increase in the involvement of traditional systems and network management vendors in the area of interoperability. These vendors are being driven by the same factors driving the software industry as a whole (technology and economic). As with packaged applications, while initially purchased to address specific areas, customers in many cases now run several different management products. As environments become more complex, successful operation requires these products to work together. Some vendors provide adapters for integration, but as with other software applications as described above, these typically require specific solutions to be built and are costly to maintain. Another common technique, SNMP, allows basic integration. However, SNMP-based solutions tend to be product and environment specific.

Another aspect is driven by the technology being managed. Technologies such as "on demand", "grid" and "virtual" environments will require coordination of activities amongst a number of vendors. This can be thought of much like a power grid, which relies on many companies to produce and distribute power. To interoperate, each of the participating companies must cooperate and adhere to standards. As a result, these companies are actively working together on standards bodies and other originations.

The following are examples from some organizations that are promoting standardization and interoperability

Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF): From their announcement of the recently created Interoperability Committee to DMTF members, "This new Committee will supplement the resources of the DMTF such that multi-vendor implementations of our technology can be compatible in the industry. The Interoperability Committee will principally function as a support service to the Working Groups by augmenting their operations with plugfests, testing tools, and conformance certification programs."

Data Center Markup Language (DCML): From their value statement, "DCML provides the only open, XML-based specification designed to do for the data center what HTML did for content and IP did for networking--achieve interoperability and render proprietary approaches irrelevant by providing a systematic, vendor-neutral way to describe the data center environment and policies governing the management of the environment--a fundamental requirement for utility computing."

OASIS: From Web Services Distributed Management (WSDM) 0.5 draft specification, "Management Using Web Services (MUWS) enables management of distributed IT resources using Web services. Many distributed IT resources use different management interfaces. By leveraging Web service technology, MUWS enables easier and more efficient IT management systems by providing a flexible common framework for manageability interfaces that benefits from the features of Web services protocols. Universal management interoperability across the many different varieties of distributed IT resources can be achieved using MUWS."

Global Grid Forum (GGF): From Open Grid Services Architecture, Version 1.0, "Key to the realization of this Grid vision is standardization, so that the diverse components that make up a modern computing environment can be discovered, accessed, allocated, monitored, accounted for, billed for, etc., and in general managed as a single virtual system--even when provided by different vendors and/or operated by different organizations. Standardization is critical if we are to create interoperable, portable, and reusable components and systems; it can also contribute to the development of secure, robust, and scalable Grid systems by facilitating the use of good practices."


Interoperability is becoming an increasingly important aspect in development of software across all types of applications. Network and system management vendors are evolving as a result. In the coming years, proprietary interfaces will be replaced with standards-based interoperable ones. Network and system management vendors are working together in standards organizations to make this happen.

Richard Nikula is technical architect at BMC Software (Houston, TX)
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Title Annotation:Connectivity
Author:Nikula, Richard
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2004
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