The Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format may be getting thrown out with the bath water over at Unix Systems Group but the universal software distribution mechanism is now being touted as a panacea for a number of other thorny industry issues and appears to have won the backing of both X/Open Co Ltd and the European Commission. […]
The Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format may be getting thrown out with the bath water over at Unix Systems Group but the universal software distribution mechanism is now being touted as a panacea for a number of other thorny industry issues and appears to have won the backing of both X/Open Co Ltd and the European Commission. TenDRA, developed by the UK’s Defence Research Agency, adopted by Open Software Foundation in ANDF, its Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format technology, and licensed to Unix System Labs by the Defence Research Agency, was conceived as a ground-breaking way of enabling independent software vendors to write, package and distribute a single version of an application or system software environment across heterogeneous hardware and system software environments. Despite arousing considerable interest in many circles, there has been little commercial progress for the Distribution Format over the last five years. However, a radical repositioning of the technology is being formulated that may finally give the the Defence Research Agency-developed technology a much-needed leg-up into the industry. In separate but related efforts, both X/Open and the European Commission are expected to endorse Distribution Format components for use in solving a number of problems. The slide of Novell Inc’s Distribution Format project has only accelerated the Defence Research Agency’s plans, the seeds for which were sown last summer.
The initiative is designed to help break the deadlock that has so far prevented industry acceptance and commercial implementation of the technology. Despite continued concerted effort by its backers, only a catalytic event such as an influential company adopting the Distribution Format unilaterally, a standards body mandating it, or a new technology coming to market that was based on it was seen as likely to drive the Distribution Format out of the labs. As well as a universal distribution mechanism, the Defence Research Agency says the Distribution Format also delivers a number of other interim byproducts that are suited to solving a number of other industry problems. These include provisions for enabling independent software vendors to write more portable versions of their products around a single source tree – even if those vendors continue to ship their applications in binary, rather than the Distribution Format form – and for defining and checking conformance to the ballooning number of open systems application programming interface specifications.
By William Fellows
In one example, the Defence Research Agency says the Distribution Format’s static analysis conformance checks of applications and system headers against specifications give application programming interface definitions teeth in a way they have not had before. As a result, the Defence Research Agency is currently formulating an agreement with X/Open which is expected to result in the Reading, UK-based standards body using the Distribution Format constructs in its standards definition and conformance work, of which the Spec 1170 Unix application programming interface is now a part. X/Open is expected to combine the Distribution Format’s static analysis functions with a technology for better semantic test suites for implementation branding, such as the Assertion Definition Language and Test-data Description Languages being developed at Sun Laboratories Inc’s PrimaVera development group. The Defence Research Agency believes that such a combination could solve many application programming interface issues. Getting Unix interfaces solid is essential to the long term success of Unix, says TenDRA project manager Dr Nic Peeling. The Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format as a distribution mechanism was one leg of the tripod X/Open needs, he says, the new ANDF can be all three. X/Open is currently working on funding and implementation plans. Meanwhile, another prong of the the Distribution Format relaunch was cast on the Wednesday before Christmas, when the European Commission’s Esprit technology project
signed an agreement with the Defence Research Agency for a range of ANDF developments. Although terms won’t be known for some weeks, it is understood that the Commission will provide funding for a number of independent software vendors to establish preliminary Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format-based procurement specification requirements that could be used by government, defence and other public bodies. In the long term, organisations will be able to exert a greater degree of control over their suppliers by separating hardware and software purchasing decisions using Distribution Format mechanisms.
The Defence Research Agency will continue to sell its own implementations of open Architecture-Neutral Distribution Format standards to generate a revenue stream for maintaining the the Distribution Format programme. AT&T Co’s Unix System Labs was an enthusiastic supporter of the Distribution Format from the outset and finally licensed the technology from the Defence Research Agency last summer, sometime after its acquisition by Novell Inc. It bought the right to bundle Distribution Format installers with its products and create a portability compiler for Unix System V.4 based on the Defence Research Agency technology. That effort looks to have been stymied by the winds of change now blowing through Novell’s Unix operation. It’s a clear sign that Novell is not pursuing that part of the business that’s promoting the good things in Unix, says the Defence Research Agency’s Dr Nic Peeling. For its part, the division of Novell’s Unix Systems Group responsible for development environments, tools and compilers, and formerly home to the the Distribution Format effort blames higher priorities within the company for its admission that Novell has no commitment to ANDF and has no engineers working exclusively on the Distribution Format.