X/Open’s put its branding iron on the backburner and set up a Web site of what packages conform to which standards. Susan Amos from our sister publication Software Futures fires up Netscape and takes a look. Shopping can be fun – filling your cheeks with free samples of sausage and cheese, spraying on the newest […]
X/Open’s put its branding iron on the backburner and set up a Web site of what packages conform to which standards. Susan Amos from our sister publication Software Futures fires up Netscape and takes a look.
Shopping can be fun – filling your cheeks with free samples of sausage and cheese, spraying on the newest Calvin Klein perfume. Trying on the latest fashions in this season’s shades of lime green, citrus yellow and acid orange, and then deciding you don’t want to buy anything after all. And take the thrill of an impulse purchase, that little strawberry crusher-cum-onion grater you never knew you needed. Shopping for your company’s software applications, however, is not much fun. Does the application do this, does it do that? Does it conform to standards? Does it work with this other package you’ve already got? There’s far more to catch you out than whether a new outfit is dry-clean only or not. Yes, software frequently does not do what the vendor promised it would, and turns out to be incompatible with other packages. Enter The Open Group, a merger of the twin artistes formerly known as X/Open and the Open Software Foundation. They know buying software for your company can never be fun, they simply want to make it a bit less of a hassle. Up until now, the Reading, UK-based half of the duo, X/Open’s claim to fame has been the Unix95 brand, son of Spec 1170, an attempt to rally all Unix vendors around one standard’s flag before Windows NT pulls the rug out from underneath them. It is also painfully plugging away with a standard for next-generation, 64-bit Unix, which Hewlett-Packard and the Santa Cruz Organization are busy sabotaging with their plans to make their combined flavor of Unix-on-Intel the de facto standard (with UnixWare, sold to SCO by Novell, thrown into the mix for good measure). Meantimes, more often than not, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Open Software Foundation crops up in connection with its Distributed Computing Environment standard, as the organization steadily wheels out new releases of the middleware technology in the perhaps forlorn hope it will one day form the cornerstone of every Fortune 500 company’s IT house. It was back in February this year that the two bodies decided to morph themselves into one standard bearer, The Open Group, so they could pool resources to promote open systems. The merger is certainly good news for the likes of oil giant Shell and Barclays Bank who will now only have to pay one set of membership fees. True to the industry, the merger is taking a little time to fully complete, perhaps, we guess, due to a five year old court case filed against the OSF by Addamax, which is now inked in for an August airing. In the meantime, the X/Open and OSF names live on. X/Open is particularly keen to keep its name in circulation as it has put so much time and effort into publicizing the Unix95 trademark that graces the cover of the Digital Unix and HP-UX packages.
GETTING BACK TO THE FUTURE?
But, let’s get back to the future. X/Open has come up with the idea of a Web-based information service to help you make your purchasing decisions, called the Open Software Registry. The site will have an up-to-date list of what platforms a product runs on, what other software it’s dependent on, and, naturally enough for a standards body, what X/Open standards it uses and supports. Users fill in a form, and the aim is to give you back the data you want within five clicks of a mouse. Because the registry answers a lot of basics upfront, it should cut out the number of sales reps you have to see face-to-face. You can turn hordes of them away safe in the knowledge that what they sell doesn’t run on your chosen platforms, and doesn’t speak the right standard. You can stop marketeers dead in their tracks on the phone, who are attempting to assure you that a product is Corba 2.0 compliant, when you’ve got a Web page in front of you shouting, Oh no, it isn’t. If, every year, you spend lots of dollars whittling down tens of suppliers into a shortlist of two, this Web site could save you time and well, lots of cash, claims X/Open. Much of the information posted up will come from the vendor. But instead of being displayed in glossy brochure style, it will be a stripped-down, non-hyped version. X/Open will play referee to the vendor’s claims of what APIs it uses, armed with a test suite it licenses from Waterloo, Ontario-based company Mortice Kern Systems (MKS). The Canadian change management company has written a cut-down version of its testing tool, Code Integrity, so as not to scare the industry away from the test, but still produce a useful audit. The version for the software registry is called CI Report. For those of you with long memories, you may recall that MKS took the baton from X/Open’s earlier Deploy project to create a comprehensive application porting and testing environment that examines conformance to all APIs. CI Report is handed over to suppliers to carry out the tests themselves, so they do not have third parties trampling all over their intellectual property. Talking of deja vu, cynics among you will know very well that X/Open has wanted to do this software registry thing for a while a nd that this is, in fact, a second attempt. Do you perhaps remember the unremarkably named NIICE project, standing for New Information Industry Co-operative Endeavor? It surfaced briefly then sank without trace in April ’95. We quizzed current head of the Open Group Jim Bell, on loan from Hewlett-Packard where he is director of open systems alliances, on this matter. He does not think people will yell, Hah! you’ve tried to do it before and failed, what’s so different this time round? In fact , he does not believe anyone remembers NIICE at all!
HOW MUCH DO I HAVE TO PAY TO LOG ON?
To encourage lots of people to dial in, the service is free to end users. It is financed by the suppliers, who have to stump up to register their products and get audited. They pay on a sliding scale of fees, starting at $1,000 per annum to register one product, up to $9,000 for an unlimited number. It is cheap enough not to put them off. An estimate of how much the Web site will cost to run is $100,000 a year, quite a small item for the Open Group, with its budget of $60m per annum. German da tabase and tools vendor Software AG, is an early enthusiast of the scheme. It does not object to paying a fee, as it sees it as another way of getting its hands on customers, and, after all, it’s cheaper than producing marketing literature. The company’s director of technology strategies Peter Holdermann looks forward to increased credibility from the audit: Our salesmen typically say: ‘Of course we adhere to standards.’ This will be the proof. However, he admits if two products conform to a standard, it only means that the bricks fit together, but it is still up to you the end user to put up the walls and the roof. The registry will give you clues as to what to write into a purchase contract, but in the end it is still you doing the purchasing. Holdermann thinks that the test suite can also tell his company things it does not know about its code: On the technical side, sometimes we don’t know what standards our product adheres to. It’s complex software. Now we’ll have the tools to check it technically. He refers back to a four-year-old study by object methodology guru Ed Yourdon, claiming that 40% of software errors derive from API misuse – he thinks the registry could help raise the quality of applications.
Not every product on the site has gone through the audit process – it is up to the supplier to make the move and pay for the testing tool. If the supplier doesn’t do that, the site will carry data about a product anyway, but the information is obvio usly more partisan. Information falls into six categories that range from the heavyweight branded product (there aren’t many of these) to the lightweight no detailed information available (we hope there are not many of these!). Paul Tanner, busi ness development manager for the registry, says most products will fall into the middle four categories, that is, products that are at some stage in the audit process. Do the categories sound vague? Tanner explains this away as customers preferring to get some information now rather than more information later. And anyway, his categories are in a state of flux. It may not be sensible for us to continue to list the no detailed information yet category, he comments. The aim is for the registry to contain as many products as possible, but Tanner doesn’t see it will put customers off if they can’t find every single product on it. If we’re weak on Microsoft, it’ll be a nuisance, but not as much as having to go to lots of vendors’ sites. He hopes X/Open members like telecoms giant MCI will jump up and down and force their suppliers to subscribe. X/Open will also target suppliers by direct mail to encourage them to come on board. There may also be a registry within a registry to cater for different vertical businesses. An oil industry player may want to ask different specification questions from a banker. We may want to create different doors, says Tanner.
HOW UP-TO-DATE WILL IT BE?
Unlike some Web sites which provide instant access to information that is three weeks old, the registry will be updated every day with new audits, promises X/Open. And it should be easy for vendors to add in data on new ports of their application. A s you would expect, there will also be hotlinks to suppliers’ sites, so you can delve further into white papers and reference sites. Links out to analysts like Gartner are an option that is also being chewed over. X/Open will not venture into benchm arking, but could link to the Transaction Processing Council’s site. Although 2,000 vendors, with 4,000 products between them have subscribed, very few have taken the further – and important – step of putting their applications through the test mill . With suppliers watching and waiting for everyone else to take the plunge, who will make the first move? At the moment, the only similar online service is from software resellers who have catalogs, or advertising sites like inquiry.com. No other site specializes in standards and interfaces (probably because no other organization has a hidden agenda of breathing life into a Unix standard that is fast becoming obsolete). X/Open has had this project up its sleeve for a while. As early as 1989 the customer council has been telling us they want it, says Tanner. And it’s now mainly thanks to the World Wide Web that the project has come to fruition. Tanner admits X/Open is not an expert on procurement (yet), but that customers wanted infor mation sooner rather than later. Do it now, stop talking about it,’ they said. He adds quickly though, that the site is already a usable service, not just a pilot.
WILL USERS LOG ON?
So what do the users think? Opinions ranged from it could save us thousands of pounds to standards are set by the market, not by standards bodies. The UK Post Office belongs to the former camp. We want independent advice on interoperability and standards, says Martin Roe, head of major programs and standards at The Post Office, based in Chesterfield, Gloucestershire. He prefers to have several operating systems, so as not to be tied to one vendor. This makes interoperability, and hence standards, a big issue. The organization has Hitachi and Amdahl mainframes which store postcodes and addresses, as well as running its personnel system on AS/400 boxes. Unix machines and several thousand Windows NT servers complete the multi-vendor p icture.Unix will continue to be important, says Roe, because it is best for integrating with bespoke systems such as optical character recognition machines and sorting machines. In order to buy IT systems, The Post Office has to advertise in the European Journal, and by law has to respond to every application that rolls in. Roe would therefore not be allowed to restrict bidders to those who are on the registry, as that would be anti-competitive, but he can stipulate they are compliant to a particular standard. Over the last few years, The Post Office has spent around 1 million pounds on the procurement process. This figure could be reduced if there is more information upfront from the registry.
WHO REALLY NEEDS STANDARDS?
Rather than cutting costs by consulting the registry, US systems integrator Litton PRC thinks it can get more for its dollars and do less integration work. Denis Brown, who is vice president, automated patent system, government information systems in the McLean, Virginia-based company says the registry will be an objective third party, better than a glossy brochure, and will make it easier to make choices. Litton PRC does most of its business with the US Departments of Commerce and Justice, so you can see why it needs standards information. French oil company Elf Aquitaine’s deputy chief information officer Alain Robert takes a realistic stance. The company, headquartered in Pau, France, has 90,000 staff, which translates into thousands of software products. Every day, someone somewhere is buying software. So what does he think of the registry? I don’t have a crystal ball. There’ll be more to say when we start using it. Call me in a year, he answers. Staff use his IT department as a procurement agent. They run purchases past Robert and he encourages them to see if there is a more standards-compliant product because his staff will eventually have the nightmare of getting all packages working together. If they have problems, it’s us they come back to if the release doesn’t work. My support staff work like mad, at home, at night, solving integration problems, he explains. He does not intend to consult the registry for every purchase, and knows its usefulness will be limited unless it carries data on software specific to his business – the oil industry with its scientific applications. He realizes if software is stand ards-based, it is not an absolute guarantee it will integrate, but it is a step in the right direction. The biggest problem is the start. If there are only ten or twenty products on it, we won’t use it, but if there’s a good percentage, 25% of what we need, we’ll log on. The first year is key, he adds. Not everybody cares about X/Open and its standards party. Take the UK arm of US consultancy Computer Sciences (CSC), for example. It is busy re-engineering the business systems of privatized water company Anglian Water, using development tools from Fort Software. Andy Wilson, managing consultant for the Anglian Water project is not interested in the software registry. We’re not a Unix shop. Standards are mainly for Unix. I take all this X/Open stuff with a pinch of salt. Standards are set de facto by Microsoft, not by standards bodies.
CONCLUSION: DOES THE REGISTRY GET THE THUMBS UP?
Whether the registry is a success or not depends on whether it gets a critical mass of vendors submitting their products for audit. If this does not happen, and the site displays material that is too basic, then it will not offer much more than dial ling into a vendor’s own site would, apart from the fact that it has collected together many vendors’ products. But that would make it a glorified advertising billboard, and how many people have you heard make that comment about the Internet as a wh ole? Customers will, understandably enough, stop dialling in, if they visit two or three times and can’t get no satisfaction. X/Open promises the site will evolve as it gets feedback from users, Software Futures wonders whether users will be patient enough to do this? We think they are more likely to shut down their connection and go back to asking the vendors themselves directly for information. Basically, we’re on the side of anyone who speaks up for better quality, better integrated softwar e. But for the moment the registry has that nice idea, shame about the lack of commitment by vendors that matter look about it that has dogged most X/Open initiatives since the dawn of time. Companies that have most to gain from the registry are large organizations whose procurement process is set in stone, based around branded Unixes, (probably government bodies or those that do business with them) and not those companies who have standardized on Windows NT. But don’t just take our word for it, why not dial in and see for yourself on http://www.opensoftware.com. We just hope there are more audited products on there than when we dialed in!
Happy shopping, mallrats!