Standards & Technology
A Look Behind the Scenes
Creating and Implementing Database Standards
If users don't articulate what they need in database standards, they
may find themselves with standards that don't solve their problems.
By Carl Cargill
The idea of standardization within the database arena is not new to
the IT industry. All sorts of standardization activities have been focused
on this arena, probably the best-known of which is the Structured Query
Language (SQL) standard produced by the Accredited Standards Committee (ASC)
X3 H2 (the database standardization committee of ASC X3). It has been estimated
that the successful standardization of SQL was one of the reasons for the
success of relational database management systems (RDBMSs) a decade ago.
(The standard used was the Standard Query Language from IBM.) While not
actually achieving much in the way of true interoperability, the SQL standard
provided the market with the assurance that there would be a second source
for any relational database. The success of the standard as an implementable
piece of technology can be traced to the efforts of the SQL Access Group
(SAG), which took the standard, cleaned it up and provided implementation
details for companies that would use it.
The standardization effort played an important role in this process. It
did not serve as a technical guide to open systems, standardizing the way
the databases achieve interoperability. Although this was its original purpose,
standardization rarely achieves such results. More often, the standard serves
a business function rather than a technical one. In the case of relational
databases, the function of the standard was to assure potential purchasers
that there were other vendors who could provide a similar capability to
the one being bought. This--not the standardized technology--helped move
the market to relational databases. (This analysis, of course, ignores the
technology and the market need for relational databases in the first place.)
However, I believe that if the standardization had not been in place, one
of two things would have happened: either a single major vendor would be
providing the technology now (in the manner of Microsoft) or there would
be multiple smaller vendors, each with a unique system of doing something,
resulting in a fragmented market for relational databases. Another possibility
might have been that a different technology would have appeared, around
which the majority of vendors would have coalesced. In any case, the success
of the market would have depended upon the ability of the vendors and suppliers
to work together to solve a business problem.
The proof of this concept will be, of course, whether the same tactic can
be duplicated by the market. There is currently a move under way to standardize
object-oriented databases. The leading activity in this area has been undertaken
by the Object Database Management Group (ODMG), which created a standard
for object-oriented databases in 1993. ODMG-93 was published for use and
implementation by the industry, with commitments from seven object-oriented
database vendors to implement the standard in 1995. The consortium is now
beginning to work with other consortia (primarily the Object Management
Group) and with X3 J16 (C++), and X3 H2 to ensure that the work on ODMG-93
is made available to a larger audience for study, review and implementation.
The test of the theory will be if the market for the object DBMS expands
and both users and providers begin to accept the activities of the ODMG.
(For a further description of the activities of the ODMG, see Rick Cattell's
account in "Experience with the ODMG Standard," StandardView,
Sept. 1995, pp. 90-95. It is available from ACM at 800/342-6626.)
DRDA and The Open Group
At the same time as this work, there is a database interface protocol standardization
effort occurring in The Open Group, that amalgam of the Open Software Foundation
and X/Open Co. In 1995, in a move that surprised X/Open and many independent
software vendors (ISVs), IBM announced that it was giving its proprietary
distributed relational database architecture (DRDA) specification to X/Open
for standardization. The activity kicked around for a while, because X/Open
wasn't used to having its technical program driven by single-vendor press
announcements. After a while, DRDA activity ended up in the Open Group marketing
committee, where I chaired the DRDA task force.
The problem with DRDA was complicated. The RDA standardization effort in
ISO and X3 had not been successful, and the earlier effort in X/Open had
been largely abandoned. The market demand for these earlier standardization
efforts never manifested itself in user demands--the market seemed to be
coping with the problem of disparate database interface protocols. The task
that faced X/Open was threefold. The first question was to determine if
X/Open was the proper forum for this type of standardization; that is, a
proprietary specification with a large installed base. The second question
was whether or not the market needed a database interface protocol. The
third question to be considered was whether DRDA was the right one.
The first answer was an easy yes; X/Open had, after all, accepted the Unix
specification for standardization. On the next question, there was substantial
disagreement on such topics as gateway, user demand and market size. As
this was to be a marketing/business issue, the primary consideration was
to be given for a marketing case. The real problem here was not so much
the technology standardization--that is, the actual modification of the
IBM DRDA specification to make it more open--as the issue of the need for
the activity at all.
The major database vendors (Informix, Oracle and Sybase) pointed out that
their customers were happy with the current situation. IBM and Starware
pointed out that the gateway process was inefficient and costly. The retort
was that the database vendors and the market have been seeking the "silver
bullet" for interface standardization for years and never managed to
find one. The discussion became heated, and ultimately the task force voted
to reject the submission. The rationale for rejection was simple: There
wasn't enough consensus on the proposal to succeed.
Whose Problems Get Solved?
Two real issues implicit in standardization surfaced in this discussion.
The first lay with the nature of the question being solved. The solution
provided by IBM was exactly that; a solution proposed before the users were
asked if there was a problem or if the IBM answer was correct. The question
that came to haunt the discussions was What is the problem? IBM and Starware
posited the problem as one that DRDA could solve; the other vendors posited
the problem as one that was being solved by gateways. Neither side looked
at the issue of user needs; one was going to change the market because they
had the answer, and the other was content to let the market react and let
the users pay a price in inefficiency. The real question that should have
been answered was What is the problem that the users want solved, and how
would my solution help them be more (or less) ________ (enter any one of
many user requirements here)?
The second issue derived from the fact that there was no consensus possible
in this case. The two sides started from installed-base positions; IBM with
its proprietary DRDA base and Informix, Oracle and Sybase with their own
solutions. Essentially, IBM put the DRDA issue into X/Open and hoped that
the organization would bless it; the ISVs objected, and a "standards
war" almost began. Consensus--while not necessarily indicating unanimity--indicates
that a majority of the market accepts the standard and will not fight against
it. This wasn't the case.
Database interface protocol efforts seem to have ground to a halt within
most standardization organizations. The problem is that users have not clearly
elucidated their needs in a way that providers can hear. While this may
be changing, it still remains a major problem for all standardization groups.
What users should do--especially those in UniForum, who are, after all,
most concerned with open systems--is to state functional requirements collectively
and clearly. Part of the response depends on how much you're willing to
pay and when you want it, as well as whether you want a "silver bullet"
or would be content with a solution that, like SQL, is "good enough."
The important thing to remember is that users validate standardization and
ultimately cause it to happen or not. By not participating, users give away
their ability to structure the future direction of the market to either
the government or the providers.
Carl Cargill is standards strategist at SunSoft in Mountain
View, CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.