Deploy Project: Path to the Holy Grail?

Cross-platform development may be about to get easier

Applications software developers will find cross-platform development easier and less expensive if a new open systems project called Deploy reaches its goal.

Some have called the two-year project's object a holy grail. Funded by the European Commission and eight other organizations including X/Open and the Open Software Foundation (OSF), Deploy aims to build a framework for UNIX software test tools. These tools would give UNIX applications developers something they have long sought - a consistent way to test applications at various stages of development for portability across the various UNIX hardware platforms. Thus, developers would be able to release products on multiple platforms simultaneously. And that spells a shorter time-to-market.

Once the framework is developed, any number of companies could develop test tools using Deploy specifications. Applications developers, who now spend up to half of their research and development engineering resources on handling the intricacies of multiple platforms, should find that cost sharply reduced.

"We spend 50 percent of our R&D budget on porting and that to me is too high," says Chris Scheybeler, director of development for IXI Corp., a software subsidiary of The Santa Cruz Operation. IXI is participating in the Deploy project as a tool tester. "I'd rather spend 10 percent of my budget on porting. That way I could get new products to market faster."

X/Open sees the project as a way to extend the benefits of standards to software developers. "The one remaining area that we have yet to touch is to do something for the community of organizations developing applications software," says Paul Tanner, head of test systems business development for X/Open. "Typically those are independent software vendors (ISVs), basic users and system integrators - people that write software they want to be able to port to multiple platforms. There are no specific tools that help them in a way that fits in with the development process. What they need is something that gives information about the extent to which they comply with specifications."

OSF's Architecture Neutral Distribution Format (ANDF) technology will be an integral part of the project. The Defense Research Agency (DRA) under the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense is also contributing technology, and the Italian software house Etnoteam is providing project management. ET International, formerly USL Europe, is providing a marketing campaign. IXI and Germany's Software AG are signed up to test the resulting products in their software development programs. Novell is a participant and other software developers are being pursued.

John Morris, OSF director of liaison, praised the project. "Deploy is an exciting application of an advanced technology with some real-world benefits," he said.

DRA Technology

The Deploy project stems from compiler technology originally developed by DRA. The DRA technology was designed to enable software developers to port their products quickly onto new architectures. The code, produced in an intermediate form called TDF, needed to be compiled into machine code by a separate installer on each machine. At that time, DRA felt that it was easier to provide an installer for each machine than to create a complete compiler suite.

OSF then enlisted the DRA technology in its ANDF program, but ANDF never caught on. "OSF decided it would be a good idea if there was binary compatibility in UNIX, or some distribution format that was common to all the open systems platforms," Scheybeler says. "You could then have shrink wrapped UNIX application products." The problem was that the hardware vendors had to first equip their machines with installers. "It was chicken and egg," Scheybeler says. "Until the software vendors had software in this format, then the hardware manufacturers like HP and IBM weren't going to put installers on their machines. And until they had installers on their machines, why would people like Frame put out software in a neutral format? It got nowhere, despite the fact that in technical terms it was a good idea. Nothing happened."

Thus, the idea was born to turn the ANDF technology into a validation and porting tool that would not require separate installers. X/Open, OSF and others in the open systems community wanted to capitalize on that largely unused technology and "deploy" it into the industry - thus the project name. "The technology stays exactly the same, but instead of trying to distribute from this architecture-neutral format, you assume that nobody's got installers out there," Scheybeler says. The software vendor would do the installing instead. "If IXI were to start using this technology for real, then what we would do is develop using the DRA compilers and actually do the installations locally, in house, and put the end versions on CD-ROM or something like that," he says. "There would be real native binaries for all the target platforms. So we wouldn't have to force hardware manufacturers to do anything. We make one version and then make half a dozen more installs and we've got all the UNIX we're going to support and can launch simultaneously on 'n' platforms."

The second main angle of the project is to increase the level of validation in the compiler. As part of that, a test tool has been developed, and is now under test, to check applications for compliance with the Spec 1170 common UNIX application programming interfaces now under consideration by X/Open. "I can use this technology as a validation that I am 1170-compliant," Scheybeler says.

Tanner sees Deploy as fulfilling X/Open's mission to make open systems real. "One way of looking at it is that the more it brings open systems closer to reality, the more it means that a wider range of users are comfortable to adopt open systems-based strategies," he says. "That's why it's been referred to in some quarters as the 'holy grail' - because it's one of the things we need to make this whole movement come together in the way that we envisage."