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The fact that SAP and Oracle, normally the deadliest of enemies with rarely a kind word to say about each other, are prepared to sit down at the same table and be party to setting up the same set of software standards demonstrates well one of the fundamental issues underpinning the importance of standards to every aspect of the business/IT relationship.

For businesses to exploit IT to its full potential, they have to be clear about what the technology can achieve and how it can be achieved. This is particularly so if businesses are trying to develop and improve their agility so they can respond more quickly to market changes. In this context, it is the "how" that is the important question, for if the IT department of a business spends months arguing the toss about which technical solution is more appropriate, market opportunities will have come and gone before any action is taken.

Standard issue

So having as many software standards in place as possible – especially standards that manage the interoperability between different tools, utilities and applications - makes good sense for business as it answers one whole raft of technical questions. It also makes good sense for the technology vendors. They are at last coming to realise that if they all work to common standards wherever possible, there is a much bigger business "pie" from which they can share. In short, they have learned that a 10 per cent share of a very large market is normally worth a good deal more than 100 per cent of a small (usually proprietary) one.

With standards in place, accepted and actually adhered to (even now there are some software vendors that favour producing their own "implementations" of standards in the hope of gaining extra leverage amongst users) new opportunities start opening up for business users as well. They can start combining together the capabilities provided by technical standards to form a specific function of some type – a component part of a business process perhaps, or standards "sets" intended to facilitate a specific application area.

This is exactly the type of table at which SAP and Oracle have sat together, on the same side. They have joined with IBM, BEA Systems, IONA Technologies, Siebel Systems, Sybase, and Zend Technologies to develop a standard set of SOA Programming Model specifications. These are designed to allow business users to either create new IT assets or ways to re-use existing assets to build unified services - regardless of the programming languages or deployment platforms - that can be rapidly adapted to meet changing business requirements.

One of the key elements of these standard specifications is the development of a Service Component Architecture (SCA) which is aimed exactly at the trend towards defining services in terms of business functions rather than technological capabilities. This should make some of the powerful but complex middleware functions more accessible to developers and architects so that business functions can be readily built from individual services, applications and tools.

Another key element is the Service Data Object (SDO), which is designed to free up the utilisation of the mass of APIs associated with applications and tools. It should mean that developers will not need to directly code to individual APIs, which can be an error-prone task. Instead they will use the SDOs to manage the APIs. Using such technologies, many developers will gently move away from being coal-face code-cutters towards becoming builders of business services, a capability that could put them on the front line of making agile businesses actually happen.

Built to code

What it also tells us, if nothing else, is that some of the most successful IT companies around see a big pot of gold in providing service-based infrastructures and tools to meet the needs of businesses trying to become ever-more agile. It is indeed big enough to make it worthwhile them working together to achieve it. That is the potential of software standards into the future.

It is a trend that most of the software industry now recognises as being more important than their views of their own self-importance. Every major vendor offering any Web-based technology is now a member of at least one of the major technical standards organisations, such as W3C, and most areas of technology where having a standard makes sense now has an industry consortium at least pursuing its development.

And as with this latest announcement of the SOA Programming Model Specifications, vendors are coming together in consortia and organisations – such as OASIS and RosettaNet – with a view to developing and adhering to standards with an increasing strong business focus.®

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