Middleware matters

The discussion of open standards versus proprietary technology is one that stirs up strong emotion in the IT industry. Alex Ritman finds out more.

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By  Alex Ritman Published  May 28, 2006

|~|Ivan---ProCurve200.jpg|~|“We don’t have a full complement of products, like VoIP telephones, most people don’t have everything. Standards are important because if the things can’t communicate due to some proprietary technology, it creates complications for customers.” Ivan Kraemer, regional sales and marketing director for HP ProCurve.|~|The standard versus proprietary technology argument has been raging for some time. Some suggest that the war is over, with the majority of technology developers turning towards open standards set by international bodies. Others say that there are still those who insist on using their own proprietary technology, making interoperability an issue and restricting options for the end user. One of the main arguments against proprietary technology is that it locks customers in, ensuring they have to turn to same vendor whenever they need an upgrade or want to add something extra on top. Feelings are strong about this issue, with harsh criticism of the companies not using open-standards, and the motives behind it. “They have no other aim than making money, with no real desire to provide a service,” says Tahir Khan, systems engineer at 3Com Middle East. “It’s pretty much only beneficial to the company who develop the proprietary standard, because they lock in the customer when they sell their technology. It is protecting their own business.” Khan is keen to deter suppliers from developing proprietary technology and for end-users to adopt it. He claims that the issue of proprietary technology is one that affects open standards-based suppliers such as 3Com on a daily basis. “Every day in our lives we find this issue of interoperability, where we are unable to update the existing infrastructure unless it is the product of the same vendor.” Today’s networks demand much more than simple connectivity that requires a global interaction of services, claims Khan. “If everyone is using their own standards, their proprietary systems, then how are you going to have global integration with each other? We’re talking about the global village, global synchronisation, and this is only possible if everyone is using open standards.” Khan says that in ensuring an end-user can only use one supplier also increases the risks should anything happen to the company developing the proprietary standard. “You are completely stuck with it. If the company goes bust or drops the product, you’re stuck.” Ivan Kraemer, regional sales and marketing director for HP ProCurve’s networking business ISE has similar sentiments. He says that in order work with end-users who have already adopted proprietary technology, HP ProCurve has had to purchase the rights to such protocols. “We purchased some proprietary protocol, we pay royalties, just to ensure that we can provide the interoperability basically between Cisco and ourselves,” he claims. Kraemer says that for company’s, such as HP ProCurve, it is essential that there is cooperation with other suppliers to ensure that customers can utilize products that it may not develop itself. “We don’t have a full complement of products, like VoIP telephones, most people don’t have everything, there’s only one company that has quite a bit and they don’t have everything either. So you do need to work with other manufacturers. Standards are very important because if the things can’t communicate because some use proprietary technology, it just creates complications for customers.” It is generally Cisco Systems that open standards-based suppliers look to when they consider a company using proprietary technology, but Anwar Kotob, regional systems engineering manager for Cisco disagrees with this idea. “Not at all,” he claims when posed with this accusation. “We would most definitely promote the standard whenever the standard would do the job.” However, Kotob does admit that Cisco has developed proprietary technology, but claims that this method is used only when necessary. “What we have done and probably will continue to do is develop our own technology whenever there is no standard or the standard isn’t enough to do what we want it to be capable to do.” But Kotob says that if there is a standard protocol, or a standard way of doing things, Cisco will always go with the standard. “That should be the choice for people. However, in areas where the standard isn’t there are hasn’t developed sufficiently to cater for such requirements, people have one of two options. Either wait for the standard or go for a vendor-specific or proprietary implementation until such time that the standards catch up. Once the standards catch up, it will make sense for new deployments to go with the standards and the old deployments will have to see the possibility of changing or face it over time.” Tahir, however, points the finger at Cisco. “This vendor is known for using proprietary standards, whether it is in IP telephony or routing.” Proprietary technology may well have its advantages. One of the arguments in its favour says that it is more robust, with suppliers able to focus solely on their own technology. “Maybe, this is just a long shot, because they are developing the standard, they are probably putting a lot more research and a lot more time into it,” says Tahir. “They probably know the product better, because they had to create it from scratch.” Kroemer suggests that many people believe they are using a recognised standard just because everyone knows about it, when in actual fact it is proprietary and not recognised by the IEEE. “It’s something that everyone has got used to, because everyone has been working with the market leader.” Again, the focus is on Cisco. Developers like HP ProCurve do bring in their own technology, such as virus blocking, but Kraemer says that these do not have any impact on interoperability or performance, which is affected as proprietary technology is deployed closer to the core of the network. “It’s not something you have to have, it’s more like a feature.” Using open-standards, claims Tahir, is not just good for the end-user or the suppliers developing them, but the industry as a whole. “If you have developed something, make it standardised, it will help you to grow. It will help the consumer. We need to give the flexibility to the customer to give them more chances to avail the technology. We can’t bind them. It’s not noble to go with the proprietary stuff, it should be discouraged.”||**|||~|Anwar---Cisco200.jpg|~|“In areas where the standard isn’t there or hasn’t developed sufficiently to cater for such requirements, people have one of two options. Either wait for the standard or go for a vendor-specific or proprietary implementation until such time that the standards catch up.” Anwar Kotob, regional systems engineering manager for Cisco.|~|Tahir takes Ethernet of an example of what can be done when something is not developed as proprietary. “Ethernet is a patent of 3Com. It was invented as a standard in 1972 and that got standardised. 3Com didn’t put a proprietary seal on it.” Kotob also uses Ethernet as an example, but to show how Cisco worked to develop technologies when the standard was not up to a sufficient level. “A point is power over Ethernet, to supply power to IP telephones at the end of an Ethernet cable. When we first started the standard was nowhere, and hence we developed our own technology.” Kotob says that Cisco cooperated with the standards bodies and now that the standard is solid enough this is what it ships. In order to serve its end users, Kotob says Cisco did not have many options but to do this. “At that time we had one of two choice really, to sit tight and wait for the standard to develop, but that wouldn’t serve the market. The other option was to develop our own thing, and influence the standard and then pull the standard with us till it is developed.” But for Richard Brandon, Juniper Networks’ vice president of worldwide field marketing, the difficulty lies when companies try to keep the standards they have developed. “It gets more problematic when they try to hold on to it.” He claims that when Juniper first entered the market in 1996, in every part of the network it was looking to supply technology there was already another vendor, so it had to adopt the open-standards approach. Like other open-standards adopters, Brandon looks to Cisco as the main antagonist, with its dominance in so many areas giving it the ability to have this approach. “When it first entered the market there were not any real competitors.” However, he suggests that this will soon change, claiming that Cisco no longer controls the service provider market. “The enterprise will be the next one to watch.” The issue, Brandon claims, is motivation. “If you were the dominant company, you would try to hold on to what you have.” Juniper Networks, however, has started its own open-standards groups, such as the Juniper Infranet Initiative in 2003. This has since changed its name to IPSphere. In May 2006, Juniper Networks announced that its Unified Access Control (UAC) solution would support the Trusted Network Connect open standards, a set of non-proprietary specifications that enables the application and enforcement of security requirements for endpoints connecting to a network. Trusted Network Connect is a subgroup of Trusted Computing group, an industry standards body formed to develop, define, and promote open standards for trusted computing and security networks. “I can’t think of a single industry where open standards haven’t helped,” says Brandon. He looks to the success of the Windows operating system, which was designed to have other non-Microsoft standard applications running within it. Despite the accusations against his company, Kotob at Cisco is in support of open-standards. “In areas where the standards are very well developed, there really is no justification today to go out to a proprietary implementation, unless it is just a very niche market not being addressed by the standard, unless the requirement is for something extremely specific, such as very high power.” Kotob says that there is no point in a vendor offering a non-standard way of doing things when there are others doing the same but with an open-standard approach. “Companies would be advised not to adopt this technology because in the long term the total cost of ownership will be high, and the ability to mix and match solutions is quite limited.” On the other hand, should the requirement not be supported by a standard, and then the company has to make a decision. “Do they try it now if it gives them competitive advantage, the ability to build solutions that they couldn’t build otherwise, then there could be justification in going with a proprietary implementation.” Cisco has in the past had to go in this direction, claims Kotob. “Up until recently Cisco’s SCCP protocol on IP telephones was the only available option for us in a wide number of devices.” He says that they were designed when SIP technology was nowhere near readiness. “But now our new phones support SIP and SCCP. So going forward this is another example of the standard catching up, although SIP still is not as well developed as SCCP. Obviously SCCP has several years head start.” So while Kotob supports open standards, he is very much of the view that if the technology is not there, and the specification are needed, then sometimes it is necessary to make the first step. Making such a move simply to trap customers into using your products, however, is another matter. “The market is very well educated. Using a proprietary technology to tie down people is very short-sighted. People will see what you are up to, and you’ll be penalised. Simply doing proprietary so people have no option, that would be commercial suicide.” The discussion of open standards versus proprietary technology is one that stirs up some emotion among the IT industry. Many of those supporting open standards speak very passionately about the topic, arguing venomously against those who decide to move away from the vendor community to develop their own proprietary technology. Most have one company in mind when they consider the main proprietary perpetrator, despite its claims against this accusation, and say that Cisco’s size has helped it success. “The scale of these companies has probably made it possible for their proprietary standard products to be popular within the market,” claims Khan. “Can you fight against it? Yes. And we are making excellent inroads through our philosophy of being an open standards company.” Kraemer says that once customers have the benefits of open standards explained to them, they realise that they are essential. “They don’t want to be locked into any one vendor.” In promoting this IT community spirit to end users he warns customers against simply going for the same vendor time and time again. “What we do is tell customers to be careful not to create another monopoly.” The general consensus, and indication from current trends, seem to be that open standards are winning the battle against proprietary, that most are turning to the recognised stamped and sealed standards from the industry bodies. “I think that those who are proprietary based in their architecture will be forced to move towards open standards products,” says Khan. ||**||

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