What's behind open-source ID push?

IBM, Novell support Higgins, a previously obscure ID management effort. Why?

Big guns IBM and Novell threw their weight behind a previously obscure open-source identity management project this week, leading analysts to wonder: What's in it for those companies?

The two technology heavyweights are backing an initiative code-named Higgins Project, which the companies pitch as an open-source response to Microsoft's forthcoming InfoCard technology. Both Higgins and InfoCard are being presented as ways to give people more control of their personal data when doing business online. The systems also promise to work with the multiple authentication systems on the Net, making it easier for people to manage Internet logins and passwords.

Microsoft has been talking about InfoCard for some time now, and Chairman Bill Gates demonstrated it for the first time at last month's RSA Conference. The technology is to be built into Windows Vista, the next version of Microsoft's flagship operating system, and will also be available for Windows XP.

But Higgins is in the very early stages, and analysts have been left scratching their heads about IBM and Novell's involvement in it and about why an announcement was made. There are no clear examples of where Higgins would be used, the timelines are sketchy and there are no actual products or workable code, analysts said.

"It is too amorphous--the picture is cloudy. It looks like it might develop into a very interesting picture, but what are the odds (of that happening)? We don't know," Forrester Research analyst Michael Gavin said.

Both IBM and Novell have products that could benefit from Higgins. These are products for managing identity and access, a market IDC predicts will grow to almost $4 billion by 2009. Typically, the software identifies users in a system and controls their access to resources within that system by associating user rights and restrictions with an identity.

Higgins should ultimately provide a framework that allows identity management products from various vendors to interoperate, representatives for IBM and Novell said.

Like Microsoft with InfoCard, Higgins can provide technology for use in developing software for PCs, said Anthony Nadalin, the chief security architect at IBM. On top of that, it should enable existing identity management products, such as IBM's Tivoli software, to work with InfoCard and other technologies, he said--a point that's perhaps more important to Big Blue.

Pseudomys higginsi
Pseudomys higginsi, the Tasmanian
mouse whose name inspired the
project, emerges from obscurity.

"Our involvement in Higgins was a direct result of customers contacting IBM. They had heard about the Microsoft InfoCard project...and wanted to know how IBM was going to interoperate with InfoCard," Nadalin said. "There are many different identity systems out there today...Higgins is the glue that allows us to tie these various systems together."

Novell is backing the project for the same reason, said Dale Olds, a distinguished engineer at the software maker, which sells products such as Novell Identity Manager.

"A lot of times, businesses have already chosen a particular identity source, a directory service or any number of backend systems that control the information for their employees or customers," he said. "We see it as being in our best interest, and in the consumer's best interest, to have a system that works with any identity system--and that's what Higgins seeks to provide."

Interoperability could be a boon for organizations that use identity management products. Also, consumers could benefit, because they may have to enter fewer details when making transactions online. IBM plans to support Higgins in its products next year.

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