Microsoft breaks with standards effort

The software giant steps down from the W3C choreography working group, reflecting a growing discord between IBM, Microsoft and other companies over standards for Web services.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
5 min read
In a sign of growing discord over Web services guidelines, Microsoft has pulled out of a key Web services standards working group.

Over the past month, IBM and Microsoft have been at odds with other companies around standards submissions, including a high-profile effort within the Web's leading standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Now Microsoft has upped the rancor by dropping out of a W3C working group focused on establishing rules for how businesses will send and receive data to one another via Web services.

The company withdrew from the W3C's so-called choreography group because it determined that the scope of the group did not align well with the work of two Microsoft researchers who attended the initial meeting, said Steven VanRoekel, director of Web services marketing for Microsoft.

VanRoekel described the Microsoft research on "contract language," which deals with ways two pieces of software communicate, as only partially related to the notion of automated business processes through Web services. He added that the W3C "is not the only vehicle in which to impact and evaluate a set of technologies."

The move is the latest in a series of maneuvers between companies and standards bodies that highlights a growing friction around industry guidelines. Critics contend that Microsoft and IBM, which also is not participating in the W3C group, are causing confusion through attempts to exert their influence over an increasingly contentious process to define agreed-upon methods for exchanging information using Web services standards.

Web services is an umbrella term to describe methods for building applications that can easily share information across disparate computing systems. Through standards organizations such as the W3C, information technology providers and their customers create blueprints that define how companies will build future products.

In this case, the choreography working group at the W3C met earlier this month to sort out proposals for describing how businesses will communicate with each other during a multistep process.

The standards land rush
After initially indicating it would not attend, Microsoft at the last moment sent two researchers to the two-day meeting, held March 13 and 14, and described its view on what a choreography language should do, according to attendees. Microsoft, IBM and BEA have written their own specification for a Web services choreography, also called orchestration, but have not yet submitted it to a standards body for consideration.

However, only a few days after the initial meeting, Microsoft notified the committee's co-chairman that the company planned to withdraw.

Steve Ross-Talbot, the W3C's choreography co-chairman, who is also chief scientist at software company Enigmatec, said he was "mystified and stunned" at the move. He urged Microsoft and IBM to provide input on choreography to complement the W3C's work.

The working group's charter is to define a programming language for

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describing how a Web services application will behave in an external business process. For example, a manufacturer could write an application describing how the various elements of a purchase order should interact with its partners' systems and with certain types of employees.

The group intends to have a specification prepared within a year and software tests to check compliance within two years.

Participation in standards bodies has become increasingly important to IT providers as the software industry coalesces around Web services, according to analysts. With representation on different technical committees, companies can influence the development of new standards and have a head start on products.

"By being involved in the standards process, companies can craft the process for how people will adopt technology," said Ron Schmelzer, an analyst at ZapThink. "It's not just control, but they also have their finger on the pulse of development. A lot of this feels like a land-rush mentality."

Consensus over initial Web services standards during the past several years took root quickly, with companies agreeing on basic mechanisms for describing what a software component does and how it communicates over the Internet. Over the past two years, IT companies have proposed a number of enhancements, such as security and reliability, to the basic Web services protocols.

But as companies seek to exert influence over future Web services capabilities, infighting over standards has publicly surfaced.

For example, Microsoft and IBM earlier this month published a proposal to add reliability to Web services messaging and said they would submit the specification to a standards body. Only a month earlier, a group of companies that included Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Fujitsu and Hitachi had submitted an initial reliable messaging specification that covered essentially the same ground to the standards body Oasis.

The threat of fragmentation
Sun issued a statement condemning the move, saying that "IBM and (Microsoft) have now moved away from a leadership position in Web services standards and become a disruptive force in the industry."

On the subject of choreography standards, Microsoft and IBM said earlier this month that they intend to repeat their actions regarding security and reliability: Later this year, they will publish details of their proposal and submit it for consideration as a standard.

If the two market giants spearhead a choreography group that runs parallel to the W3C working group, there is concern that rival standards submissions will derail or fracture the progress of software interoperability through Web services standards.

"I worry that that fragmentation in the Web services space will lead to slower adoption and less clarity in the standards. That's a

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serious worry," said Daniel Austin, a senior technical architect at Grainger.com and member of the choreography group. Without agreed-upon guidelines, business-to-business e-commerce company Grainger will have to invest more resources in making software from different companies integrate seamlessly.

"I think people figure that there's a lot (at) stake, and the vendors are willing to play a nastier game when they smell money," Austin said.

Austin added that different standards bodies, such as the W3C and Oasis, may end up considering essentially the same technology. ZapThink's Schmelzer said a situation may emerge where multiple standards coexist and are unlikely to change, like electricity or plumbing standards in different countries.

"By the third quarter of the year, we're going to see a lot of this become much more clear," said David Chappell, chief technology evangelist at Sonic Software, which participates in both the Oasis reliable messaging process and the W3C's choreography working group.

Microsoft and IBM will have "brought their specifications to some standards organization, and there won't be this posturing over whose 'spec' is better anymore," Chappell said.

Microsoft's VanRoekel brushed off concerns that the dispute will fracture the industry. He said the work of various standards bodies, including the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I), and customers will eventually converge.

"The industry will act as a funnel that will take all of this activity and funnel it to a set of specifications that will all align to build interoperable Web services," VanRoekel said. "Lots of dialogue is good for customers."