IT Leaders Push Directory Standards

In an effort to better support two of the most pressing issues in the IT market today--e-business and network management--several industry leaders have established the Directory Interoperability Forum, an organization expected to speed development and deployment of directory-enabled applications that run across a variety of computing platforms.

IBM, Novell Inc., Oracle Corp., Data Connection Limited, Lotus Development Corp. and ISOCOR serve as the forum's founding members. These companies are joined by a number of organizations that similarly endorse open directory standards, including: Allot Communications, Alteon WebSystems, Altiris, Inc., AT&T, Aventail, AXENT Technologies, Bow Street, Cisco Systems, Citrix Systems, DASCOM, enCommerce, Entrust Technologies, Evergreen,, HAHT Software, Lucent, Netegrity, NetPro, NetObjects, NetVision, Network Associates, Oblix, Orbital Software, Process Software, Proginet, Protek, Protocom Development Systems, Red Hat, The Open Group, Triangulum Software, Inc., VeriSign and webMethods.

The Directory Interoperability Forum is an association of open directory providers working through the existing standards bodies to accelerate the evolution and adoption of open directory-based applications, explains Al Zollar, general manager of IBM's Network Computing Software Division. It is in the interest of all the participants in the IT industry--vendors and customers alike--to progress the development and implementation of standards at a quicker pace, he adds, saying, "The Directory Interoperability Forum is really about bringing together major suppliers of directory technology to accelerate the market for open directory applications."

Such standardization of directory technology is expected to provide enterprises with a way to reduce not only system complexity, but cost as well. "Use of directory functions in the midrange environment is an ever-increasing value proposition," says Art Olbert, VP of business development for IBM's Network Computing Division. "The proliferation of network-based applications inside the firewall and obviously the proliferation of network-based applications outside the firewall are really driving more and more of our midrange customers to understand the value of directory and to look for the form of interoperability [the Forum] will provide."

An abundance of proprietary directories can be a burden to an enterprise's infrastructure, according to Jeremy Burton, VP of Internet platform marketing for Oracle (Redwood Shores, Calif.). "What customers are looking to do is consolidate those proprietary directories into a smaller number of standard ones," he says. "Directory consolidation gives users a bit more flexibility in how they deploy their applications. Most importantly, it allows users to reduce the management cost."

Another benefit to directory standardization will be to provide a better guideline for ISVs. "As the market moves from building your own applications to buying it off the shelf, it becomes increasingly important to have ISVs standardize on a way of accessing the directory," Burton says.

Chris Stone, senior VP of strategy and corporate development for Novell (Provo, Utah), agrees. "You're only as good as the ISVs to your platform," he says, adding that one of the core beliefs behind the Forum is that the directory has become the platform for how Internet applications will be derived and developed. As a result, "you have to continue to extend some of the protocols and APIs that exist out there. Clearly, LDAP [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] has been a success, but there's a heck of a lot more work to do."IBM's Zollar agrees with Stone's observation that LDAP technology needs to evolve. "In one sense, LDAP really was a flashpoint for the beginning of standardization of directories, but I think what we've found is there's a lot more work to be done," he says.

One industry watcher believes the Forum will keep the issue of open directory standards visible to the IT world and eventually enable the development of the technology needed to support the initiative. "The Forum is a rationalization of the efforts that have been going on in lots of private circles," says Charles Rutstein, analyst with Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.). "The concept behind an integrated directory has been with us for some time; it's the implementation that's lagged, and mostly that's because of technical difficulty."

Forrester's research shows that the average company maintains as many as 190 separate directories from a variety of proprietary systems, from e-mail to ERP. "Integrating them has been very, very difficult, even though in theory it was possible to do so," Rutstein says, adding that while directory integration has been on everybody's priority list for the past five years, projects like e-business migration and, more recently, Year 2000 compliance have kept the development of open directory standards from rising.

"What I would caution about the Forum is, although they're moving in the right direction, I would not expect much out of it for certainly another couple of years," Rutstein says. "Our history with these things tells us that it takes a long time to reach any kind of consensus in a group like this. This is going to be a very contentious issue--figuring out what the schema should be like and whose directory protocol should be used, and so on. Then once we finally get to that point, we still have to wait for another generation of software. We're clearly in the two-to-three-plus year range before we see anything at all of value."

IBM's Olbert is quick to point out, however, that the IT community can already see the value of interoperability standards. Certain applications--while somewhat restrictive, like whitepage lookup--provide for multiple directories to support the same APIs so that applications written to that set of APIs can run across IBM SecureWay, Novell NDS, etc. "What we found was, the standards had matured to the point where any application that would fall into this whitepage lookup category could be written using those standard interfaces, therefore could be run against any of the directories that supported the standards," he says.

The Forum plans to expand the interoperability capabilities found in basic search applications--like whitepage lookup--to also include certain authentication applications. There is also working being done on DXML, a directory exploitation of eXtensible Markup Language, as well as Lightweight Directory Update Protocol (LDUP) and LDAP, according to Olbert. "LDAP, LDUP and XML are examples of standards in the directory space, that will all be included in the spectrum of work that the Forum will exploit," he says.

"There is a freedom of choice that the customer gets here, that they can select the directory they want, knowing that as the standards mature, they'll get an ever-increasing amount of interoperability between the directories," Olbert says.

The Forum is expected to be helped in its quest to develop interoperability standards by such industry organizations as The Open Group, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Desktop Management Task Force (DMTF).

The Open Group ( has already announced its plans to create certification tests and procedures that promote the development of directory-enabled applications. The Open Group's part in the movement to bring directory-enabled applications to the IT market has received endorsements from several of the Forum's founding members--including IBM, Lotus and Novell--as well as Hewlett-Packard, a member of The Open Group Directory Program.

"This will also encourage ISVs to write to these standards because now they have a non-vendor specific certification mechanism to develop reference implementations and further speed the adoption," says Novell's Stone.

Implementation of The Open Group's tests is also expected to ensure the interoperability of LDAP products and applications, introduced to the AS/400 with V4R3 of OS/400. Stone adds, "When directories first came out, a lightweight access protocol made sense. As directories have proliferated to become a platform themselves, obviously we need to extend them."

--L. Greenemeier