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Networking Standards: A Vendor Litmus Test for Open Systems

Industry standards and open systems deliver a wealth of advantages to all network operators — global enterprises, government agencies small and medium-sized businesses, service providers, and even homeowners. Holding technology vendors to a high standard (Pardon the pun.) with respect to developing, implementing, certifying, and delivering open and standardized solutions is a key success factor for network operators looking to maximize the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of their networks.

When examining the role of technology vendors within the standards process, it is important to understand that many levels of commitment and participation are possible. After all, most vendors will state they are firmly committed to industry standards and open systems. As proof of this commitment, every vendor will point to their respective product specifications for the always-present list of supported standards. While these lists provide a good starting point in determining how committed vendors are to delivering standardized solutions, they are just that, a start. In essence, these compliance specifications serve as the initial (and lowest) setting for the “open standards” bar. The true standards bearers are prepared and have proven to jump over a much higher bar.

So how does one judge the level of commitment of a vendor to industry standards and open systems?

The true standards bearers do the following:

●    Commit senior-level technical staff to standards efforts. These are the best and the brightest engineers a technology vendor employs. By having these engineers focus more on external standards-setting and -certifying activities, a vendor potentially sacrifices internal product development gains for the good of advancing industry standards. Here, the one sacrifices for the many. Questions to ask: How many employees are actively involved in standards work? And what are the profiles of these employees?

●    Function as officers (for example, chairs) and authors in standards-setting bodies. These “champions” are critical in not only driving the best standard possible, but also moving standards through the process sooner rather than later. Their leadership role involves a wide range of responsibilities — developing ideas and technical specifications, gathering outside contributions and support, supporting the often trying review and ratification process, and overseeing the critical certification effort. Questions to ask: In which standards bodies, do your employees hold leadership positions? How many and which RFCs have been authored by your employees.

●    Sponsor public and private forums focused on standards adoption and promotion. Sponsorship translates to money and time. Standards-setting efforts require lots of both — and vendors must make solid contributions on both fronts. Questions to ask: Which forums do you sponsor and what is the resource commitment to these forums? What is the function and scope of these forums?

●    Closely collaborate with other vendors, and even competitors, in advancing standards. Successful standards are built by consensus. And the greater the consensus, the greater the success. While consensus building takes time (and patience), the result is a stronger standard — a standard that is likely more fully formed as a technical solution and certainly more fully supported as a multi-vendor offering. Questions to ask: What standards are you working on now with competitors? What does this work entail? Initial specification? Joint development? Interoperability testing?

●    Actively enlist the support and contributions of network operators in shaping standards. Without operator input, a standard risks being off the mark in terms of delivering real value in a production network. We have seen many a standard rise and then fall (some surprisingly fast, some painfully slow) as a result of not quite meeting operator expectations in such areas as capabilities, cost, ease of deployment, operational simplicity, investment protection, and future expansion. While vendor engineers are technically expert and creative, network operators bring to bear key operational experience and business acumen to the standards process. Questions to ask: How do you involve your customers in the standards process? Which standards have you worked to develop in partnership with network operators?

●    Contribute proprietary technologies to form new standards. Networks operate with a mix of both standard and proprietary technologies. As value and demand build for a proprietary technology, the need to move this technology from proprietary status to industry standard develops. Here, the vendor or vendors controlling the proprietary technology best serve the industry by offering the technology up for standardization. Once again, this requires sacrifice on the part of the contributor and shows true commitment to the standards process. Questions to ask: What standards have been principally formed by your proprietary technology contributions? Which of your technologies are currently being offered as the basis for a developing standard?

●    Allocate significant staff and systems resources to interoperability testing. Defining and ratifying a standard are just the first steps towards open systems success. Next,  vendors must develop compliant products. Then, these compliant products must be certified to work properly through interoperability tests — tests that prove a standardized solution will deliver on its promise within real-world networks. Questions to ask: How many resources (engineers, systems, labs) have you committed to interoperability testing? Within which groups and at which events have you proven interoperability with other vendors’ products?

●    Deliver standardized solutions to market in a timely fashion. Driving successful deployments within production networks is the final step in establishing industry standard technology as fully formed and functional. Delays or missteps in delivering working solutions to operators undercuts the value of a standard and puts at risk potential wide-scale adoption in the future. Operators must be confident that the standard delivers as promised and that multiple vendors are focused on delivering proven products in line with the standard.  Questions to ask: Have you been early to market with standardized solutions? Which ones? Do you offer support services that help operators certify and deploy standardized solutions?

As you see, there is much work required in driving a standard from concept to specification to product to working solution. The adoption and ultimate success of a standard is dependent on so much more than a simple listing on a spec sheet. A standard delivers on its full potential when both technology vendors and network operators are fully committed to the entire process. It is this full commitment that moves standards forward more quickly, allowing standards to deliver ever-increasing value to networks, to IT systems, and to businesses overall.

For those interested in viewing where Cisco stands with respect to the above “test” areas, read Cisco and Standards: Opening the Door to Borderless Networks.

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