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Analyzing the DMTF incubator process

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Depending on how you choose to look at it, either the DMTF has streamlined the process of defining standards or it has created a rubberstamping machine. I am referring to the “DMTF Standards Incubation Process”. It is recent, but not brand new (the DSP that defines it is dated April 6, 2007). I had heard about it but never really looked into it. Until this weekend, when I finally got motivated to investigate a bit. AFAIK this process has not yet produced any specification.

As I understand it, the goal of this incubation process is to allow a group of like-minded companies to get together in the DMTF and produce an “informational specification”, which is typically a refinement of a vendor submission. The informational specification would then go through a normal DMTF working group but often in an expedited fashion, only allowing limited changes. That’s not a guaranteed outcome, but it seems to be the “normal” case as envisioned in this process.

This overview should make it clear why this can be seen as a rubberstamping machine. Here are a few key points (the quotes come from the process description):

  • “Standards Incubators are often formed in conjunction with an initial baseline contribution by the founding members with the expectation that the group will serve to evolve and finalize that contribution” and later it says that leadership members should have a “commitment to maintaining alignment with the input submission”.
  • Only leadership-level DMTF members get to be on the review board (the part of the incubator that makes decisions). They have to fairly consider comments from the other companies, whatever “fairly” means.
  • It is necessary but not even sufficient to be DMTF leadership-level company to be on the review board of an incubator. If you are not there when the incubator is created then you have to be approved by the current leadership members to join. It is unclear to me whether any DMTF leadership-level company can join the “review board” of an incubator at the start or whether those who propose the incubators get to choose who they let in.

There is nothing sneaky here, the incubator process is pretty upfront about being designed to allow a vendor-provided specification to be considered/reviewed/improved in a friendly environment, in which opponents are kept away. The question is what happens next. There are four possible dispositions once an incubator finishes its work and its has produced an informational specification.

The first two, “bootstrap / expedited delivery” and “finalization” are pretty close in practice. A working group is created that is restricted to not making any significant change to the “information specification”. The “bootstrap” approach only allows small corrections, “finalization” also allows some additions (but no change of what is already there). In other words, the working group is mandated to pretty much rubberstamp the informational specification: with these two dispositions, there is no opportunity (in the incubator or in the ratification group) for people to suggest technical approaches that are significantly different from those in the initial submission.

The place where technical alternatives can be considered is if a competing incubator is created. At this point, the DMTF board may decide that a working group should be created to reconcile the two. Even then, the board may pick a winner (in which case the reconciliation amounts to adding in the selected specification some features that are only present in the other specification, in effect protecting existing implementations of the winner). And if this is the path taken, the process makes it clear that this should be driven not by technical merits but by “adoption and momentum”. Which implies that the companies that ship the most products get to pick since they can single-handly create “adoption and momentum”.

And finally, the last possible disposition is “termination”, in which no further work on the informational specification takes place in the DMTF. But the barrier is pretty high for this direction to be taken: the specification has to have “little adoption or industry interest”. It seems reasonable to interpret this to mean that this would only apply if the initial proponents (who created the incubator) have lost interest themselves, otherwise they alone would provide sufficient “industry interest” for the termination to not take place and force another outcome (which can only be one of the first two, the rubberstamping options,  if there is no competing incubation group). And even if the work is indeed terminated, the specification remains available indefinitely as a “DMTF informational specification” which people can (and will, if it serves their purpose) simplify to “a DMTF specification”. The difference between this and a DMTF standard will be lost on 99% of IT writers and IT buyers. I submit as evidence all the confusion about the status of a “W3C note” (the confusion prompted W3C to eventually rename this to “submission”). It will be even less clear with DMTF “informational specifications” because, unlike W3C notes, they did go through some modifications in the DMTF and they are indeed a product of the DMTF. I would not be surprised if some “DMTF informational specifications” stayed just that and lived a happy life as a pseudo-standard. One thing that remains unclear is whether such a terminated informational specification can be taken over by another standards organization.

Bottom line, if you don’t like a submission to an incubator group you’d better put together an alternative (quickly) to stay in the game. And if your position is not “this is a bad technical approach” but rather “this is something we should do in a more open and deliberative way, or maybe later” then you only get one chance to make your case: you’d better make a convincing argument to the board to not allow the incubator to be created because after that there is little chance to stop the train. And how many standard organization boards do you know who say “no” to submissions from large vendors?

Having said all this, is this really a bad thing? Let’s look at it from the “glass half full” side.

First let’s realize that this happens anyway. Companies get together (often around an initial document created by a single leader) to create a specification and then look for a standard organization to ratify it with as few changes as possible. Other than CIM, it seems that all recent DMTF efforts started out this way (WS-Management, CMDBf, OVF). This is how Microsoft (sometimes with IBM) built the whole WS-* stack. They even had a name for it (the “workshop process”) to try to make it sound more open than it was. I’ve been on the inside (SML, CMDBf, WSRF/WSRT) and outside (WS-Management and other WS-* specifications) of it and it’s a pain whether you’re inside or out. It’s very opaque. Efforts may die and nobody ever knows (for example, does anyone know what’s up with CML)? Even when those inside want to get feedback and share their work they have to deal with a tangle of legal agreements that make it unnecessarily hard for everyone. In addition, all the work and discussions that go into the submitted specification usually get lost as the work transitions to a standards body (e.g. no email archive and unclear IP/confidentiality rules in re-using them). And the fact that these efforts are private does not prevent companies from demanding guarantees that their submissions won’t be changed too much. For example, the WS-Management working group had an explicit goal in its charter to maintain compatibility with the submission and the same debate was played over and over again in drafting the charters of several OASIS and W3C groups. Companies play one standard organization against another if necessary to get this guarantee.

Anything that can take us away from this mess merits consideration even if it is not a perfect alternative (there isn’t any). The DMTF incubator process doesn’t seem to relax the control of the sponsor companies, but it provides some level of transparency (at least for DMTF members) and, presumably, some continuity between the incubation and ratification phases.

Standards organizations constantly get blamed for either being too slow/procedural (e.g. HTML at W3C) or being rubberstamping machines (e.g. OOXML at ISO). Or both at the same time (most WS-* work). Most steps an organization can take to address one criticism makes the other worse. This “incubator” process is an example.

Everyone complains about “design by committee” and how inconsistent and bloated specifications become when everyone is listened to and made to feel included. The specifications end up with too many options (a killer of interoperability) and no guiding vision. A more constrained set of authors usually produce a simpler and more consistent specification. Has anyone ever seen a standard that is shorter than the submission that started it?

Not to mention the fact that working group chairs are often in an uncomfortable position, forced to choose between, on one hand, accusations of being dictatorial and, on the other hand, seeing his/her working group drift away from one rathole to the next, with no end in sight. The standards world has its fair share of obstructionists and pontificators. Some do it on purpose (they have been mandated by their employer to prevent progress in a group), most do it just because of their personality (and the fact that their employer has no real interest in what the person does in this group, as long as his/her presence allows the employer to claim to be part of the game). Forcing people who want an alternative approach to actually put together a proposal is a way to keep pontificators at bay. Unfortunately, it also shuts off qualified people who know a domain well and want to share their knowledge but don’t have the time (or employer sponsorship) to put together an entire alternative specification around their proposal.

At the end, it comes down to what a standard should be. If you think a standard should capture the knowledge of most experts in the industry and give an equal voice to all organizations, then this is a step in the wrong direction. If, on the other hand, your position is that the big guys will effectively set standards anyway so it might as well be done in a way that is fast, relatively transparent and consistent with their implementation, then you’ll applaud this initiative.

In creating this process, the DMTF made a clear (though grammatically challenged) statement on this topic: “adoption and momentum may outweigh technical issue regarding success”.

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Published at DZone with permission of William Vambenepe. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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