For many years, objects have been viewed as a technology for the future. But judging by the recent Manchester meeting of the Object Management Group standards body, it can safely be said that technology is now a mainstream activity.
Some 500 vendors, developers and users from around the world - about 100 from the UK - met to discuss specifications for enterprise applications critical to business or safety. The feeling at Manchester was that organisations are re-engineering their software to meet competitive imperatives, and driven by needs such as multiple currencies, year 2000 problems and the coming of e-commerce.
Richard Soley, who leads the OMG after the departure of founder Chris Stone to Novell last year, outlined the achievements and present status of the body which has been responsible for driving object technology.
The OMG is now entering its 10th year and has become the world's largest software development consortium. Its purpose is to develop a single architecture using object technology to make possible the re-use of software components and ensure interoperability and portability between products. This makes it possible to combine distributed applications in a secure fashion from all parts of an organisation, although they may have been written in different languages for a variety of hardware, from mainframes to PCs.
In the OMG model, applications communicate with each other through object request brokers, which in turn interoperate according to the OMG's Corba (common object request broker architecture) standard. This consists of an interface definition language and programming interfaces that define how orbs should work together. A recent development is an internet inter-orb protocol (IIOP) to facilitate internet communication by applications, without the need for additional programming.
The OMG is concerned with dealing with reality rather than fashions.
Soley pointed out there are about three million Cobol programmers and a similar number of Visual Basic developers, but perhaps only 300,000 Java programmers.
The OMG recognises that Microsoft has an alternative approach to building applications using reusable components, with its common object model and distributed com, but it takes a pragmatic view of the coexistence. Soley said the OMG feels it has a duty to ensure that applications developers get full interworking between Microsoft and OMG standard technology.
For a start, ICL has developed two-way interoperation with products like DAIS Com2Corba.
One difficulty the OMG faces is explaining the value of the technology to organisations that have been content to use a single vendor, or have not attempted to integrate applications. It is not easy for executives to understand the value of object technology, and for this reason, the OMG has started on a campaign of raising awareness of the benefits. It suggests that Corba is 'middleware that's everywhere'.
The OMG does not itself produce software, but has established procedures to bring about the definition of specifications and standards developed by consensus through the collaboration of vendors, developers and users in an open process.
The OMG works in a different way from other standards bodies. It invites proposals, which are discussed, and by consensus or vote, the proposer develops the detail between meetings for discussion and subsequent refinement.
By avoiding drafting activity at meetings, the time for the development of specifications is cut to between nine and 18 months rather than several years. Vendors are then free to implement the standards and produce competitive products.
Some OMG developments in vertical markets are principally designed for the US and would need considerable extension for use elsewhere. The transportation group is developing standards for air traffic control and for handing over flights across the Atlantic between US and European aviation agencies.
Soley pointed out that presently there are different, incompatible technologies - some not year 2000-compliant - and confessed he would not be flying across the Atlantic as the millennium dawned.
Testing and branding of products for conformity with Corba specifications is being carried out by the Open Group, with the first branded products due this summer. The distributed objects promotions group in Japan, with 12 member companies, has just completed testing the transaction specification, and has approved several Japanese product implementations.
Java also opens up more horizons for the OMG, which recognises the technology as a language and a platform, Soley said, because the Java Virtual Machine provides portability for Java code. The OMG would be defining the interface between Java skeletons that implement Corba interfaces and the underlying infrastructure. This will allow Corba code to be developed with a Java orb from one vendor and to run with unchanged binaries on another Java orb.
The OMG is not wholly concerned with the present and future - a highlight of the conference was Tom Kilburn receiving the OMG Fellows award in recognition of his founding of the profession of computer programming 50 years earlier, in Manchester.
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