For the lack of standards, a good portion of an entire city was lost.
Sunday, October 14 is World Standards Day. Why should you care? When asked about the importance of standards, Mary Saunders, director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology's Standards Coordination Office, points to how the city of Baltimore, Maryland, was almost entirely leveled by fire, due, in part, to the fact that no standards were in place to specify the size of fire hydrant valves.
In 1904, a fire swept through the city, taking out buildings across 140 acres and causing more than US$100 million in damage. To help extinguish the blaze, firefighters came in from other cities as far away as New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Their equipment was of limited use, however, because the country had not yet settled on a standard size for coupling hydrants to hoses.
While no one may be throwing a party this weekend in honor of standards, World Standards Day is a reminder to reflect on the importance standards play in the world, and in IT.
Standards pervade business
About 80 percent of global commerce, or $13 trillion in economic activity each year, has some connection with standards, according to Joe Bhatia, president and CEO of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Information technology companies have traditionally been reluctant to embrace standards when building new products, instead hoping to command an entire market with a proprietary technology only they can provide. Such an approach can be short-sighted, argue standard advocates.
"Standards can help make a market that goes beyond an individual company," Saunders said. "They provide a platform in which they build vertical applications."
And a larger market means each individual company may reap more revenue, even if each company has a smaller share of the overall market.
Take the World Wide Web, for instance. In the early 1990s, computer networking started to take off as a commercial enterprise for consumers, served by companies such as Prodigy, CompuServe, and Delphi. In its prime, America Online, the largest of these services, commanded a user base of 30 million.
AOL's walled-garden approach, however, couldn't keep pace with the innovation around the World Wide Web and the open standards anyone could use to publish or view a Web page. Today, the Web contains at least 8.4 billion pages and has approximately 3.4 billion users [PDF].
"Commerce, entertainment, education all run on the Web, because we maintained it as open," said Jeff Jaffe, CEO of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium). "The impact the Web has had on humanity and commerce has been fantastic, in large part because it has continued to evolve and improve with standards."
Fast advances present challenge
World Standards Day may also be a time to appreciate the increasing challenges faced by standards bodies. Technologies seem to be evolving at an ever-accelerating pace, and growing ever more complex.
An increasing number of standards are being developed to help build what Saunders calls systems-of-systems. Cloud computing, which rests on many layers of standards, is one example of a system-of-systems, as is health IT, the smart grid and some areas of nanotechnology. "Technology solutions are more complex," Saunders said.
"Even ten years ago, most standardization was about how a product conforms to a performance requirement or a service. [But] interoperability is a huge driver today, and that is a relatively new feature," Saunders said.
Today, for instance, the W3C is extending its standards for rendering Web pages, such as HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), so that the Web can host entire Web applications, ones that can run across multiple computing platforms.
"It is in the nature of companies to compete in areas they see differential value for themselves, and to collaborate in areas where they will all benefit in collaboration. For the Web platform, there is a clear conclusion that collaboration wins big-time," Jaffe said.
Another new driver for standards bodies is globalization. Today, companies want to market their wares and services around the globe, and so they need global standards. The obvious example might be how the Unicode character set is slowly replacing the smaller, English-centered ANSI set. "Most industries are looking to build single solutions for multiple markets," Bhatia said.
Of course, the old joke about standards is that they must be good, because there are so many of them. But, if anything, there are plenty of technologies that could use more standardization. Bhatia noted that the fledgling electric vehicle industry, for instance, would benefit from a set of standards around devices that charge the vehicles, so they work in the same way that gas pumps work now with all gas-driven vehicles.
In the IT arena, Facebook is leading an initiative, called the Open Compute Project, to standardize on data center hardware, such as motherboards and server racks, so they will be interchangeable. Again, the motive is to drive down costs and improve efficiency.
"If there could be some level of collaboration around some of the basic building blocks, [suppliers] could use their engineering hours on something more innovative," said Frank Frankovsky, Facebook vice president of hardware design and founding board member of the Open Compute Project.
Lessons from history
At the O'Reilly Open Source Conference in Portland last summer, Frankosvky compared the current state of data centers to railroads of the 19th century.
In the middle of the 19th century, the country's rapidly growing railroads did not agree on how wide their tracks should be. As a result, there were seven different gauges of tracks in the U.S. With no standard gauge, railroad cars could not travel across different railroad lines. As a result, considerable effort was expended every day on moving passengers and freight from one train to another, as they transferred between railroad companies.
"It was ridiculous. There was no reason for this. Consumers started to get frustrated by this gratuitous differentiation that added no value, and there was also a lot of engineering hours trying to work around this," Frankosvky said. Only when all the railroads settled on a single track width were they able to speed deliveries and cut costs.
"Just this convergence on a single track exploded the pace of innovation," Frankosvky said. The amount of track across America almost doubled in the decades after most of the railroads settled on a standard gauge, and the costs to move materials plummeted from 70 cents per ton per mile, to 2 cents per ton per mile, he said.
"Openness always wins in the end," Frankovsky said.