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Issue 3, 2011
Setting Standards: Will the Best Technology Win?
More and more companies recognize the value of helping to define new standards, but few understand how the structure and processes that a committee follows can influence the outcome. Karen Bartleson, Synopsys, explains what to look out for when getting involved with a new standard.
Good technical standards bring many benefits to the design community. They enable interoperability of data and tools, which in turn stimulates innovation and growth of an ecosystem. In an increasingly connected world, standards allow design teams to develop new products that plug and play with existing products and infrastructure.
There are always vested interests in setting standards because many of them have their roots in proprietary research and development, and the direction that a standard takes has commercial implications for the key stakeholders. So how can an individual or organization get the best out of the standards process, and ensure that the best technical solution wins?
Policies, Procedures and Practices
The technical standards creation process has many facets and nuances. It's time- and resource-intensive, technical, and political. Standards-developing and standards-setting organizations go to great lengths to put policies, procedures, practices, and guidelines in place to ensure the best outcomes for their standardization activities. While these vary from one organization to another, the methods for producing formal standards (not open source or wiki-developed standards) can be divided into two simple categories: individual and entity. Committees (also called working groups) that produce the standard follow one of these two methods.
Individual-based committees consist of people representing themselves or the interests of their employers. Each person gets one vote. Frequently, membership fees are low or nonexistent. Volunteers provide services such as technical editing, web site development and project management.
Individual-based committees are often made up of engineers and academics, experienced in their specific field, who have an altruistic goal in creating a standard. They might be interested in exploring emerging technology that's not ready for commercialization. They could be working toward standardizing existing technology that they want to be made available to everyone. They also may want to earn the respect and recognition that comes from having their names on the published standard. If they are employed by a company, the company may or may not endorse their participation.
Individual-based committees developed the ubiquitous standards for wired and wireless communications under the umbrella of IEEE 802, specifically 802.3 and 802.11. Closer to the EDA business, an individual-based committee was responsible for VHDL, formally known as IEEE 1076 and the first IEEE standard in the EDA industry.
By contrast, an entity-based standards committee is made up of people representing entities, such as companies, consulting firms, universities, governmental agencies, countries, or another standards organization. Each entity pays fees to contribute to the costs of producing and distributing the standard.
Many individuals from a single entity can work on the entity-based standard, but each entity is allowed only one vote, cast by its designated representative. The "one entity, one vote" rule distinguishes an entity-based standard from an individual-based one.
When companies contribute to entity-based standards, they bring a business focus to the work that can ensure that the resulting standard has market relevance. Standards are unlikely to be created from pet projects or personal interests. From a commercial and practical perspective, entity-based standards committees make the most sense today because they address the immediate needs of the market. Market-driven standards are adopted readily by suppliers who are eager to meet the demands of their customers. Adoption is the key measure of success for any standard.
Entity-based standards groups are comprised of participants committed to a positive outcome for their entity and customers. Because the entities pay noticeable amounts of money, they want a good ROI; backing their participants with technology, advice, and business sense helps ensure they receive it. A well-funded standards project is far more likely to succeed than one without the commercial backing of money and the time of expert contributors.
For most industries, if not all, timeliness is important. In the electronics industry, it's crucial. Standards that take several years to complete can be irrelevant by the time they are released. Entity-based standards are usually available much sooner than individual-based standards, sometimes in less than a year.
Today, entity-based committees develop many IEEE standards, such as the Communications Society's IEEE 1901 family of Power Line Communication standards. In the EDA domain, working groups operating under entity-based procedures were responsible for recent standards such as IEEE 1801 (Low-Power Format), IEEE 1666 (SystemC) and IEEE 1685 (IP-XACT). All Accellera standards such as SystemVerilog and UPF have been developed under entity-based procedures.
As an interesting side note, another form of entity-based standards committees exists in the international standards community. For example, membership in the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC, www.iec.ch), is by country. Every member country, no matter how large or small, has one vote and a say in what goes into an IEC International Standard.
Benefits of Entity-Based Committees
From the standpoint of fairness in standards development, entity-based committees can have advantages. They are less likely to suffer from dominance by a single company because no matter how many individuals from a given company are members of the committee, the company is allowed only one vote. Thus the possibility of ballot box stuffing or "block voting" is noticeably reduced. This provides a more level playing field for all participants.
Finally, entity-based standards committees tend not to be averse to discussing business and political issues. Committee members who work for vendors acknowledge that they are participating in order to develop better products. Members who work for companies that consume the products are vocal about their needs, despite competition among vendors.
It's likely that, for the foreseeable future, the most widely adopted and useful standards will come from entity-based committees. Regardless of which model is used, the goal of a standards committee should always be to produce a useful, relevant standard that will be widely adopted.
About the Author
Karen Bartleson is a senior director of community marketing at Synopsys. She has been active in the EDA business since 1980 when she joined TI's Design Automation Department after graduating from Cal Poly. Karen joined Synopsys in 1995 and since then has focused much of her attention on EDA standards.
Read Karen's blog: The Standards Game