Why standards matter

As a practical matter, the market for a particular technology will not reach its potential until standards are met

The fact that a particular enterprise-class piece of network gear meets a formal industry standard certainly doesn't guarantee that it works and performs as advertised.

And formal standards are rarely a necessity -- witness the ubiquitous and now indispensable USB, which was never standardized by the IEEE.

But, as a practical matter, the market for a particular technology will not reach its potential until the IEEE or another group publishes an industrywide standard and vendors begin shipping products that meet the standard.

The obvious example from the early days is Ethernet, which was invented in 1975. The market for Ethernet LANs didn't take off until after Digital Equipment, Xerox and Intel joined forces in 1983 and the 802.3 standard was then developed.

More recently, enterprises were reluctant to adopt wireless LANs. That changed when the IEEE created the 802.11a, b and g standards and the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying products for interoperability.

"Standards are good," says Tim Stanley, CIO of Harrah's Entertainment in Las Vegas. "Particularly in such a highly integrated environment like ours, it's complicated enough. . . . If I saw that the IEEE was getting further fragmented, that [would be bad] for us. We need more key standards. They make the job -- I wouldn't say easier -- but they make it less horrible."

Standards also help lower the cost of products, as a broader group of vendors developing compatible products allows for investments in very large-scale integration components and other economies of scale, Mathias says.

Standards also provide what Mathias calls "the warm fuzzy feeling." Network executives have more confidence buying products based on a standard, even without studying the IEEE specifications, he says. "As long as it's a standard from a recognized body, they're thinking well, if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me."

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Rob Garretson

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