Standards Developing Organizations, Industry Consortia, and Open Source Projects

Many organizations are involved in the creation of open standards. This article looks at this large and complex universe.

A Definition of Open Standards

A standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines, or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose. Standards are established by consensus among those participating in a standards-making organization and are approved by a generally recognized body. We are concerned here with what are referred to as voluntary standards, as opposed to regulatory standards, such as fire codes, that have the force of law. They are voluntary in that the existence of the standard does not compel its use. That is, manufacturers voluntarily implement a product that conforms to a standard if they perceive a benefit to themselves; there is no legal requirement to conform. These standards are also voluntary in the sense that they are developed by volunteers who are not paid for their efforts by the standards-making organization that administers the process. These volunteers are employees of interested organizations, such as manufacturers and government agencies. We also limit this discussion to what are called open standards. There are a number of different definitions of this term. Perhaps the clearest is that adopted by the European Union within its European Interoperability Framework for Pan-European eGovernment Services, as follows: The word "open" is here meant in the sense of fulfilling the following requirements:--The standard is adopted and will be maintained by a not-for-profit organization, and its ongoing development occurs on the basis of an open decision-making procedure available to all interested parties (consensus or majority decision etc.).--The standard has been published and the standard specification document is available either freely or at a nominal charge. It must be permissible to all to copy, distribute and use it for no fee or at a nominal fee.--The intellectual property - i.e. patents possibly present - of (parts of) the standard is made irrevocably available on a royalty-free basis.--There are no constraints on the re-use of the standard. Open, voluntary standards work because they are generally developed on the basis of broad consensus and because the customer demand for standard products encourages the implementation of these standards by the vendors.

Standards-Developing Organizations

The term standards-developing organization (SDO) is sometimes used loosely to refer to any organization involved in the development of standards. However, the term SDO usually refers to official national, regional, and international standards bodies that develop standards and/or that coordinate the standards activities of a specific country, region or the world. Standards bodies may be supported by the private sector, the government, or some combination thereof. Some standard bodies facilitate the development of standards through support of technical committee activities, and some may be directly involved in standards development. Broadly speaking, an international SDO develops international standards of worldwide interest. We mention here two of the most important. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a UN agency that is distinguished from other standards development organizations by the fact that its membership formally includes both national administrations and the private sector. The charter of the ITU is that it "is responsible for studying technical, operating, and tariff questions and issuing Recommendations on them with a view to standardizing telecommunications on a worldwide basis." Its primary objective is to standardize, to the extent necessary, techniques and operations in telecommunications to achieve end-to-end compatibility of international telecommunication connections, regardless of the countries of origin and destination. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is the world's largest standards development organization. Although ISO is not a governmental body, more than 70 percent of ISO member bodies are governmental standards institutions or organizations incorporated by public law. Most of the remainder have close links with the public administrations in their own countries. The United States member body is the American National Standards Institute. ISO issues standards in a broad range of areas. Its purpose is to promote the development of standardization and related activities to facilitate international exchange of goods and services and to develop cooperation in the sphere of intellectual, scientific, technological, and economic activity. Standards have been issued to cover everything from screw threads to solar energy. National standards bodies can in turn accredit organizations to develop standards in specific areas. As an example, the IEEE 802 committee is accredited by ANSI and develops standards for local area network.


A consortium is a group of independent organizations joined by common interests. In the area of standards development, a consortium often consists of individual corporations and trade groups concerned with a specific area of technology. For example, the Open Data Center Alliance (ODCA) is a consortium of IT organizations developing interoperable solutions and services for cloud computing. Consortia for open standards began to appear in the late 1980s. There was a growing feeling within private sector multinational companies that the SDOs acted too slowly to provide useful standards in the fast-paced world of technology. A very good example of this is the set of protocols used across the Internet. The ISO defined an overall architecture known as Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) plus a number of protocols within the architecture such as a transport protocol and an internet protocol. By the time that these standards were finalized, industry and academia had already settled on and widely deployed the TCP/IP protocol suite, and the OSI protocols never achieved any market penetration. In this case, the TCP/IP protocols were developed through the IETF, discussed below, rather than a consortium. Typically, a consortium is formed by a group of companies to create a standard or related set of standards to address a single commercial need. Membership is dominated by or exclusively made up of companies with a commercial interest, although government agencies or universities might in some cases participate. End-user participation is rare and individuals acting on their own do not participate.

Open Development Initiatives

There are a number of other organizations that are not specifically created by industry members and are not official bodies such as SDOs. Generally, these organizations are user created and driven and have a particular focus. An example is the Free Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to the development of the Linux operating system. Another well-known body, though referred to as a consortium, that fits best into the category of open development initiative is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), devoted to developing Web-related standards. Members include businesses, nonprofit organizations, universities, governmental entities, and individuals.

The Internet Society

The Internet Society (ISOC) does not fit neatly into the above categories. It has somewhat the status of an official SDO as well as that of an open development organization. ISOC is the coordinating committee for Internet design, engineering, and management. Areas covered include the operation of the Internet itself and the standardization of protocols used by end systems on the Internet for interoperability. Three organizations under the Internet Society are responsible for the actual work of standards development and publication:--Internet Architecture Board (IAB): Responsible for defining the overall architecture of the Internet, providing guidance and broad direction to the IETF--Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): The protocol engineering and development arm of the Internet--Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG): Responsible for technical management of IETF activities and the Internet standards process IETF and IESG are large open international communities of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet. They are open to any interested individual.

See: An Introduction to Internet Standards and Internet RFCs


Open, interoperable standards are now widely accepted and, in technology areas such as communications and networking, dominate over proprietary solutions. The benefits to users include greater flexibility and choice in products and services and ease of interoperability with other organizations. For a list of all my articles, go to

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