Directories and domains clash

PROVO, UTAH -- Novell this week proposed a new Internet domain that would make it easier for companies engaged in e-commerce to integrate corporate directories.

The plan is drawing both praise and heavy criticism.

Novell is pushing a ".dir" global Top Level Domain (gTLD) that would identify a company's directory to its trading and business partners and allow for integration of user identity data from multiple companies.

Novell made the proposal as part of an effort by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to add new TLDs to the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). DNS is a hierarchical database for locating servers on the Internet.

DNS would be used to locate directories, but questions remain about how the directories would be integrated. Novell's proposal includes using its proprietary technology, called federated directories, which will ship this month in the company's eDirectory 8.5.

"The intent is to have a place where we can pull together all directories," says Winston Bumpus, director of open technologies and standards at Novell and chairman of the Directory Interoperability Forum (DIF) within vendor consortium, The Open Group. "We want the directory visible in a standard way. All DNS is doing is providing a rendezvous point so directories can talk to each other."

With .dir, a company's directory would be identified by the .dir extension at the end of its domain name. For example, a company called Magnet Parts could use the domain www.

"I think .dir is a great idea," says Richard Reid, manager of worldwide messaging and directory services at True North Communications, an advertising agency in Chicago. "Businesses will know that everything in that TLD is a directory and that you can work with it."

One vendor agrees that .dir could be the point of entrance into a company's directory.

"Any company, like Coca-Cola, should have a .dir domain," says Blair Thomas, vice president of marketing for NetPro, a directory management company in Phoenix.

Athough observers say .dir is a clever idea, some believe Novell is trying to make an end run around standards.

Mark Wahl, co-chair of DIF's Service Provider Directory-Enabled Network Applications working group and Sun's chief architect of unified user management services for iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, says DIF is not behind Novell's proposal.

Furthermore, Wahl says Sun was not aware of the proposal and that "today's domain names work fine for mail, Web, directory and [business-to-business] applications. [Sun/Netscape's] iPlanet recommends the use of the Internet Engineering Task Force's RFC 2247 and traditional domain names," he says.

"There are standard and DNS extension specifications being developed in the IETF that can help the Domain Name System integrate better with directories," he adds. "These specifications are easy to deploy with existing DNS names and don't need the creation of a new domain name space."

Novell's Bumpus insists his company had no intention of sidestepping standards.

"We wanted to get [the proposal] out there because ICANN had set a short deadline," Bumpus says. "Novell wants to set a baseline for interoperability based on IETF standards, and the DIF allows for that to happen."

Critics of the proposal also question what they see as the subversion of DNS for commercial purposes.

"Why is everyone looking to ICANN to rubber stamp their business models?" says Rick Wesson, CEO of Alice's Registry in Santa Cruz, Calif., a consulting firm for ICANN-accredited registrars. "Novell wants to create a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol [LDAP] root, but it doesn't need a TLD to do that. It can build the same infrastructure under the existing DNS domains."

For instance, Novell could encourage that directories be advertised using the LDAP port 389, just like the World Wide Web uses port 80. Messages from could be sent on port 389, which would be recognized as an LDAP server, says NetPro's Thomas.

Novell says establishing a TLD is important because it would guarantee the type of site that uses the .dir domain. The proposed .dir is a so-called chartered domain and would require .dir applicants be fully compliant with the LDAP 2000, an LDAP conformance test sponsored by DIF.

However, there are no LDAP 2000-compliant directories at the moment. Only Novell, Netscape, Critical Path and Oracle have promised that their directories will pass the compliance test when it is available by year-end.

"People do want to open up their back-end systems to all their constituents outside the organization," says Gordon Eubanks, CEO of directory integrator Oblix in Milpitas, Calif. "To do that, however, you have to make sure you are talking to a standard, not a brand."

Eubanks says .dir could become a standard method for directory interoperability.

Other experts also question Novell's motivation for pushing .dir.

"This is not a bad idea in and of itself," says Jamie Lewis, CEO of The Burton Group in Midvale, Utah. "Users need a unique way to identify directory trees on the Internet, and maybe a domain name is the way to do that. But right now Novell is in go-it-alone mode and has what amounts to [a proprietary] eDirectory-to-eDirectory proposal."

Lewis says Novell should take a leadership role on directory standards.

"Novell should open up the mechanism it has developed for federated directories using DNS and publish it to a standards body, then stand back and live with the results," he says.

Microsoft, also a DIF member, says it had not heard of .dir until Novell made its proposal, but LDAP 2000 will provide users with only base-level functionality, such as query processes.

"From what we know about .dir, Novell is addressing about 20% of customer problems and hiding its real intentions behind standards," says Shanen Boettcher, lead product manager for Windows 2000.

Microsoft also says Novell has yet to prove how communication between directories will be secure.

This story, "Directories and domains clash" was originally published by Network World.

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