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Following Initial Success, I3C Faces a New Round of Challenges as Participation Grows


When the Interoperable Informatics Infrastructure Consortium first unveiled its demo of a working protocol at the BIO 2001 conference in June, the event was hailed as a breakthrough by solution providers seeking an answer to the data integration problems often perceived as the primary bottleneck in genomics research.

But nobody said the I3C would have an easy job of following through with its promise and vision.

An I3C demonstration at the Biopathways/Bioinformatics Open Source Conference on July 20 highlighted some of the challenges that the fledgling initiative faces as it attempts to work through problems that numerous other groups have tackled just as enthusiastically — but with little success — in the past.

In contrast to the vendor-heavy crowd at the BIO meeting, the largely academic presence at Biopathways/ BOSC viewed the effort with some skepticism. “We’ve heard people talk the talk before, but to us it’s about code,” said Ewan Birney of the European Bioinformatics Institute. “Who’s going to do the work?”

And academics weren’t the only ones voicing doubts. Steve Lincoln, chief scientific officer at InforMax, questioned the initiative’s intellectual property stance, asking, “Have you chosen technology that will allow both commercial and open source developers to code to it without patent problems?”

The meeting’s I3C representatives — Eric Neumann, vice president of bioinformatics at Beyond Genomics, and Maciek Sasinowski, CEO of Incogen — reassured listeners that the effort is committed to protecting the interests of all parties involved: vendors, end-users, open source developers, and existing standards bodies such as the Object Management Group’s Life Science Research task force. But the inclusive nature of this pledge, while ambitious and optimistic, has caused some to question whether the I3C is biting off more than it can chew.

Siamak Zadeh, group marketing manager at Sun Microsystems and a driving force behind the I3C effort, told BioInform he is well aware of the challenges ahead. “This is a process, not an event,” Zadeh said. “We know we won’t meet everyone’s needs.” But he seems to relish the unenviable task of juggling the various technical, political, and economic interests of the consortium’s players.

Zadeh said that Sun’s previous involvement in the W3C initiative serves as proof that the company will be able to successfully spearhead the convergence of the 60 or so different organizations involved in the I3C to date. He added that the vendor-driven approach of the I3C should give it an advantage over the academically rooted W3C because the players have an economic interest in establishing working standards that will add value to their products. Academics will benefit from the vendor-driven approach as well, Zadeh said, because it will allow them to focus on their research rather than on integration issues.

But this vendor-driven approach “is a bit like the tail wagging the dog,” according to Lionel Binns, worldwide life and materials science group manager for high-performance technical computing at Compaq. “Compaq supports standards and will participate in the I3C,” said Binns, “but the effort shouldn’t be driven by the hardware vendors. It should be driven by the end-users. A big piece that I see lacking is that pharma isn’t visible at all.”

Indeed, at press time, Caprion Pharmaceuticals and Millennium Pharmaceuticals were the only clear end-users among the I3C’s posted list of participants.

Observers point to pharma’s inherent wait-and-see attitude for its reluctance to jump on board just yet. Bruce Jennett, co-chair of law firm Heller Ehrman’s life science informatics practice and an attendee at several I3C meetings, said, “the pharmaceutical companies know what’s going on. If they’re not diving in to lead now, they’ll do so only if they see it taking a direction that is inimical to their interests.”

So far, Jennett added, “there’s not much need for pharmaceutical companies to get involved because [the I3C] is still resolving infrastructure issues.”

Arkesh Mehta, chief information officer of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which backs the I3C, said he believes more end-users will sign on once the initiative develops into a more formal structure. He acknowledged that the unclear nature of the I3C’s IP policy is probably keeping some potential participants out of the game for now. The group has a preliminary draft of its bylaws in place now, he said, which it aims to have in place and posted on the website by the end of August.

Until then, many observers remain unconvinced that a vendor-driven “open standard” will work equally well for pharmaceutical companies, the OMG, and open source developers. “Will Sun try to input the Sun vision and culture in the open source issues on this initiative?” asked Jennett. “It will be interesting to see if the data industry drives this development. I don’t know if that’s good or bad for biotech.”

Birney, who said that open-bio supports the I3C’s efforts to develop standards, noted that “open should be unencumbered by complex licensing and not require any proprietary technology.” Vendors, however, want reassurance that they won’t be penalized economically by contributing pieces of their technology to the platform, while end-users want to avoid the potential IP entanglements of sharing technology with their competitors in the consortium.

Despite these daunting challenges, however, I3C organizers have been able to overcome a number of hurdles already and see no reason why the effort won’t experience continued success. Several observers noted that coordinating the efforts of 10 competing hardware and software vendors to develop the demonstration protocol was certainly no easy matter. In addition, the I3C has had to overcome the perception that “this is just another standards body,” said Mehta. “I believe we have taken care of those doubts,” he added.

Zadeh agreed that one of the group’s biggest obstacles would be battling the ghosts of failed standards efforts. “Technology changes,” Zadeh said, “and we can’t anticipate what’s coming. We’re learning from the experience of the OMG, which was so focused on Corba as the ultimate standard, but it was never adopted.”

Instead, the I3C intends to remain flexible and open to input from the community. “It’s an ongoing process that eventually should become self-sustaining,” Zadeh said.

Zadeh said the I3C is on track to resolve its organizational structure, which includes defining the terms of membership and sorting out licensing issues, by the end of the summer. The group expects to have its first draft for a working protocol in place by September 2002.

— BT


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