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Phila. Meeting Gives Green Light To IDL Initiative for Bioinformatics

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PHILADELPHIA--Leading software makers and users will move ahead with a breakthrough effort to develop common standards for bioinformatics software objects. That decision came at an industry summit here last month that was attended by about 50 representatives from major pharmaceutical, software, and biotech companies and academic institutions. Several researchers who attended the meeting characterized it as "exciting" and "a major success."

After a day of sometimes contentious discussion, the group appointed four bioinformatics professionals to begin a formal effort to develop common standards for an Interface Definition Language (IDL) that will allow researchers to share software objects and data more easily. Among other things, the lack of standards has worried major drug companies, who fear making large investments in software systems that may not be compatible.

The four men--David Benton of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, Nathan Goodman of the Jackson Laboratory, Eric Neumann of NetGenics, and Tim Slidel of the European Bioinformatics Institute--will be responsible for preparing a proposal to establish a new Special Interest Group (SIG) within the Object Management Group (OMG), a nonprofit consortium based in Framingham, Mass. Specifically, they must develop a mission and goals statement that will be proposed to the OMG at a meeting in Dublin, Ireland, late this month. OMG was founded in 1989 to promote standards for object software and has played a key role in setting software standards in a wide range of industries.

A major issue at the meeting here was what to name the SIG. The group finally agreed to call it Life Sciences Research, a term deemed broad enough to encompass the wide range of companies with an interest in the new standards. The next step is to finalize the mission and goals statement. A preliminary draft distributed before the meeting called for the group to focus on improving the quality and reducing the cost of software systems through the use of Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). Many in the bioinformatics community believe CORBA will be the key to making sharable objects a reality.

As to goals, the preliminary draft called for elevating the SIG to the status of a full task force within OMG by December. A task force is a more permanent body that can issue requests for proposals to consortium members, evaluate responses, and recommend standards. While software developers are free to ignore the standards, they do carry weight.

Goodman told BioInform that if the group is able to "get standards approved in 18 months, we will be doing good." He said his colleagues hope to have the first requests for comments on standards out to industry members late this year.

--David Malakoff

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