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Quest for IDL Moves to Ireland; Comments Sought for Next Round

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DUBLIN--Companies and researchers with an interest in developing industry-wide bioinformatics software standards face a November 10 deadline for offering their initial ideas on what the standards should look like. That announcement came at a late September meeting here of the Object Management Group (OMG), a nonprofit industry consortium that promotes sharable object software.

The call for ideas marks the latest advance in an accelerating campaign to develop common standards for an Interface Definition Language (IDL) that will allow researchers to more easily share software objects and data. Currently, a lack of standards makes such sharing difficult. Major pharmaceutical companies are leading an effort to resolve the problem, in part because they don't want to invest large sums in incompatible systems.

"The bottom line is that we are champing at the bit to move as fast as is effective," said Eric Neumann, a researcher with Cleveland-based NetGenics and a central player in the standards-setting campaign. Other key figures include David Benton of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals, Nathan Goodman of the Jackson Laboratory, and Tim Slidel of the European Bioinformatics Institute.

The standards-setting effort got a jump start in August, when 50 leading bioinformatics professionals gathered in Philadelphia to craft plans for establishing a special interest group within OMG, which has played a significant role in crafting software standards for a wide range of industries. In particular, OMG promotes standards that are based on its Common Object Request Broker Architecture (CORBA). While many in bioinformatics see CORBA as a key to making sharable software objects a reality, some--particularly managers of large genome databases--have voiced doubts about the approach. One concern is that CORBA may not be robust enough to handle complex data sets.

However, such doubts didn't prevent OMG delegates meeting here from formally approving the formation of the Life Sciences Research Domain Special Interest Group. Creation of the group is the first step toward forming a more permanent OMG body--known as a Domain Task Force--that can recommend standards. Neumann told BioInform the special interest group hopes to be elevated to full task force status by December.

In one of its first official actions, the special interest group produced a Request For Information that is being distributed to more than 100 companies and researchers. The document, which is posted on OMG's web site at http://www.omg.org, "encourages users, consultants, systems integrators, and developers of life-sciences-research-related devices, instruments, applications, databases, and systems" to provide information that will help the group "make useful and efficient decisions in the life sciences research technology adoption process." Specifically, the group is seeking information on responders' software architectures, interoperability, object and data models, interfaces, existing systems, and standards. The group also invited comment on legal issues and suggested priorities.

The special interest group will use information it receives to develop a domain architecture description, a schedule for issuing additional requests for information and proposals, and a "technology road map" that outlines the technologies needed to achieve standardized interfaces. The next landmark in the process is December 2, when interested parties will meet in East Brunswick, NJ, to discuss the standards.

Eventually, OMG members will vote on whether to adopt interface specifications. According to OMG guidelines, both business and technical considerations should guide that decision.

--David Malakoff

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