NIST draws fire to plans to halt testing

The government's new emphasis on devising technology tests has left some vendors
wondering who will ensure compliance with standards such as the Structured Query Language
for database management systems.


Officials at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have announced plans to
turn their SQL conformance testing program over to industry and standards groups by early
next year.


The transfer reflects NIST's strategy for leaving standards development to industry
while its scientists and researchers focus on building test schemes for emerging
technology standards [GCN, April 29, Page 1].


Shukri Wakid, director of NIST's Computer Systems Laboratory, has said that his group
will no longer play a role in developing standards. Instead, NIST will strive to become a
technology leader and develop centers that offer credible testing methods, which should
make the government systems jibe with industry and government systems worldwide.


But Michael Gorman, president of Whitemarsh Information Systems Corp., a Bowie, Md.,
consulting firm, said NIST's revamped standards strategy could end up costing agencies and
vendors more because they will be forced to create and coordinate their own SQL
conformance test programs for database management system products.


""If NIST goes out of this business I don't care. But somebody in government
should be doing this,'' Gorman said. His clients include many smaller companies.
""Anybody who buys a database management system needs to have a conformance
certificate. Without the tests you don't know when the talk meets the walk.''


SQL is the language used to interrogate and process data in a relational database. SQL
commands can be crafted to work with a database or be embedded in a programming language
to interact with a database.


Vendors--usually to meet a solicitation requirement--now pay NIST to run tests for
determining whether products conform to the American National Standards Institute's SQL
syntax and semantics requirements.


Gorman estimated that it would cost about $4,000 and take two weeks to develop each SQL
test. Using 300 tests as a baseline, agencies would have to spend about $1.2 million just
to create their own SQL test operations, he said.


Besides the extra expenses, Gorman said agencies and vendors also may be sacrificing
test integrity because not all the testing procedures will be uniform.


""What's the probability that people won't modify the test suites? That's not
something unheard of given the way programmers like to change code,'' Gorman said.
""The procurement process used to be a snake pit. But conformance tests cut down
on protests because you could show a conformance test certificate.''


NIST officials, however, promised that they will continue running conformance tests
until find they find a new home for the program. But managing standards tests is not part
of the agency's future.


""For some the SQL community seems to have been misinformed. We don't want to
lose the value of the work we've done, and we're not going to just walk away from
conformance tests,'' said Mark Skall, chief of NIST's Software Diagnostic and Conformance
Test Division. ""But it is time to move on to more pertinent things. We're
looking to develop tests at the leading edge so developers can use our tests and prove
quality.''


Skall acknowledged that it may take time for people to grow accustomed to NIST's plan
for devising testing methods and tools. But ever-tightening budget constraints have forced
the agency to become more of a technical liaison group than an old-fashioned standards
organization.


""People can always come to us for tests and help in using them. We'll make
them available on the World Wide Web,'' Skall said. ""But our number one goal is
to help industry use the tests we develop for emerging technologies. We have terrific
technical people here and want to make the best use of their time and talents.''



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