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ACM TechNews
February 1, 2006

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Welcome to the February 1, 2006 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.

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  • ACM President Says White House Commitment to Increased Education, R&D Investment Reflects Tech Community Priorities
  • U.S. Defense Dollars for Computer Science Plunge
  • Enter the Semantic Grid
  • Electric Slide for Tech Industry?
  • Professor Earns Oscar for Technical Development
  • 'Smart' Engine Shows Promise for Leaner, Greener Vehicle
  • Why America Needs to Open Its Doors Wide to Foreign Talent
  • Interplanetary Broadband
  • ISU Supercomputer to Help With Corn Genome
  • 'Free' Is the New 'Cheap' for Software Tools
  • TSU Develops Software, Intelligence for the Military
  • 'Mocha' Energizes Online Scheduling
  • The Computer Virus Comes of Age
  • Building Trust and Validation Into Distributed Computer Networks
  • Browsers Face Triple Threat
  • Assurance Provider: Designing a Roadmap for Information Security
  • Collaborative Advantage
  • XML: The Center of Attention Up and Down the Stack


    ACM President Says White House Commitment to Increased Education, R&D Investment Reflects Tech Community Priorities
    PRNewswire (02/01/06)

    ACM President David Patterson praised President Bush's American Competitiveness Initiative outlined in his State of the Union address last night, describing the program as very much in step with the priorities of the research community. "Innovation deserves a prime place in the national agenda because of its ability to create new industries and new jobs," said Patterson. "But the only way to assure continuing innovation is to focus on improving science, math, and technology education, and to increase funding for fundamental research programs at the federal level." Patterson and other leading scientists have been trumpeting the need for renewed federal support for research amid signs that the United States' technological advantage may be eroding at a time when scientific research has never been a more essential piece of the national economy. Patterson noted that federally funded research, which has led to the development of the Internet, the personal computer, and search engines, is critical to the nation's economic viability, as is an improved education system with updated curricula and better-trained teachers. "In an increasingly competitive world, innovation is required to create new industries, new processes, and new jobs," Patterson said. "The benefits to society of investing in research for IT and the rest of science and engineering are at least as important for the 21st century as they have already proven for the 20th century."
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    U.S. Defense Dollars for Computer Science Plunge
    IEEE Spectrum (02/06) Vol. 43, No. 2,Kumagai, Jean

    When ACM President David Patterson pitched his idea for applying statistical machine learning to stabilize and optimize military and commercial distributed computing systems, both DARPA and the NSF, to his great surprise, turned him down. Concluding that high-risk research with the potential for great impact was out of favor with the traditional sources of federal funding, Patterson founded the Reliable, Adaptive, and Distributed Systems Laboratory (RAD Lab), with joint funding from Google, Microsoft, and Sun. "In this era of increasing competitive pressures, people tend to get conservative, and descriptions like 'ambitions proposal' tend to be a negative," said Patterson of his attempts to garner federal funding for his artificial intelligence project. "We had to find another model." Researchers have been sharply critical of DARPA, claiming that in addition to the overall level funding having declined, DARPA grants heavily favor short-term projects with clear military applications. DARPA said it provided $207 million in funding for university computer science projects in 2002; by 2004, that amount had dropped to $123 million, excluding classified projects or those where the university functioned as a subcontractor. By contrast, NSF funding for university projects has doubled since 1999, though even that rate fails to keep up with the advances in computer science: The agency once funded between 30 percent and 35 percent of the proposals that it received; last year it only funded 21 percent, and most grants are for $150,000 or less--well short of the scope of projects such as Patterson's. DARPA's declining interest in university research has attracted the attention of legislators, who have expressed alarm that the torchbearer of technological innovation for half a century would turn its back on innovation at a time when the United States faces an unprecedented challenge to its global leadership.
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    Enter the Semantic Grid
    IST Results (01/31/06)

    A team of European researchers at work on the OntoGrid project is developing the technological framework for the Semantic Grid era of computing, enabling users to easily and quickly share resources and information. The system contains semantically-enabled middleware that enables users to comb through a broad collection of resources to form an organization that defies the boundaries of organization, industry, and country, and then to disband that organization once the problem that it set out to address is solved. "What we are doing is enriching the Grid with semantics," said Asuncion Gomez-Perez, an OntoGrid coordinator. "This is a visionary initiative. Few other researchers are working in this area at present." The researchers developed two semantic applications to test over the Grid: an insurance settlement system and an analysis application for satellite images. The insurance application brings together in a unified system the various participants in the claim process, including insurers, assessors, lawyers, and repair facilities, streamlining the process and reducing the risk of fraud with semantic-enriched information. Meanwhile, the quality analysis component of the satellite project will provide different aerospace organizations with consistent access to a body of satellite images. While the cross-industry functionality of the Grid has traditionally been hampered by its rigidity, OntoGrid promises reusable middleware that is flexible and configurable based on the reference architecture Semantic-OGSA. The middleware will offer users considerable agility when addressing distributed environments, and could also link to legacy systems.
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    Electric Slide for Tech Industry?
    CNet (02/01/06) Shankland, Stephen

    Representatives from all facets of the technology industry met at Sun Microsystems' headquarters on Tuesday for the Global Conference on Energy Efficiency to address the consensus problem of soaring power consumption that has emerged as IT departments are coming under increasing pressure to pack more servers into finite spaces while energy prices continue to rise. While a typical six-foot server rack would have consumed 2 kw to 3 kw four or five years ago, the same rack can now consume up to 20 kw, said Sun CTO George Papadopoulos. Data centers continue to increase in size and density, with an estimated 12 million square feet of new data center space expected to appear by 2009. A recent survey found that for every kilowatt of power consumed by computers, 1.4 kw go to waste. The group agreed that systems need a common measure of performance to determine the severity of the efficiency problem, though defining that process is problematic, as each company would likely choose tests that would favor its own equipment. In the meantime, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and others are reviving the decades-old technique of liquid cooling, while chip makers are addressing the problem at the design stage, as many of today's processors have fallen prey to leakage. The next step concerns the subsystem of the computer's memory, which is expected to consume more than half of a computer's energy by 2008. Sun is developing a proximity input-output technique that could replace conventional processing chips and communications wires by directly connecting the top of one processor with the bottom of another, as well as a technique to replace electrical communication links with optical ones. To bring data centers closer to capacity, companies are also investigating ways to optimize server utilization, such as virtualization, which places several operating systems on a single server.
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    Professor Earns Oscar for Technical Development
    Daily Bruin (02/01/06) Erlandson, Julia

    University of California, Los Angeles, computer science professor Demetri Terzopoulos and Microsoft's John Platt have won a Technical Achievement Academy Award for their 1987 paper, "Elastically Deformable Models," which describes the computer simulation of deformable objects, such as cloth. The paper was recognized for advancing the industry, as it applies to technology used in both films and video games, making computer simulations appear more realistic. "You have to simulate on a computer how clothes are actually built in the real world," Terzopoulos said. "There are patterns and seams. But then they can be worn by the virtual actor or human." Animators had to create these simulations by hand before his technique, which draws on math, computer science, and physics. Terzopoulos notes that while the technology has only recently been adopted, it has already been employed in the graphics of many major movies, including "Troy," "Star Wars," and several Pixar films. Terzopoulos has begun to develop virtual characters capable of acting and reacting independently, and notes that his work in vision and graphics could also have a significant impact on medical imaging. Scientific and Technical Academy Awards recognize contributions to the progress of the field and, unlike motion pictures, are not limited to the achievements in the past year.
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    'Smart' Engine Shows Promise for Leaner, Greener Vehicle
    Newswise (01/30/06)

    Researchers at the University of Missouri-Rolla are developing an advanced controller that holds the potential to make engines run more cleanly and efficiently, demonstrating particular promise in the technique of exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), which reduces emissions of nitrogen oxide. Electrical and computer engineering professor Jagannathan Sarangapani explains that traditional engines require both air and fuel to function, but a reduction in the amount of fuel required or diluting the combination with inert gases will alter the engine's behavior. A software program implements a neural network controller that the researchers created, which is capable of learning from successful connections that it has made. "The neural network observer part of the controller will assess the total air and fuel in a given cylinder in a given time," said Sarangapani. "It then sends that estimate to another neural network, which generates the fuel commands and tells the engine how much fuel to change each cycle." Jim Drallmeier, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, notes that speed is a critical factor, as the controller operates within a period of milliseconds. Before the design can transition to hardware, it must surmount the theoretical obstacles that limit the controller's understanding of the engine's operating conditions and develop an appropriate cyclical signal for fuel command. Smart controllers could improve on today's catalytic converters that fail in conditions such as a cold start before the engine has warmed up. Sarangapani and Drallmeier's research is jointly funded by the NSF and the Environmental Protection Agency.
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    Why America Needs to Open Its Doors Wide to Foreign Talent
    Financial Times (01/31/06) P. 15; Barrett, Craig

    The immigration crisis that is unfolding in the United States has nothing to do with the 11 million illegals currently in the country, but rather with the closed-door policy that keeps out many of the world's best scientific and technical minds, to the detriment of U.S. innovation and technical leadership, writes Intel Chairman Craig Barrett. Dependence on foreign talent is not new--the computing industry has drawn on German and Asian immigrants to fill the gap in knowledge workers for decades. The United States simply does not produce enough graduates to meet the growing needs of the technical industry. The H1-B visa program allows 65,000 foreigners to come to the United States and work, though even that number is inadequate in the face of the rising demands for knowledge workers, and the program is oversubscribed. The H1-B program also does not provide automatic entry to foreign students who graduate in the United States, but rather sends them home after educating them partially on the taxpayer's dime. Concern over unchecked illegal immigration has caused a legislative backlash that is overly restrictive on legal, and potentially productive, immigrants that are in critical demand. The home-grown workforce is failing also, as just 5 percent of U.S. students get engineering degrees, compared to a full half of Chinese graduates. The primary and secondary education systems are partially at fault, as students at those levels test significantly behind international students in math and science. U.S. companies that pride themselves on hiring American workers are facing a test, as the talent that they need is dwindling in the United States, while hiring foreign workers is materializing as the formula for success. To remain competitive, the United States must reform the primary and secondary school systems, colleges and universities need to devote more funding to science education, and the visa requirements for foreign workers must be relaxed.
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    Interplanetary Broadband
    Technology Review (01/31/06) Bullis, Kevin

    Researchers are exploring highly sensitive single-photon detectors as a tool for picking up low-power lasers that could facilitate high-speed communications for astronauts to relay information, and even stream video, to Earth from space. Today's missions rely on agonizingly slow downloads, while standard optical transmissions could convey video data, though the lasers required to carry the signals from such great distances have prohibitive power requirements. A new single-photon detector based on nanotechnology offers both speed and efficiency, holding the potential to make interplanetary communications a reality. MIT electrical engineering professor Karl Berggren notes that nanofabrication helped overcome the longstanding obstacle of using high bandwidth to detect extremely low-level light. While existing single-photon detectors require more power to increase their transmission distance, the researchers added a photon trap to the detector. The photon trap increases the chances of the wire absorbing a photon, roughly tripling the efficiency of the detection device. Quantum cryptography also stands to benefit from single-photon sensors, as eavesdroppers could be easily detected when information is sent with a single photon. Single-photon sensors could double or triple the transmission distance of quantum cryptography, though the cost would be prohibitive for most commercial applications. Focusing the photons on the miniature sensors remains a challenge, however, which Berggren expects to be resolved within two years.
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    ISU Supercomputer to Help With Corn Genome
    Associated Press (01/31/06) Pitt, David

    Researchers at Iowa State University will be able to process data on the corn genome in days, rather than two to three months, by using the school's new IBM BlueGene supercomputer. Introduced Monday, the $1.25 million BlueGene/L computer is one of the top 10 computers in the United States, and is the 73rd fastest in the world. The supercomputer can perform as many as 5.7 trillion calculations per second, according to Srinivas Aluru, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and has the processing power of more than 2,000 home computers and more than 1,000 times their storage capacity. Deciphering the more than 60 million bits of genetic material of corn could one day lead to new uses for the plant, such as in plastics, fuel, and fiber. The corn genome project is expected to take about three years, and involves four other universities. Researchers also want to use the supercomputer, which is funded by a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and $650,000 from the university, to study protein networks in organisms. "It's the unavailability of computers of this magnitude that limits many projects in engineering and computer science," says Bob Jernigan, professor of biochemistry and biophysics. "This can have an important influence on all kinds of research."
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    'Free' Is the New 'Cheap' for Software Tools
    CNet (01/31/06) LaMonica, Martin

    IBM recently unveiled DB2 Express-C, a free database for software developers that follows similar rollouts from Oracle and Microsoft, symbolizing the effect that the emergence of free, open source software has had on the business models of major proprietary vendors. "Commercial vendors competing in areas where there are credible, free open-source alternatives are increasingly being pressured to lower the barriers to entry to their product," said RedMonk's Stephen O'Grady. This is particularly true with programming tools such as database servers, though offering a product for free can also be a savvy business move, as it can broaden a company's customer base. IBM's Bernie Spang credits open-source pioneers with demonstrating the viability of the model, and looks for the free version of DB2 to nurture the growth of applications that spring from that database. Free products can sometimes lure developers into embracing a company's entire line of software. Whether the free databases that Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle are offering will produce revenue is a secondary concern to simply staying competitive in an increasingly open-source programming environment, notes Forrester's Noel Yahanna. Forrester predicts that the open-source database market will reach $1 billion by 2008 as corporate adoption continues to increase. Open-source use engenders the appearance of add-on products, such as browser plug-ins, as well as the combined use of multiple components. Prices have also been in steady decline, particularly since the advent of Eclipse, which made it all but impossible to charge for a rudimentary integrated development environment.
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    TSU Develops Software, Intelligence for the Military
    Tennessee State Meter (01/30/06) Terrell, Taylon

    The computer science and engineering departments at Tennessee State University (TSU) are participating in a project that could facilitate the use of micro-sensors in robots in combat zones. The university has teamed up with Penn State University for a research project called the Center of Excellence for Battlefield Sensor Fusion, and the initiative is being funded by the U.S. Army Research Office. The engineering department is focusing on providing robots with mobility and sophisticated sensoring and wireless networking for communication, the generation of an enormous amount of data, and for coordinating positions and monitoring enemy movement. The computer science team has developed software that allow robots featuring sensors, cameras, grippers, and mechanical arms to respond to commands and recognize objects, including a bomb. The robots with grippers and robots with arms, which cost about $10,000, are designed to work together in moving objects and place sensors around the battlefield in areas that soldiers are unable to reach. "The purpose of utilizing this software is for replacing soldiers in high risk areas so that it [the software] can become the eyes and ears of soldiers," says Amir Shirkhodaie, professor of mechanical and manufacturing engineering at TSU and head of the program.
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    'Mocha' Energizes Online Scheduling
    Brown Daily Herald (01/27/06) Carmody, Brenna

    Brown University students have a new alternative to registering for classes online in Mocha, a new program developed by five computer science students. Programmers Dave Pacheco, Daniel Leventhal, Adam Cath, Dave Hirshberg, and Bill Pijewski, all juniors, are touting Mocha as being easier to use and more helpful than the Brown Online Course Announcement (BOCA) system. With BOCA, students can use only one description at a time when searching, and the system often slows down as the start of classes approaches. However, Mocha is designed to enable "any kind of search you can think of," says Pacheco, adding that the load on the servers is not overbearing because the new interface condenses searches. Using Mocha, students can add courses to a shopping cart, create a color-coordinated schedule, bookmark classes, and select classes without entering a number of zeroes. Mocha is available on a Web site created by the students, and the Computer Science Department is hosting the Web site on its servers. The programming students say future enhancements to the software will include compatibility with Apple's iCal calendaring program, email exam reminders, and a way to link users schedules.
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    The Computer Virus Comes of Age
    Financial Times (01/30/06) P. 6; Palmer, Maija

    The appearance of the Brain virus 20 years ago touched off an age of computer vulnerability that has advanced from a slow-moving, innocuous virus transmitted via floppy disk to modern estimates of around 120,000 viruses, some of which are capable of bringing down corporate networks and intercepting sensitive personal information. The roughly 1 billion Internet users, many of whom use high-speed connections, enable viruses to travel far more quickly today than they did in the days of Brain. MyDoom, for instance, spread through email, infecting an estimated 250,000 computers a day in 2004. Sophos' Graham Cluley estimates that a computer operating without anti-virus software has a 50 percent chance of being infected by a virus if it is connected to the Internet for just 15 minutes, even if it transmits no email and stays off of the Web. Antivirus software is reasonably effective at keeping intruders out, but it comes at a tremendous expense (spending on antivirus software is expected to reach $5.9 billion by 2009) and drains a computer's processing power. Whereas early viruses were relatively benign, often the product of a teenager showing off for his friends, virus writers have grown more malicious, deploying programs that erase hard drives, crash networks, and swipe identities. Today's viruses do not make the same headlines as the infamous Love Letter and Anna Kournikova viruses early in the decade, but they are far more destructive, and often the product of organized criminal gangs. "Now that the goal is for profit, we are seeing fewer big outbreaks of viruses," said McAfee's Sal Viveros. "The virus writers don't want to make headlines, they want to target a smaller number of people for specific information." The U.S. Treasury advisor reports that revenue from cybercrime now exceeds the illegal drug trade, and the trend is only likely to accelerate should hackers turn their sites to mobile devices.
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    Building Trust and Validation Into Distributed Computer Networks
    University of Southampton (ECS) (01/30/06)

    The Provenance research project in Europe is focused on providing a way to document results generated while using distributed computer networks, and to manage the history of the information within the Grid infrastructure. The EU project is designed to offer authorized users of Grids the necessary background information for reviewing processes or experiments for errors. "Ultimately we are building trust, proof and validation into Grids, enabling users to have the highest levels of confidence in the information available," explains Steve Munroe, EU Provenance Exploitation Manager in the School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University of Southampton. The project has developed an initial public version of software requirements for the provenance architecture, with logical and process components for provenance systems. "Provenance can be used to determine that a given process has adhered to the necessary regulations," says Munroe, "thus enabling the end user to place trust in the results received." ECS professor Luc Moreau is the architect of the project, which includes IBM UK and the Computer and Automation Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences among its partners.
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    Browsers Face Triple Threat
    Techworld (01/31/06) Broersma, Matthew

    Researcher Michael Zalewski says there are three bugs, which he calls "cross site cooking," in the handling of cookies that could possibly be used to carry out attacks on several commercial Web sites. "Cooking" attacks may be used against commercial sites to overwrite stored preferences, session identifiers, authentication data, and shopping cart contents to commit fraud, according to Zalewski. The bugs are used to create and design cookies, but have not been fixed in the major browsers, even though they were first discovered eight years ago. "These shortcomings make it possible (and alarmingly easy) for malicious sites to plant spoofed cookies that will be relayed by unsuspecting visitors to legitimate, third-party servers," wrote Zalewski in a post to the BugTraq security mailing list. Browsers normally reject cookies where the domain specified is too broad; however, that does not work in Mozilla-based browsers. The bug can attack some sites with international domain names and possibly steal information from e-commerce Web sites around the world, according to Zalewski. He suggests making changes in the HTTP cookie format, and implementing a workaround where browsers could make a list of potentially affected high-ranking domains. Zalewski says browser vendors must take action and strip the "idle" periods out of cookie domain data as a possible solution to the problem.
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    Assurance Provider: Designing a Roadmap for Information Security
    Military Information Technology (01/28/06) Vol. 10, No. 1,Donnelly, Harrison

    Director of the National Security Agency's Information Assurance (IA) Directorate Daniel Wolf is tasked with defining and deploying the IA strategy to shield the Global Information Grid (GIG) and all related programs, and he works with NSA customers to guarantee that the agency's IA programs keep evolving to address their current and future needs for secure networks and communications, supplying IA technical consulting services and high-assurance products to the United States. Wolf says the IA roadmap for the GIG is a collaborative effort with many organizations, including the Defense Information Systems Agency and U.S. Strategic Command; he notes that his group's work with the GIG's IA component can be used to fulfill the IA requirements of the Defense Department's Information Sharing Environment (ISE) program. He remarks confidently that "IA features are becoming common and, while we have a long way to go, the robustness of IA features is also increasing." Shaping a system to provide an environment where any piece of information can be cheaply and securely delivered to anyone at any time is the core goal of the GIG-IA architecture, according to Wolf. The IA roadmap calls for the implementation within a system-high environment of improved information sharing and auditing and misuse capabilities. Wolf describes the Cryptographic Modernization Initiative as a joint DoD/NSA venture to facilitate a 21st century upgrade for cryptographic capabilities, and says the Committee for National Security Systems has organized a working group at the national policy level to synch up the program's planning and deployment. Key trends Wolf sees in the field of encryption technology include vendors' adoption of common interoperable algorithms, as encouraged by NSA's definition of its Suite B project. Acknowledging that IA's software foundation is weak, Wolf lists such challenges as improving software product evaluation capabilities, adding scalability to evaluation, moving to the system level without introducing vulnerabilities, and accommodating software's ever-increasing size and complexity.
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    Collaborative Advantage
    Issues in Science and Technology (01/06) Vol. 22, No. 2, P. 74; Lynn, Leonard; Salzman, Hal

    The emerging global economy requires a new global strategy, as the United States can no longer sustain technological domination, according to Case Western Reserve University professor Leonard Lynn and the Urban Institute's Hal Salzman. What is needed, the authors argue, are technology development policies promoting "collaborative advantage" that "comes not from self-sufficiency or maintaining a monopoly on advanced technology, but from being a valued collaborator at various levels in the international system of technology development." Lynn and Salzman say the generation and proliferation of new communications, information, and work-sharing technologies over the last 10 years has supported a new trade environment that renders once-successful competitive strategies for U.S. firms obsolete, and attempts to recapture technological leadership unworkable. Several elements are cited as factors that could collectively unbalance U.S. firms' capacity to innovate: U.S. multinationals outsourcing tech development operations without conducting rigorous cost/benefit analysis first; increased numbers of offshored activities as a result of more and more multinationals offshoring; dwindling multinational investment in U.S.-based universities; the rapid emergence of competing innovation systems; and America's waning ability to attract top science and technology talent. Lynn and Salzman recommend the development of national strategies that emphasize collaborative advantage, a goal that requires the creation of new outsourcing cost/benefit analysis tools and an aggressive search for global partnership opportunities. Monopolization of the global S&T workforce must give way to a model that supports an environment where S&T brainpower flows freely. Finally, America must devise an S&T educational system that teaches collaborative competencies, not just technical know-how.
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    XML: The Center of Attention Up and Down the Stack
    IEEE Distributed Systems Online (01/06) Vol. 7, No. 1,Goth, Greg

    Despite its historical failure to live up to its promise, XML appeared to come into its own in 2005, with Microsoft and OASIS squaring off to secure governance of the standards that will guide its development. ZapThink projects that 48 percent of corporate networks will use XML by 2008, up from just 15 percent in 2004. XML messages can be as many as 50 times larger than binary messages, causing some to speculate that networks could get bogged down with heavy XML traffic for Web services and service-oriented architecture (SOA). IBM conducted XML efficiency tests in 2003 and found that only a small portion of a server's processing ability handled the tasks of the application, with the rest consumed by overhead, spawning the niche industry of XML acceleration appliances where a plug-and-play piece of hardware takes over the bulk of the XML processing from the server. The popularity of the accelerator calls into question the future of middleware, with many companies beginning to realize that they can do without the enterprise service bus. Iona Technologies CTO Eric Newcomer contends that such speculation is premature, however. "Everybody's always predicting the death of some old technology, and we still have mainframes and Cobol years after it was predicted they would die," he said. Newcomer believes that middleware vendors can still survive if they develop ways for their product to fit into the changing landscape. The question of how to deploy XML most effectively has led IBM and Sun to challenge Microsoft for control over the development of the Open Document Format, a competition that industry analysts around the world are watching closely.
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