WebDAV protocol comes of age

Incubating in the standards process for several years, the WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) protocol – designed to add interoperability and collaborative capabilities to the Internet – has been steadily making its way into the everyday tools of business users and stands poised to transform how users interact with the Internet.

WebDAV is a set of extensions to the HTTP protocol that allows users to collaboratively edit and manage files on a remote Web server. Whereas the Internet historically has been limited to display and download capabilities, WebDAV embedded in software and systems promises to turn the Internet into a writable medium capable of supporting collaboration and distributed file sharing.

The protocol, which is still being refined and tweaked through the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standards process, has some features that include locking and unlocking capabilities to prevent the overwriting of changes, XML properties for the storage of metadata, and namespace manipulation capability copying and moving data. To ensure security, WebDAV adds SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) technology and wraps all transmissions in 128-bit encryption. Other important features that are being developed include version control and the ability to set access control lists.

Among the many potential applications of WebDAV, secure Web-based file sharing holds the biggest promise for business users, according to Bill North, director of research for storage software at IDC in Mountain View, Calif. “Multi-user access to common sets of file-oriented data…eliminates many opportunities for inconsistencies and error in the information and at the same time improves the efficiency of the people working on data,” North says. “In a worldwide [around-the-clock] environment, that is really big advantage.”

For example, multiple remote workers using WebDAV-enabled systems and software can collaborate on shared documents wherever they are as long as they have Internet access.

Other potential uses for WebDAV include editing contents of a document management system via the Web and virtual product development across distributed enterprises, according to observers.

The protocol is just now at a stage of maturity, providing useful function in products that are currently hitting the market, North says. A diverse array of vendors are embracing WebDAV across applications, software, servers, and OSes.

Xythos, a San Francisco-based provider of file management software, built its WFS (WebFile Server) software around WebDAV, enabling the system to work across all operating systems and platforms, according to Jim Till, vice-president of sales and marketing. “In WFS, we enable the secure sharing of files across the network so you get the same level of safe file sharing you have in a LAN stretched across the Internet regardless of the connection. This makes it easier to work together in different times and through distance,” Till says.

Oracle, meanwhile, currently supports WebDAV in iFS (Internet File System) and plans to add WebDAV functionality to Release 2 of its Oracle 9iAS Portal product, due by the end of the year.

WebDAV support in the portal will allow functions such as file manipulation, access, editing, and saving. “We see this protocol as an up-and-coming technology. It will likely someday surpass FTP because it has richer services,” notes George Demarest, director of database marketing at Oracle in Redwood Shores, Calif.

Microsoft for its part has built WebDAV support into its many products, including SharePoint Portal Server, Office XP, and Windows XP, which is due to be formally rolled out this month. WebDAV support integrated into Windows XP is notable because it enables any application running on top of it to be WebDAV-enabled as well.

Other OSes from Apple Computer Inc. and Novell Inc. are also taking advantage of WebDAV’s collaborative functionality. Apple baked WebDAV support into its recently released Mac OS X, and Novell has included WebDAV capabilities in NetWare 5.1 and NetWare 6. Introduced last month, NetWare 6’s WebDAV functionality was deepened with a new NetStorage feature that provides Web access to files on a NetWare server.

Another vendor leveraging WebDAV is San Jose, Calif.-based Adobe Systems. The newest edition of Adobe Acrobat, Version 5.0, takes advantage of WebDAV to allow users to collaborate on and edit PDF documents via the Web.

Using the WebDAV functionality embedded in Acrobat 5.0, a user viewing a PDF file can upload comments and edits to a shared data repository, which can be tapped by and added to by other workers connected to the Web server.

One Acrobat user, London-based communications equipment vendor Marconi, plans to leverage WebDAV functionality in Acrobat 5.0 to streamline the process of editing product documentation. The current process of compiling comments and edits from companywide experts on multiple subjects requires the document author to merge comments and then conduct meetings to resolve conflicting edits and feedback.

“If we can use WebDAV to allow reviewers to see every one of the comments and be aware of conflicts as they are being posted they can save time in the review and edit process and resolve issues immediately,” says Beverly Hrablook, director of global digital assets at Marconi, in Irving, Texas.