Christian: A gift from GSA

A recent change to schedule contracts could aid interoperability

At last it is becoming possible for U.S. government buyers of commercial software to choose products that interoperate using open-standard interfaces. For example, a buyer wants software products that display maps. That capability is available in many products using vendor-specific interfaces. But smart

buyers want to choose from products that support interoperable standards such as Web Map Service, giving them access to thousands of map data resources worldwide. Choosing an interoperable product will also help buyers maximize investments in software products and services from other vendors and related standards.

But how does a buyer know which products support which interoperable standards? Vendors need a way to tag their products to the standards they support so that buyers will be able to easily select those products. This tagging would finally bring to the software market the kind of compatibility people depend on when they buy hardware components.

In government, buyers look first to commercial software. The major source of product catalogs for that kind of software is the General Services Administration's Schedule 70 contracts, which accounted for about $11 billion in information technology sales to the government last year.

A recent change to the guidance on the schedule contracts paves the way for vendors to tag their products so that buyers can easily check what interoperable standards they support. This guidance comes by way of a "note to offerors" that was added to instructions on Term Software Licenses and Perpetual Software Licenses:

"NOTE: Offerors are encouraged to identify within their software items any component interfaces that support open-standard interoperability. An item's interface may be identified as interoperable on the basis of participation in a government agency-sponsored program or in an independent organization program. Interfaces may be identified by reference to an interface registered in the component registry located at www.core.gov."

This simple change in guidance to software vendors could have profound consequences. Government organizations nationwide have been trying to enhance programs' effectiveness and efficiency by promoting interoperability, a basic tenet of the federal enterprise architecture.

This development also reflects a major trend in IT toward greater modularization of complex systems. As modern systems are designed with component parts, those parts must be standardized. Many open standards for various kinds of interoperability exist. Some are specific to certain applications such the mapping example above, while others, such as the ISO 23950 open standard for interoperable search, apply broadly. In networking applications, systems typically pass structured messages at a "service interface" that adheres to a precise definition, and an overall design maximizing those interoperable services is known as a service-oriented architecture.

Now that vendors of commercial software can identify components that are designed to interoperate, governments can move toward a more connected architecture in which systems capitalize on one another's services. And, through greater interoperability governments may also realize synergies that lie unrecognized within myriad stand-alone systems.

Christian is manager of data and information systems at the U.S. Geological Survey.

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