Java interest percolates

Java, a software language that is all the rage among Internet users, is still too new to make a big splash in the federal market. But many agencies are exploring how they might benefit from this new concept in network computing.

Developed by Sun Microsystems Inc., Java supports a new form of software described as an applet: an application that Internet users can run from a Web page but never download to their own computers. Though it is unclear whether Java will become an industry standard, most developers believe applet technology will become ubiquitous.

This approach opens the door to interactive World Wide Web pages, where users can launch an applet—for example, to query a database—and get an instant response. All they need is a Web browser.

"The power of Java means you deliver applications, not just static information," said John Leahy, group manager at Sun Microsystems Federal Inc., Vienna, Va.

Java's advantages—including software portability and the small demand on end-user resources—has captured the fancy of federal agencies. NASA, the National Library of Medicine and the Internal Revenue Service have already developed Java-based applications, and other agencies are investigating potential uses.

The Defense Department is looking at Java for command and control applications.

Thomas Bozek, director of information technology in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence, said, "Java is constructed similar to Ada in terms of the software engineering that is built into the language."

Agencies are looking at Java as a way to distribute applications over the Internet.

"Java is profoundly important to the government," said Larry Koskinen, who heads up project development for the Council for Excellence in Government. "We can really begin to tie the government together in a way that heretofore has not been done before."

Researchers at NLM have created one of the few working Java applications in government. NLM, working with colleagues at Syracuse University, have a Java program operating in conjunction with its Visible Human Project, a 3-D, anatomically detailed representation of the male and female bodies. NLM's Java application, called the NPAC Visible Human Viewer, located at http://www.nlm.nih.gov, allows users to bypass downloading a 21G file and choose a specific slice of the body instead.

"We consider Java a very important technological development," said R.P.C. Rodgers, an NLM research scientist. "Java will affect many other parts of our Internet service."

Similarly, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is developing tools in Java to distribute Hubble Space Telescope information.

"To view the data [people] have to go to the control room, or they have to get on a plane and fly here," said Jeff Johnson, a software engineer with Goddard's Control Center Systems Development team and a Loral Aerosys Inc. employee. "Java lets you use the Internet as your [local-area network.]"

Eventually, Goddard aims to enable Hubble engineers to operate the telescope from home using a local Internet connection. Interest in Java goes beyond the scientific agencies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development plans to use Java to add interactive elements to its home page at http://www.hud.gov.

For other agencies, technical obstacles are hampering use of the technology. The Java environment requires an operating system that allows multithreading, such as Unix, 0S/2, Windows NT, Windows 95 or Mac System 7.5. The most common operating system in the federal government, Windows 3.1, will not work with Java. That means agencies have to upgrade their hardware and software systems to support Java.

Additionally, users must have the Netscape 2.0 browser, which is not available on some platforms.

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