Industry, feds team to tackle interoperability

Industry heavyweights and government agencies are working together to develop an Internet-based tool that makes it easier for organizations to field systems that can exchange data seamlessly.

The Interoperability Clearinghouse would give information technology planners fast access to volumes of technical specifications from competing companies as well as a database of lessons learned from real-life case studies.

The repository is based on a search engine developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and its supporters include the Navy, the Army, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Justice Department as well as several major industry vendors and consortiums (see list).

The repository is intended to take the pain out of designing a computing environment using systems designed by multiple vendors. Rather than learn by trial and error about which systems can interoperate, organizations should be able to learn quickly about potential technical glitches and even compare their own plans to those fielded by other organizations, said John Weiler, founder and chief technology officer of the clearinghouse.

In addition to providing examples of successful system configurations, the database will offer industry standards and product specifications, distinguishing between vendors' claims and performance data from users or testing laboratories. "The intent is to hold both the vendors and the standards community accountable for their efforts," Weiler said.

The interoperability committee of the CIO Council has reviewed plans for the clearinghouse and has requested that the Industry Advisory Council provide a recommendation to the committee. Neil Stillman, co-chairman of the committee, said he has "no position" on CIO Council participation in the effort until IAC provides its feedback.

Michael Tiemann, chairman of the committee's architecture working group and information architecture program manager at the Energy Department, said he has been briefed on the clearinghouse but is waiting to receive feedback from the DOE user community before he commits to supporting the effort.

"There's enormous potential in the concept as defined," Tiemann said. "What I haven't seen so far...is much delivery in terms of the operational system...in terms of how it's populated. When you're talking about interoperability, even at the level of hardware communications, there are multiple layers of interoperability."

The repository will provide significant cost savings to entities choosing IT system configurations, especially government agencies, said Neil Marple, principal software engineer at Science Applications International Corp., which has committed research funding to the effort.

"This will be a tool that any architect of the future [not using it] will be at a severe disadvantage," Marple said. "Now, they're having to rely totally on vendor claims."

Microsoft Corp.'s federal division has agreed to provide engineering assistance and product information, said Tim McCaffrey, manager of the enterprise systems team of the division. If the effort gains momentum, Microsoft's corporate division may participate, he said.

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