Building an agency metadirectory

Computer networks in federal agencies initially were developed to support

relatively small groups of users. Network directories, which keep track

of users and devices plugged into the network, also were very focused.

But with networks becoming the nervous system of an increasingly interlinked

government, directories must evolve so that they will interoperate more

smoothly and handle much greater numbers of users and devices — or so-called

network "objects." The question is how to get there.

Finding an answer is the goal of a recent request for information from

the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), which is seeking input on

products and technologies with which to build a mammoth directory service

infrastructure that might eventually support as many as 250 million objects.

"Initially, the directory will provide basic contact information for

all DOD people, [but over time], directory services will expand, and object

populations will likely grow into the tens or hundreds of millions," according

to a DISA spokesperson.

There are thousands of directories in operation across DOD, the spokesperson

said, and most serve specific applications and do not interoperate well.

It has been only recently, with the emergence of public-key infrastructure

and advances in network technologies, that the goal of enterprise directories

on the scale of DOD has become conceivable.

In this case, the Holy Grail is a single, seamless directory that spans

an entire organization. However, people will have to first manage a number

of different directory structures side-by-side. That's where the concept

of the metadirectory comes in. It's a master directory that contains information

for all applications and sends updated information to the appropriate directory.

"What is happening there is pretty exciting," said Larry Gauthier, a

senior analyst at The Burton Group Corp., a market research firm specializing

in networking issues. "We are now seeing metadirectory functionality being

inserted into the core directories themselves, rather than the metadirectories

being implemented as separate products. We are seeing much tighter integration

between the two."

Most of the major directory services vendors have recognized the need

for directories to work with one another. Novell Inc., for example, which

has the largest share of the directory services market through its Novell

Directory Services, nevertheless went out of its way when it introduced

Version 8 of its product last year to support a range of services on other

vendors' platforms.

Even Microsoft Corp. — notoriously fickle when it comes to working with

other vendors' products — has bowed to the inevitable. It introduced its

new, hierarchical Active Directory as part of Windows 2000, and the company

hopes Active Directory will become the dominant player in enterprise-level

directory services.

"Microsoft has made a commitment to the metadirectory and to an ability

to have Active Directory work with other directories," said Silas Matteson,

director of product management for BindView Development Corp., a company

that specializes in multinetwork management.

"Ideally, I think people would like to have one directory. But they

know they will have to deal with several alongside each other for some time,

so metadirectories will be a long-term component of peoples' plans for some

time to come."

Most of the larger agencies, such as the Social Security Administration

and the Agriculture Department, are looking at developing enterprise directory

services, although perhaps not on the scale of the one planned by DISA.

The problem comes when agencies must decide when and how to move toward

those enterprise directory services in a constantly shifting marketplace.

"Directory technologies are immature and are rapidly changing," the

DISA spokesperson said. "We are likely to continue to make periodic requests

for information."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached

at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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