A matter of standards

The standards-making process is one arena in which the federal sector's role has changed during the past two decades.

The Government Open Systems Interconnection Protocol (GOSIP) is a prime example from the government's standard-setting days. GOSIP was created by an interagency group and launched in 1986. It dueled for a time with TCP/IP, which had been deemed an interim standard. But as the Internet exploded beyond its government origins, TCP/IP, and not the government-backed GOSIP, became the key underpinning.

The GOSIP story illustrates an overall shift in which the commercial market became more influential in establishing standards.

"Back in those early days, government was one of the main drivers of automation and had a big say in things," said Howard Ady III, who worked to get industry and government to discuss standards through the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils. Over the years, the commercial marketplace began to have the greater influence "in terms of driving toward standards," he said.

That was the case with local-area network standards. When organizations first started deploying PC networks, they faced a jumble of proprietary offerings. Agencies "very quickly could build a tower of Babel," Ady said. Eventually, Novell Inc. emerged from the pack as the first de facto standard.

That shakeout process repeated for other facets of technology. "We're dealing with ones and twos instead of dozens of alternatives," said Ady, now an executive at BearingPoint Inc. The interoperability goal he and other government executives sought had been reached.

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