In the Public Interest
Doing Business with Governments
The Promise of Open Documentation
The Open Group's call for commonality of user documentation is mirrored
in the federal government's JCALS standard.
By Gary Donnelly
One of the most significant events that occurred at this year's UniForum
Conference in San Francisco was the announcement of the consolidation between
the Open Software Foundation and X/Open Co. into a new organization, The
Open Group. The press release detailing this new organization set forth
five "market-focused objectives." One of these objectives is the
development and implementation of a project that unifies the source and
style of open systems vendors' delivered documentation, with the aim of
demonstrating the "commonality of the user documentation efforts of
all open systems vendors."
The intent of this is to help the Unix market (translation: sales) by having
a standard for delivered documentation. The supposition is that, even with
a standard set of application programming interfaces (APIs) for the operating
system as specified in the Single UNIX Specification from X/Open, and a
standard desktop interface as defined by the Common Desktop Environment,
it's still necessary to bind the documentation (pun intended) into a unified
standard from all Unix vendors.
Fred Dalrymple (firstname.lastname@example.org), an
independent consultant for X/Open, says that the goal of the common document
effort is the definition of an identical set of documentation from the various
vendors, which will enable others, including resellers, to integrate it
more easily into their products. It will also enable end users to choose
a new open systems vendor and expect documentation similar to their previous
Dalrymple personally does not feel that standard documentation will make
or break a deal. But if a reseller has a standard operating system API as
described in the Single UNIX Specification and has a common set of documentation
across its product line, the impetus to develop in the open systems/Unix
environment will be greater.
Obviously this is a laudable goal. Not everyone is aware that the federal
government has had a project ongoing since 1987 to accomplish a similar
purpose: a standard for documentation delivered to customers. This project
is the Joint Computer-Aided Acquisition and Logistic Support (JCALS) standard,
sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense. (Joint indicates that
it serves the joint defense commands of Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine
Corps.) The program is designed to enable more effective generation, exchange,
management and use of digital data that supports defense systems. The primary
goal of JCALS is to migrate from manual, paper-intensive defense system
operations to an integrated, highly automated acquisition and support process.
Major defense systems are not unlike major software projects in the commercial
market. They are developed at great expense, usually by outside firms under
contract, and have a very long operational life, often measured in decades.
Support of these systems is both critical and difficult. JCALS states that,
in order for the various services to properly maintain the complex software
found in imbedded weapons systems, it needs a standard for delivered documentation.
In the case of JCALS, it's the Standard Graphic Markup Language (SGML).
Before going any further, let's consider the problem the Department of Defense
is faced with. Let's say it contracts with an integrator to develop a particular
weapons system for a fighter aircraft, such as the F-15. Around the same
time, another integrator gets another contract to develop a different weapons
system for the same aircraft. A third vendor develops a different system,
and so forth.
Let's put ourselves in the place of the weapons engineer or technician who
must troubleshoot any problems in these three weapons systems. We're given
at least three different sets of documentation, with different styles and
definitions. Each system may be self-contained in terms of operation but
not in terms of maintainability. The poor technician who is responsible
for keeping that F-15 flying has a much harder job in repairing complex
systems when their documentation is not standardized.
This situation also applies to systems less imposing than custom-designed
weapons systems. Think instead about commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software.
The military is trying to convince Congress that it is moving toward the
use of COTS products and not spending taxpayers' money on developing "military"
versions of products that could be purchased over the counter (or off the
In fact, there is a Navy submarine project under way, for which an admiral
associated with it is telling Congress that over half of the software on
this submarine will be COTS. I hope someone has mentioned to that admiral
the problem in getting commonality of documentation across the installed
products from different vendors. When you're a mile under the surface of
the ocean, you can't exactly call a firm's 800 support number for technical
help. Having a common basis for the third-party software's documentation
is not only desirable, it's critical. This is the problem JCALS is addressing.
Project participants have given a lot of thought to the open systems milieu.
The JCALS architecture has been designed to be a distributed, open systems
environment that makes extensive use of both industry and government standards.
These standards include the use of Posix-compliant operating systems, the
government's Open Systems Interconnection Profile (GOSIP, for those who
want to build international standard networks), TCP/IP (for those who want
to build networks today), the X Window System and Motif for user interfaces,
and the Ada language for software development. The technology developed
in JCALS should be exportable across different platforms as its use widens.
Commonality of Goals
What's the tie-in between the Defense Department's JCALS and The Open Group's
common documentation project? First, there is the obvious open systems connection.
Both projects are designed for Unix-based systems; both base their documentation
standard on SGML; both realize that while it's the software that sells the
product, it's the documentation that counts in the long run; and both understand
the concept that unless the software is maintainable, the operating costs
for that project will be unprofitably large.
By having a common set of documentation for the delivered software, whether
it's the operating system or the end user's applications, there will be
a clear benefit to the customer. The client base will be able to move across
vendors' offerings without having to worry about the format of their documentation,
either for resale or repair.
In the desktop market, one usually assumes that the vendor's documentation
will be (A) not very useful and (B) not like that of the other vendors.
Often, we simply assume we can go the bookstore and buy yet another vendor's
product: a publication specifying how to use the previous vendor's product.
This might work in a limited environment, but (as the pundits say) it doesn't
scale well. For customers who have to support thousands of systems in which
software from dozens of vendors is used, the only answer is a common set
The X/Open development team, according to Dalrymple, has borrowed from the
work developed in the JCALS project. Perhaps the JCALS effort should also
look at where the industry is going and see if its technology can be applied
to something other than large weapons systems. If we can have an environment
in which we truly have portability of the documentation along with the software,
we will have gone a long way down the highway to open systems.
Gary Donnelly teaches and consults in the client/server
and open systems arena, focusing on federal marketing issues. He can be
reached at email@example.com.