White Paper:  DARPA Participation in Industry Standards Development Organizations

Craig Thompson, Frank Manola
Object Services and Consulting, Inc.
{thompson, fmanola}@objs.com, 972-379-3320
May 19, 1998

The Thesis

The thesis of this white paper is that DARPA should participate more actively in key standards development organizations (SDOs), especially the Object Management Group and the World Wide Web Consortium. DARPA needs industry connections and an open vendor-neutral forum to pin its results to, while these groups need R&D participation, and can act as technology transition partners. DARPA will better execute its DoD mission if it becomes actively involved in leveraging key SDOs as one important means of transferring technology out of (and back into) its research initiatives. This white paper suggests a means of building these DARPA-industry relationships. Synergy will mean accelerated progress, fewer dead-ends, lower DoD costs, and accelerated impact for technology transition.


The DARPA role is to provide DoD with technology superiority and to prevent technological surprise. The recent DARPA publication Technology Transition <http://www.darpa.mil/acrobat/transition.pdf> describes technologies that DARPA has developed for the Armed Services - a substantial list. To accomplish its role, DARPA funds leading-edge software research to insure that future DoD software-driven systems will meet DoD needs. In recent years, DoD has recognized that to keep software costs in check it must depend, as much as possible, on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) software. This, in turn, has led to a heavy DoD emphasis on standards-based, and increasingly on component-based, software, to insure that the COTS software will interoperate, particularly in a distributed environment.

Where possible, DARPA encourages the use of standards like CORBA and the Web, as well as de facto standards like Java and DCOM. Much DARPA research results in prototypes. Especially promising prototypes are showcased in DoD demonstrations, and more mature technologies are transitioned to DISA - one effective route for technology transfer directly to DoD.

Ideas from the prototypes, described in papers, often have impact on industry direction, though the impact is often indirect or intangible. Few prototypes become products; little of the detailed work influences industry (COTS) software providers. This is partly because DARPA contractors are mostly either university researchers or DoD integration contractors, often not in the business of commercializing software for the COTS marketplace, so the software remains prototype or one-of-a-kind and tends not to be widely available at the end of a contract. In addition, few DARPA researchers or program managers contribute much to industry standards efforts. As a consequence, DARPA is more an observer and less a player in influencing and leveraging COTS directions. To summarize, the technology transition paths from DARPA to DoD and from Industry to DoD are strong but the bidirectional path from DARPA to the COTS industry needs strengthening. It would be desirable if DARPA research had a more immediate impact on the COTS software industry both in influencing broad industry initiatives to meet DoD needs and in placing specific technologies into the COTS arena.


Increasing DARPA Impact

At a recent meeting with Dave Signori at DARPA we discussed several mechanisms for increasing DARPA's impact on software industry directions. All these are subject to the constraint that DARPA should not invest if industry will anyway. Mechanisms we discussed were: This list is not meant to be exhaustive. More brainstorming on this topic would probably yield other technology transfer ideas. Also, the status of the list is as a collection of technology transfer experiments - they may be tried out and, if successful, could be selectively institutionalized where they make sense.

Why DARPA should Participate in Industry SDOs?

Focusing just on the first bullet above, DARPA participation in selected industry standards development organizations, this is a fruitful avenue for transferring DARPA technology to and from industry because it can provide one-stop-shopping for a wide variety of technical discussions with top industry players. SDOs are vendor-neutral industry forums - they exist to foster consensus for emerging technologies. While it is unlikely that DARPA would participate in SDOs that are focused on reaching final consensus on established practice (e.g., small changes to SQL), many SDOs exist to provide a way to coalesce development experience into standards so much larger communities can benefit. Generally, these standards can be viewed as establishing best practice. This is particularly true in the case of SDOs such as OMG and W3C, where the standards being developed are based largely on shipping COTS software, and are targeted at distributed environments in which standards-based interoperability is essential for systems to function effectively. Such standards are typically developed very quickly (e.g., a year or so) and can have massive impact. SDOs that are developing suites of standards are essentially creating an organizational data structure ( a kind of industry-wide corporate memory) onto which research results can be pinned so they are not lost over time. DoD would benefit from participation by influencing industry directions, getting particular needed standards in place, and by being an early adopter. The DARPA researcher's role in participating is based on his/her deep experience and insight into the subject matter, and the objective of participation is to both accelerate consensus leading toward standards and to insure that the standards developed reflect particular DoD requirements that may be overlooked without this participation.

DARPA Strategy

Not all SDOs are equal. Some lead a substantial portion of the industry. Others are backwaters. For some key technology areas (man-machine interfaces, planning) there are no SDOs. Active participation by DARPA in SDOs should target key organizations that have established a beachhead in a technology area DARPA feels is mission-critical and in which DARPA is investing research dollars. In fact, DARPA researchers in such overlap areas are not exercising due diligence if they are not aware of, and keeping up with, industry standards in their areas; and in cases where their research can establish or improve a standard, their not actively participating is a missed opportunity to transfer technology to a broad open forum where their work is likely to have significant influence and important visibility.

Standards often take time so DARPA participation should be viewed as a long term commitment. On the other hand, the relevance of standards groups can change over time and DARPA should continually assess if participation is providing value back.

DARPA participation in industry SDOs should be viewed as one of several technology transition vehicles, where circumstances dictate the right one to choose for the most effective result. To make an impact in influencing SDOs, DARPA will need to focus at three levels:

Focus is important because, while any level of participation can reap important benefits, DARPA will obtain maximum value from standards participation if it has its own agenda, so that it can push distinct DoD requirements, priorities, and goals that would not otherwise be addressed, or addressed in the same timeframe. Failure to actively engage with SDOs when the opportunity is there is at best a missed opportunity. At worst, it means DARPA technology might diverge from industry directions instead of leading the charge.

Targeting Specific SDOs

In our view, two SDOs should be at the top of the DARPA software target list. OMG is selected because it is developing a rich suite of standards aimed at distributed component software interoperability. W3C is selected because it is leading the industry effort "to lead the World Wide Web to its full potential by developing common protocols that promote its evolution and ensure its interoperability." A reason to focus on these two is that together they control much of the software infrastructure for future distributed application development and delivery via the web. Also they have good liaisons to other relevant standards development organizations.

Object Management Group (OMG) <http://www.omg.org>

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) <http://www.w3.org> DARPA should also know about and track other SDOs and standards. Some of these can be tracked from OMG or W3C, but all have a life of their own. Examples include:

How to track and contribute to SDOs

At present, at DARPA, there is no organized means of technology transfer to SDOs, and there is little actual participation. It is a missed opportunity when DARPA programs generate technologies that are aligned with industry standards efforts but where there is no interchange. This happens for several reasons: PMs and PIs may not be too aware of the standards efforts; they may view standards as too incremental and the process too slow; they may view the cost of getting involved as too high; they do not know where to get started; they may not feel encouraged by DARPA management to engage with industry SDOs.

To change the situation, some changes must take place at DARPA: individual PMs and individual PIs must be given incentives to choose to participate in key SDOs relevant to their programs and learning how must become easier; DARPA management must see value in this participation and encourage it; and the DARPA process must be changed to encourage such technology transition (e.g., including participation with SDOs as a criterion in BAA source selection). Since SDO participation has not happened to date in much of an organized fashion, it is likely that if no action is taken, the situation will not improve.

To change the situation will require change at several levels:

We suggest that a good way to implement these changes is to task an agent to develop this technology transfer path. The agent could be a DARPA or other Government employee, or someone from industry. The person or persons would have the following responsibilities: The ideal agent would be a respected and experienced person with a depth of understanding in areas relevant to the SDOs mission, mode of operation, and status, who knows the players, and who also has an understanding of DARPA research programs and directions. In the best case, the person would have an agenda of creating a harmonized big picture, where DARPA and SDO activities aligned across a several year roadmap. The measure of success of this person would be how well the SDO and DARPA directions aligned and a listing of discrete interactions that improved the DARPA-SDO technology interchange.