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Information Technology Standards

Information Technology Standards

Standards are quantifiable metrics to which parties adhere for purposes of allowing some common ground for interchange. Some view monetary systems developed for the exchange of goods as the earliest standards. A language is a standard for communication. The alphabet is a base standard for the exchange of information. For example, all English speakers agree that the letters "d," "o," and "g" in this order stand for the word "dog," which in turn stands for a four-legged furry animal that can be trained to fetch a ball or newspaper. What most people think of as the classic standards include a variety of different measurement standardsthe rod, cubit, pint, quart, foot, yard, and the meter, liter, and gram. The U.S. Congress, in accord with Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, has the power to "coin money, regulate the value thereof, and of foreign coin, and fix the standard of weights and measures." Most national governments assign similar responsibilities to provide standards to promote commerce.

Standards may be broken down into a variety of categories. One simple classification breaks them down into three groups: measurement, minimum attribute, and compatibility. A measurement standard is the one that most people associate with the word "standard." Examples would include: an inch, a volt, a kilogram. A minimum attribute standard provides a measurement in contextthe quality of certain grades of motor oil (SAE 10-30), or the voltage that may safely be carried by a given gauge of wire, for example. Finally, compatibility standards, which constitute the majority of the standards in the realm of information technology, specify the nature of the agreement that will allow two things to interact. For example, your phone connects with an RJ-11 jack that has a certain number of wires carrying specified signals and voltages, and the audio CD (compact disk) in your CD player has a certain track design on which bits of information are encoded so that any CD player can read them and turn them into music.

For thousands of years, standards were primarily a matter of currency and standard weights and measures. An explosion in standards came about with the industrial revolution. The growth in standardization in the manufacturing arena was caused by both mass production and the development of railroads as a means of transportation. Railroads themselves required standardization on many fronts, from track gauge to time. The current system of standardized time zones is an outgrowth of the need to be able to publish schedules for train stops. Through the 1830s, the time was set in each geographic area by a local observatory. When it was 9 P.M. in Washington, D.C., it might be 9:12 P.M. in Philadelphia. By 1850 the Harvard Observatory was telegraphing a form of standard time to various railroad hubs. In 1879 the United States had about seventy-five standard times! The lack of standard time created problems for railroads. How could they tell someone when a train would arrive or depart if everyone's watches used a different time? After a series of negotiations, it was agreed in 1885 that there would be four basic time zones in the United States. Interestingly, it was not until 1918 that the general population agreed to use these four standard time zones.

The railroads had the capability to move mass-produced goods great distances creating a need for standardized parts that could be obtained from local sources. A stove manufactured in New Haven, Connecticut, could be repaired in Denver, Colorado, if the parts used in manufacture were standardized. From guns to watches to washing machines, the growth of mass production and the growth of catalog sales by companies such as Sears created a need for manufacturing standards and standard parts. The development of new methods of heating homes and buildings involved the development of boilers as heat exchangers. Boiler explosions led to a call for standards for testing boilers and the development of modern safety standards.

One of the key events in the development of standards in the United States occurred as a result of a major fire in Baltimore. Many of the fire companies from other cities that responded to the call for help could not connect their hoses and pumpers to the Baltimore fire hydrants because of different pipe diameters and thread sizes. This led the U.S. Congress, with its constitutional mandate to set standards, to establish the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards and Technology). To this day, one of the nine standards laboratories is concerned with standards for fire fighting and fire prevention.

Among the first information technology standards were those in the telecommunications arena. Standards have played an important role in telecommunications. With the minor exception of touch tone versus pulse dialing phones, any phone manufactured for use in the United States can be connected to any phone outlet. Thousands of manufacturers and network owners have agreed to the same power and signaling conventions. Telecommunications providers have also given us the ability to uniquely identify each phone in the world with a number and to connect virtually any two of those devices automatically. From a technological perspective, the phone system is far and away the largest and most complex device ever conceived, designed, and built.

More recently, manufacturers of information processing equipment, particularly telecommunications equipment, have developed standards for hardware and software to cover areas such as data packet construction, power specifications, and connection types. The number of standards for software design and information formatting is growing.

Standards Organizations

Standards originate from a variety of sources and processes. Industries set shared standards to allow them to interoperate. These range from standard parts such as bolts and pipe sizes to standards for Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). De facto standards emerge from the adoption of a common way of doing something. VHS became the de facto standard for videotape, and the PC became the de facto standard for computing. De jure standards emerge from the legislative and judicial branches of government. These include standards set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and environmental standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Standards are also set by organizations that seek to achieve a voluntary consensus as to what the standard should be. Three main organizations operate internationally to assist in the development of voluntary standards the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International ElectroMechanical Commission (IEC), and the Consultative Committee for International Telegraphy and Telephony (CCITT). The CCITT is a multilateral treaty organization concerned with all aspects of international telephony. The United States is represented in the CCITT by the State Department, which relies on representatives of the various U.S. organizations concerned with telephone service. A trade organization, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS), serves as the host for the U.S. standards committee, T1.

The IEC has a number of technical committees concerned with electrical, electromechanical, and electronic standards. ISO is the largest of the international standards organizations and has technical committees covering all aspects of standards from fasteners to pressure vessels to wood products. All three of these organizations have committees to develop information technology standards. The most notable of these is ISO Joint Technical Committee 1, which serves as the liaison to the other organizations.

Input to these international standards committees comes from national-level standards organizations. These include the British Standards Institute (BSI), the Deutsch Institute fur Normung (DIN), and the Association Francais de Normalization (AFNOR). In the United States, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) serves as the conduit for contributions from a federation of more than 100 American standards organizations, including the Society of Automotive Engineers, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Bankers Association. Multinational standards organizations include such organizations as the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) and the Council on European Normalization (CEN).

In the information technology arena, several organizations based in the United States contribute time and expertise through individual and corporate contributions. These organizations include the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS), the Engineering Industries Association (EIA), the National Information Standards Organization (NISO), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Their work is coordinated through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Information Technology Standards

As the use and importance of computers and computer networks have grown, standards in this area have become increasingly important. Individual and organizational consumers of information processing equipment and software have begun to demand that the services and equipment they purchase comply with selected standards. Beginning in the late 1990s, standardization efforts in the information technology arena have produced more pages of standards than all other standardization efforts combined.

Information technology standards include both hardware and software standards. Software and information formatting standards are increasingly important. Standards exist for operating systems, programming languages, communications protocols, and human computer interaction. For example, the global exchange of electronic mail messages requires standards for addressing, formatting, and transmission.

For one word processor to be able to read another word processor's output requires standards for organization of the information within the file. From an information encoding point of view, the most basic standard is how to represent a character. Because computers exchange information as numbers, there must be agreement as to what the numbers mean. For the last thirty years this standard was the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII). It was agreed that computers would exchange information as sequences of bytespackages of numbers represented as a sequence of ones and zeros. A byte is defined as eight binary digitsfor example, the binary number 00000001 is the same as the decimal number one and the binary number 10000000 is equivalent to the decimal number 128. It is possible to represent 256 different decimal numbers using eight binary digits.

ASCII defines the association between these numbers and characters. The number 65 is A and the number 66 is B, for example. At the end of the 1990s, ASCII began to be replaced by a more comprehensive standard that uses sixteen bits that can represent more than 65,000 different characters. This standard, known as UNICODE, has made it possible to exchange information not only in English but also in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. Information formatting and processing standards are growing to include more and more kinds of information in increasingly complex aggregate forms. There are now standards for images (TIFF and JPEG), audio files (WAV, AU), and movies (MPEG).

A growing array of standards allows the World Wide Web to operate, including the standards for the basic protocol, the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), the standard for the messages (HTML), and a whole series of new standards to describe more general documents (the eXtended Markup Language or XML), links (the XML Linking Language or XLL), and appearance (XML Stylesheet Language or XSL).

Standards Issues

A large effort is underway to develop and disseminate standards for information technology. It should be noted in closing that with the reduction of the tariff barriers to free trade, standards have come to play an increasingly prominent role in the restriction or promotion of trade. In very simple terms, a standard may be used by a nation to constrain the products that may be sold within its boundaries. Similarly, getting a nation to adopt a standard can cause a whole new market to be opened to business. Thus, engineers and scientists who have historically engaged in standardization as a technical process now find themselves engaged in the process with an eye to how it impacts an organization's ability to promote and market its products.

see also Association of Computing Machinery; Government Funding, Research; Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).

Michael B. Spring


Cargill, Carl F. Open Systems Standardization: A Business Approach. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Libicki, Martin. Information Technology Standards: The Quest for the Common Byte. Bedford, MA: Digital Press, 1995.

Spring, Michael B. "Information Technology Standards." Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 26 (1991): 78110.

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