Standards Update, USENIX Standards BOF

Jeffrey S. Haemer jsh at
Thu Aug 16 11:36:42 AEST 1990

From:  Jeffrey S. Haemer <jsh at>

           An Update on UNIX*-Related Standards Activities

                             August, 1990

                 USENIX Standards Watchdog Committee

          Jeffrey S. Haemer <jsh at>, Report Editor

USENIX Standards BOF

An anonymous correspondent reports on the June 12 meeting in Anaheim,

If they find out who I am...

The snitch requests anonymity for several reasons, none of them
related to his alcohol consumption during the bof.  (No officer, I
swear I wasn't going to log in and do system administration until I
sobered up.) The request actually relates to the snitch's employer --
 a standards organization.  Because I am paid neither to file snitch
reports nor to write opinions on standards, to submit this paper
through normal channels for official, outside publication, even if it
were entirely objective (or factual, for that matter), would require
endless rounds of exhaustive, organizational review.

On to the meeting.

As usual, the meeting was held immediately after the official USENIX
reception, which meant that the snitch continued to suck down his
third or fifth beer as the meeting opened.

John ``standards is politics'' Quarterman, of Texas Internet
Consulting (TIC), and Susanne Smith, of Windsound, chaired the
meeting, which was attended by about 40 people, including Larry
Wall -- nearly a standards body by himself.  [ Editor: Larry is the
person responsible for such contributions to the community as rn,
patch, and perl.  ] Jeff Haemer was absent because ``his wife is
having a baby any day and I just don't know where his priorities
are!?'' [Editor: Zoe Elizabeth Haemer, 6lbs. 10oz., after a forty-five
minute labor]

John started out by covering the usual stuff -- who he is, how to
reach him, what he does, [Editor: Sounds like it would have been
valuable for me to attend.] and so on.  You should already know all
this since it is covered regularly in articles in the publication or
newsgroup in which you reading this article.  John gave some updates


  * UNIXTM is a Registered Trademark of UNIX System Laboratories in
    the United States and other countries.

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

				- 2 -

for things that are probably already out-of-date, so I won't repeat
them.  Susanne pointed out that TIC and Windsound have collaborated on
a calendar that includes all the latest dates of standards meetings,
which they were giving away for free at the meeting.  [Editor: You can
request copies from tic at  They span July 1990-June 1991, and
cost $5.00, plus shipping, handling, and (Texans only) tax.]

John and Susanne briefly reviewed standards efforts of interest to
USENIX members, including P1003 (POSIX) and P1201 (Windowing).

John discussed whose standard (ISO? ANSI? FIPS? other?) was most
important but I was unable to draw any conclusions or coherently
summarize it, so I'll omit it here.  Nonetheless he did get across two
points: 1) there is a lot of coordination between groups and 2) he is
very quotable.  (``The IEEE standards board is baroque and

The crowd becomes surly

After this basic informational introduction, the meeting was thrown
open to the audience.  The ensuing discussion was a mix of four

  1.  Humor

      A couple of examples will give the flavor.

         + An overheard conversation:

           ``Mach was the greatest intellectual fraud in the last ten years.''
           ``What about X?''
           ``I said intellectual.''

         + The announcement of the new Weirdnix contest:

           a contest for a correct interpretation of P1003.1 or .2
           furthest from the original intent.  The state of Utah (I am
           not making this up) is offering a trip for two to Salt Lake
           City for the winner.

  2.  Opinion polling

      John tried to discern whether attendees thought they were being
      well-served by John, the USENIX Standards Watchdog Committee,
      and the USENIX position on standards: to attempt to prevent
      standards from prohibiting innovation.  Indeed, at Snowbird, the
      site of the April POSIX meeting, John was told that smaller
      companies don't like our participation because of this position.
      Think about this a while.  (For a more detailed discussion of
      the USENIX position on standards, see either ;login: 15(3):25 or

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

				- 3 -

      the periodic overview posting in comp.std.unix about the USENIX
      Standards Watchdog Committee.)

      John explained how USENIX came to its current policies and why
      it does not endorse standards of its own.  Some audience members
      were unhappy with extant standards bodies and said they wouldn't
      mind if USENIX played a more active role.  Susanne reminded us
      that UniForum working groups, which she praised, play such a

      You are encouraged to tell John and the USENIX Board what you
      feel the USENIX position on standards should be, how much money
      USENIX should budget for standards activities, or anything else
      that's on your mind.  (The current USENIX standards budget is

      On a related note, BOF attendees were quite eager to be kept
      informed on standards issues.  In the snitch's opinion, this is
      probably the standards-related area in which USENIX most excels,
      and its contribution overshadows that of any other source that
      this snitch is aware of.  The USENIX Standards Watchdog
      Committee publishes copiously in both ;login: and the usenet
      newsgroup comp.std.unix.  (The level of detail can certainly not
      be said to be too high, but USENIX Board meetings continually
      propose reducing it.)

      While the newsgroups get the information more quickly, ;login:,
      in particular, remains the official voice of USENIX, and
      standards issues now fill 1/3 to 1/2 of each edition.  Many
      non-UNIX aficionados who want to stay current on related
      standards join USENIX simply to get ;login:.  Both John and the
      Board believe that although the newsgroup has been quite active
      this past year, hard copy still circulates more widely.

      Some attendees wanted increased coverage of standards currently
      outside of ;login:'s bailiwick, such as RS-232 and CD-ROM
      format.  Unfortunately, following any and all computer-related
      standards would exceed USENIX's budget and resources.  [Editor:
      The alert reader will have noticed Andrew Hume's fine report on
      WORM-based file system standards last quarter.  Send me a
      report.  I'll edit it.  ]

      John raised the possibility of breaking out the standards
      information of ;login: into a separate publication.  This was
      also discussed at the USENIX Board meeting during the week.
      Stay tuned.

      John and Susanne revealed that they are writing a book on UNIX-
      related standards (which will not be posted electronically).  No
      suggestion was made for how it could possibly stay up to date.

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

				- 4 -

  3.  Government-bashing (Who the hell is NIST and why are they so out
      of control?)

      As soon as we determined that NIST wasn't represented in the
      room and couldn't defend itself, it became fair game.  (There
      were no OSF reps either -- their BOF ran concurrently with
      ours -- but no one knew what OSF was doing so we skipped
      insulting them.)

      John fanned the flames by giving an example where NIST had
      pushed too hard, in his opinion: System Administration.  ``Dot
      seven shouldn't exist,'' he said, but NIST pushed for it.
      Because government agencies view FIPS so favorably that a system
      administration FIPS would quickly become a de facto standard for
      non-government users as well, the IEEE said ``ok, let's look at

      John said things didn't turn out as badly as they could have.
      Unfortunately there is little common practice or prior art in
      the area; fortunately, dot seven is coming along so slowly that
      there may be by the time it is ready to go to ballot.  Moreover,
      dot seven's work has encouraged several companies and
      universities to work on the parallels between system
      administration and network management.  Still, he reminded us
      that a standard should neither create nor innovate but only
      standardize, quoting Dennis Ritchie's compliment to X3J11 in his
      keynote address: ``The C committee took something that wasn't
      broken, and tidied it up without breaking it.''

      The audience asked, ``How do we control the activities of
      NIST?'' NIST is a part of the government.  If you are a U.S.
      citizen, your tax dollars fund it, so you can write your
      congressperson.  While you can communicate directly with NIST's
      standards representatives, John asked that we not bug them in
      the name of USENIX, ``because I have to work with these guys.''

      If you feel bold, you can actually talk to John Lyons, the
      director of NIST -- <lyons at> -- who lies midway
      between the scutpuppy standards reps and the demonically
      powerful congresscritters.  He really does read and answer his
      email (and his signature does say that his opinions represent
      those of his organization).

      John ended by defending, or at least rationalizing, NIST's pro-
      active stance: ``The primary reason is money.'' A familiar
      example is the Air Force's AFCAC-251 RFP (Request For Purchase).
      This five-to-ten-billion-dollar request for SVR3-conforming
      systems created a heap of trouble by specifying a vendor brand
      name.  After official protests, the procurement had to be
      reworded at great expense -- ultimately to you, the taxpayer.  A
      vendor-independent, POSIX FIPS would have prevented this.

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

				- 5 -

      One of the few questions John couldn't answer was, ``Why did NBS
      change its name anyway?'' This snitch scraped away at the dirt
      and uncovered the explanation:

        The U.S. Department of Commerce under which NBS resides had
        wanted to change the name for many years because NBS has long
        performed activities quite unrelated to standards.  As usual,
        it was politically bobbled for quite some time until a
        sufficiently obvious expansion of responsibilities came up for
        funding at which time (1/89, Reagan) the following
        announcement was issued:

          the new name, ``National Institute of Standards and
          Technology,'' reflects the broadened role and new
          responsibilities assigned to the agency which will include
          the traditional functions of providing the measurements,
          calibrations, data, and quality assurance support to U.S.
          commerce and industry, together with several new programs to
          support the aggressive use of new technologies in American
          industry.  NIST's new purpose is ``to assist industry in the
          development of technology and procedures needed to improve
          quality, to modernize manufacturing processes, to ensure
          product reliability, manufacturability, functionality, and
          cost-effectiveness, and to facilitate the more rapid
          commercialization ... of products based on new scientific

        Several new programs have been created aimed at rapid transfer
        of technology to U.S. industry.  They are:

          1.  Regional Centers for the Transfer of Manufacturing

          2.  assistance to state technology programs;

          3.  the Advanced Technology Program; and

          4.  the Clearinghouse for State Technology Programs.

      Call (301) 975-3058 (NIST Technical Information) if you would
      like more information on any of these programs or on NIST

  4.  John's usual exhortation/guilt-trip: get involved in standards!

      This discussion went on for some time.  UNIX is no longer guided
      by a few bright individuals; it is now in the hands of vested
      commercial interests, some of which don't give a damn about
      innovation or good design.

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

				- 6 -

      For the most part, the committees themselves contain
      intelligent, well-meaning people who really want to create
      useful standards.  But in a small committee, overlooked
      unintentional flaws can ruin otherwise good work.  Snitches help
      forestall this by functioning as a community ear.  If you don't
      have time to be on a committee, get on the mailing list and
      continue to read the newsgroups so you can comment on critical
      issues when they arise.  If you don't, you have have only
      yourself to blame if the standards come out all wrong.

August, 1990 Standards Update                     USENIX Standards BOF

Volume-Number: Volume 21, Number 36

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