Standards Update, NIST Shell-and-Tools FIPS Workshop

Jeffrey S. Haemer jsh at
Sat Sep 29 04:23:58 AEST 1990

Submitted-by: jsh at (Jeffrey S. Haemer)

           An Update on UNIX1-Related Standards Activities

                            September 1990

                 USENIX Standards Watchdog Committee

                   Jeffrey S. Haemer, Report Editor

NIST Shell-and-Tools FIPS Workshop

Donald Lewine <lewine at> reports on the
September 6, 1990 meeting in Gaithersburg, MD:

The Federal Government publishes Federal Information Processing
Standards (FIPS) for use in buying and using computers.  One set of
FIPS deal with systems with ``POSIX-like interfaces.'' The government
will purchase about $17 Billion worth of POSIX systems in FY91.
Standards let the government avoid vendor-specific requirements like
UNIX or SVID.  The theory is that the larger the number of vendors
that can meet the specification the lower the cost to the taxpayer.
Whether that's true or not, using standards makes it harder to protest
a purchase decision.

On September 6, the National Institute of Standards and Technology
(NIST) held a workshop to gather input from industry and federal
agencies on the wisdom of adopting Draft 9 of the IEEE Standard for
POSIX Shell and Utility Application Interface (P1003.2) as a Federal
Information Processing Standard (FIPS).

The meeting was attended by about a dozen system vendors and about
half that many Federal agencies.

Roger Martin of NIST opened the meeting with what was to be a three-
minute introduction.  NIST's agenda was to collect specific comments
on the FIPS as printed on Page 23959 of the Federal Register.  The
vendors' agenda was to get NIST to give up the idea of adopting a FIPS
until after the IEEE standard is final.  Not surprisingly, given this
clash, Roger's opening remarks ran over by a factor of 20.

Here is NIST's case for adopting a FIPS based on POSIX.2/D9:

  1.  The federal government is going to purchase about $17 billion
      worth of systems with ``POSIX-like interfaces.'' NIST wants to
      give the agencies as must help as possible.  Draft 9 is a good
      enough standard to serve this purpose.


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

September 1990 Standards Update     NIST Shell-and-Tools FIPS Workshop

				- 2 -

  2.  It takes about a year to get a FIPS adopted.  If POSIX.2 is not
      approved until mid-1991, a FIPS based on draft 9 will have a
      significant lifespan.2

  3.  If NIST were to publish a FIPS, it would accelerate the
      production of the P1003.2 standard.  (just as FIPS 151
      accelerated IEEE 1003.1-1988).

  4.  No agency is going to be stupid enough to demand draft 9 if a
      vendor can supply a system conforming to a later draft or to the
      final standard, so the FIPS will do no harm.  (This was hotly

After that introduction, and before the next attack on Roger Martin,
Sheila Frankel and Rick Kuhn described the technical content of the
FIPS.  Basically, the idea is to adopt draft 9 minus the parts that
might change.  There are about 25 items that may change.  NIST is
looking for specific technical comments by October 15.  Send comments
to <frankel at>.

Comments like, ``I don't know if _____ is technically correct but I
like the general idea,'' are welcome for specific items.  Comments
from government users are especially welcome.  Comments from industry
on the general wisdom of adopting a FIPS prior to the final IEEE
approval of a standard will not be very welcome.

Roger Martin came back for another round of target practice.  He went
over the general policy of NIST, which is to adopt standards from
outside and at the highest possible level.  The levels are, highest to

   - International Standards

   - National Standards

   - Draft Standards

   - de facto Standards


 2. Just because the IEEE approves a standard does not make it a
    Federal Information Processing Standard.  The feds still have to
    go through the entire legal process of publishing it in the
    Federal Register, collecting comments, writing responses to those
    comments, and getting it signed by the Secretary of Commerce.
    This process takes about a year even for a null standard.

September 1990 Standards Update     NIST Shell-and-Tools FIPS Workshop

				- 3 -

NIST could be convinced to change from POSIX.2/D9 to POSIX.2/D10.
Here are the factors it will consider:

  1.  How much delay is introduced (Three months may be OK.  One year
      is unacceptable.)

  2.  Is Draft 10 that much better than Draft 9?  Is this just a
      delaying action?

Shane McCarron, former Watchdog Report Editor (now of UNIX
International), made a great speech pointing out how much wasted
effort would occur if every vendor had to rush out and implement
POSIX.2/D9.  The NIST people seemed shocked at how different
POSIX.2/D9 is from existing practice.  [Editor: See Randall Howard's
POSIX.2 report for some examples of just how different Draft 9 is from
Drafts 8 and 10.] Nevertheless, the argument seemed to fall on deaf
ears, because NIST claimed that a promise to meet the FIPS should be
good enough and everyone can still wait for AT&T USL to write the

It was pointed out that Congress did not allocate enough funding for
NIST to do much testing for POSIX.2 conformance.  This means that
vendors will have to ``self certify'' and coverage may vary.  After
some discussion this item was placed into the ``write your
representative'' category, because only Congress can allocate the

NIST pointed out that they are under a great deal of pressure to
``advise'' federal agencies who want to move to open systems.  A large
percentage of RFPs for POSIX-like systems will be coming from groups
who know nothing about such systems.  Vendors were worried that this
``advice'' would end up in court cases and be read by judges as

In my opinion, NIST is going to go ahead and publish a flawed FIPS in
the belief that it will drive the IEEE to pick up the pace of POSIX.
The Government has a burning need for a standard, they find it
politically unacceptable to use UNIX System V as that standard, and
they strongly prefer action over waiting for the IEEE.

September 1990 Standards Update     NIST Shell-and-Tools FIPS Workshop

Volume-Number: Volume 21, Number 146

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