What is Interoperability?

Interoperability is a term coined by the information technology (IT) industry to define an ideal way for computers and other electronic devices to relate to each other.

A basic example would be any USB device (thumb drive, memory stick or peripheral) that is interoperable with any modern computer terminal’s corresponding USB port. You plug them together and you get results since there is barrier-free information exchange between the computer and the USB memory stick. This information is totally transportable to secondary computers, printers and other peripherals because the USB storage device was designed in accordance with interoperability standards.

Conversely, a VHS cassette is totally inoperable with a Beta playback machine. This means that no information exchange between the VHS cassette and the Beta playback equipment ever occurred because they were designed to incompatible standards.

NCOIC is interested in the “how” of computer relationships, but the consortium’s primary focus is how to achieve a state of interoperability that enables collaboration and the exchange of information, knowledge and/or services so that all participants can advance a project or business success

NCOIC’s unique role goes one step further to address global cross-domain interoperability. An example of cross-domain interoperability is a multi-national disaster-response effort, where military, first responder and healthcare domain knowledge must be shared to ensure the best possible outcomes. All are engaged in vital operations and need to realize similar results in their respective arenas of operation and in the overall mission.

NCOIC understands that interoperability within and across domains can be best achieved when all dimensions -- technology, mission, business value, policies and regulations, and culture -- are considered and addressed.

Interoperability Benefits our Daily Lives

Nowhere are the benefits of interoperability more striking than in the ongoing development of the World Wide Web. In the 1990s, the Internet was defined by competing networks and limited email compatibility, whereas today’s Web plays many pivotal roles in our daily lives – as library, bank, shopping bazaar, e-postal service, social outlet and much more. Anyone who has an email address or access to the Web is a member of the world’s largest and most interoperable network. 

What has made the Web so successful is the collaboration of industry partners who formed the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Together they identified, agreed to and applied common technology and open standards to the development of their own products. In so doing, they broke down the Internet’s operational barriers and linked the world. 

Then, with exponentially developing opportunities, new e-companies sprung up like eBay, Amazon, LinkedIn and Facebook. Early adapter hardware and software suppliers, whose new products were based on the W3C standards, literally drove the market and were hugely successful. The bonus to Web customers was increasingly seamless and global communications interoperability.

In 1987, the conversation was about how many people in a business could access a computer. By 1991, the conversation was how to network all of the computers that the business controlled. Today, a computational device that is not networked-enabled is irrelevant. Tomorrow, all devices will be networked and interoperable.

Interoperability Not Limited to Computers

Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the early 1950s with the launch of the U.S. Interstate Highway System, which eventually became an interoperable national transportation network.

During the first half of the 20th century, Americans drove on two-lane roads built to conform to state or community standards. From one locale to another, construction methods differed, as did road signage and other factors that made driving unsafe and unpredictable. In preparation for the massive roll-out of the interstate system, government agencies and highway developers agreed to national standards as the foundation of the new transportation network. These standards included: minimum heights for overpasses and tunnels; safe design of on/off ramps; lane widths and contours that could support higher speed limits, and signage that drivers would recognize quickly.

As millions of Americans took to the roads, the need for traveler services along interstate routes grew. National franchise businesses saw how the new highways made family vacations safer, quicker, easier and more attractive. Well-known gasoline, food and hospitality brands began to appear on or near interstate route -- McDonalds soon replaced Marsha’s Cafe and Holiday Inn edged out Joe’s Motel. Most travelers liked the predictability of a brand they knew, and early adapter franchise companies captured the market for interstate highway services.

Companies that developed construction materials supporting the Interstate Highway System’s new standards also prospered. In time, the trucking industry saw the advantages of bigger vehicles that could move freight over long hauls and at reasonably constant speeds. This gave rise to 18-wheelers with built-in beds and an entire industry that designed and produced them. 

Economic Impact of Interoperability

From the 1950s Interstate Highway System to e-commerce on the Web, interoperability has created significant economic consequences.

For example, a NCOIC market study indicates the U.S. aerospace/defense and IT market sectors spent more than $180 billion dollars in 2009 to address interoperability challenges. That’s about one-third of the overall $630 billion market sector size. (Source: Global One)

The reason for this striking allocation of government funds is two-fold:

1.  A global proliferation of asymmetrical threats that intensifies the need of U.S. military and coalition forces to interoperate seamlessly at the operational and technical levels and,

2.  A desire to achieve interoperability that spans national, departmental and organizational boundaries.

Neither the U.S. government nor its global aerospace, defense and IT sector partners can afford to ignore the value that interoperability brings to their peacekeepers, warfighters, air traffic managers and emergency responders. Not the least of these advantages are seamless information-sharing and collaborative decision-making among diverse partners.