Babe in the IP

Thomas R. Temin

In a recent interview with GCN, Marc Andreessen, one of the original developers of the Mosaic and Netscape browsers, commented that this past spring marked the 10th anniversary of Mosaic. Then he said something remarkable: It would probably be another 15 years before browser computing really took hold.

Most of us might ask, well golly, hasn't browser computing already arrived? Not only do people conduct their Internet transactions using browsers, but nearly all new versions of old applications have browser front ends. Has Andreessen used up the one great idea that fate allots to each person? Can't he see what's going on around him?

When it comes to government online applications, Andreessen is correct. For many apps, browser interfaces still mask underlying, legacy client-server or mainframe architectures.

Few agencies have re-engineered their systems to make them fully dependent on Web services and IP. For that matter, few apps share databases or database services.

So the browser remains, in many cases, mostly a display mechanism and not the shell for a fully IP-based system.

One need look no farther than the troubled Thrift Savings Plan system to see how deeply legacy systems and processes still grip agencies.

TSP's legacy mainframe processes, its paper backlog and its new Web face are mutually dependent. The goal is to let federal employees and retirees access their accounts any time and for the system to update accounts daily. But the transition to the new system, coupled with a stubborn paper backlog, caused so many delays that complaints reached the ears of lawmakers.

The airlines and parcel delivery industries have shown how legacy systems can be made to dance through the Web.

But efforts such as TSP illustrate'and Andreessen's comments indicate'that the government will be wrestling with legacy infrastructures for some time to come.

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