Defining Large-Scale Systems and Social Applications of IT

Large-scale systems are IT systems that contain many (thousands, millions, billions, or trillions or more) interacting hardware and software components. They tend to be heterogeneous—in that they are composed of many different types of components—and highly complex because the interactions among the components are numerous, varied, and complicated. They also tend to span multiple organizations (or elements of organizations) and have changing configurations. Over time, the largest IT systems have become ever larger and more complex, and, at any given point in time, systems of a certain scale and complexity are not feasible or economical to design with existing methodologies.

Social applications of IT serve groups of people in shared activities. The most straightforward of these applications improve the effectiveness of geographically dispersed groups of people who are collaborating on some task in a shared context. More sophisticated applications may support the operations of a business or the functioning of an entire economy; systems for e-commerce are an example. Characteristic of social applications of IT is the embedding of IT into a large organizational or social system to form a “sociotechnical” system in which people and technology interact to achieve a common purpose—even if that purpose is not obviously social, such as efficient operation of a manufacturing line (which is a conjunction of technological automation and human workers) or rapid and decisive battlefield management (which is a conjunction of command-and-control technology and the judgment and expertise of commanders). Social applications of IT—especially those supporting organizational and societal missions—tend to be large-scale and complex, mixing technical and nontechnical design and operational elements and involving often-difficult social and policy issues such as those related to privacy and access.


Overall, the nation's IT research base appears to be thriving. Federal funding for IT research rose steadily throughout the 1990s, from approximately $1.4 billion in 1990 to $2.0 billion in 1998 (the most recent year for which consistent data are available),1 and the Clinton Administration's budget for fiscal year 2001 proposes to increase funding for IT R&D by $1 billion above 1999 levels. Industrial support for R&D also appears to be increasing dramatically. The combined R&D expenditures of companies in the six industry sectors most closely associated with IT totaled $52 billion in 1998, of which approximately $14 billion was classified as research.2 These figures compare to $39 billion and $8.5 billion, respectively, in 1995.3 Over the past decade, a number of large IT firms, including Microsoft Corporation, Motorola, Inc., and Intel Corporation, have

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