What/who is bionet

David Kristofferson kristoff at genbank.bio.net
Thu Sep 20 16:29:08 EST 1990

> 	My understanding of bionet is that it's a melange of newsgroups,
> bboards, mailing lists, notesfiles, etc.  Each type of media has its own
> constraints and traditions.  While I sort of feel that while it's a good
> thing to get the word out in as many fora (plural of forum?) as possible, I
> can't help but think that the conflicting media just don't mesh very well.
> Many of the messages I see on the bionet newsgroups appear to be
> unconnected, or somehow disembodied, almost as if I'm not hearing all of a
> conversation.  I wonder how much of that is because of media mismatches.  I
> barely understand how it's all pieced together (and that's what I do for a
> living), so how can Joe Biologist be expected to deal with it all?


	Because there are various powers in DC right now that are
debating the future of biological computing, especially as it impacts
the Genome Project, I am always senstitive to these kinds of postings
because they are fodder for people who want to tear things down
without taking the time to understand why they developed into their
current state.  Although I know that this is not your intent, your
casual remark might be wrongly seized upon by others.  I believe that
it is extremely important that these points be clearly understood
since there is always a tendency in science for "someone who knows
better and can do it right" to slander past efforts by spreading
misinformation.  The net result is often that the hubris of the new
group leads them to rediscover the problems that were already tackled
by the previous group.  The biggest losers turn out to be the ***end
users*** who are deprived of a system that works, despite its obvious
(but explanable) flaws, and left with another operation that winds up
reinventing the wheel ... only to find out to their embarrassment what
they could have learned if there had been an open and honest exchange
of views in the first place.  Unfortunately in turf battles openness
is a rare commodity.  These newsgroups have always been dear to my
heart because they are an antidote to "politics as usual."

You are correct that BIOSCI is an amalgam of USENET groups and mailing
lists on Internet, BITNET, EARN, and JANET.  There is a very good
reason for that and the complexity need not concern "Joe Biologist"
(that much maligned whipping boy ... someday someone is going to have
to start giving him/her some credit).  All "Joe" need keep handy to
use the system is the list of newsgroup addresses at his/her regional
BIOSCI node.  Beyond that the rest of the network complexities may be
ignored, but I will explain below why they exist.

The reason is simply to attain BIOSCI's goal of widespread
international coverage *now*, not 10 years from now when "everyone
will have a workstation on their desk."  Were we to cut out mail and
use only USENET you can rest assured that the reach of the newsgroups
would be so severely limited as to render them completely ineffective.
A large number of sites still depend only on e-mail access and will
continue to do so for some time.

You may or may not be aware, however, that the European members of
BIOSCI that are participating in EMBNet, the networking effort
centered at the EMBL and designed to help share sequence data and
information in Europe, are actively moving towards adopting the USENET
model (primarily using the public domain package ANU-News on VAX
systems at present).  This is obviously going to take some time still,
but we are left with the obvious choice: do we cleave the users into
those using mail and those using news software or do we use a certain
degree of chewing gum and bailing wire during this transition period
to keep them together.  If one's goal is to produce a beautiful
technoloigcal structure, then one will decide to keep them separate.
If one's goal is to get ***people to talk to each other*** via
electronic channels, then one tries to weld the systems together and
evolve towards something better as technology becomes more widespread.
Our choice at BIOSCI has been obvious.

You might be interested to know that during my survey of BIONEWS usage
earlier this year, many JANET users in the U.K. were only able to
respond to my queries in the U.S. by using the BIOSCI relay addresses
set up at the BIOSCI SERC Daresbury lab.  If we did not have the
mailing machanism in place there, a good part of the U.K. would have
been completely unable to respond.  USENET alone would have been
useless.  The same is true for the hundreds of scientists on BITNET in
the U.S.  Do we leave these people out in the cold too?  Or do we opt
for purity and just let the people on BITNET stick with LISTSERV
software which handles news by sending out mass mailings?  BIOSCI has
successfully combined all of these services (and it has not been
without its headaches which most of the readers never see).  Not only
that, it has been one of the most community-spirited international
collaborations that I have seen in science.

The BIOSCI node at University College Dublin runs LISTSERV software on
an IBM mainframe and services users all over Europe (and other parts
of the world) who are on EARN (the European counterpart of BITNET) as
well as at other BITNET sites.  Unfortunately LISTSERV does not follow
every mailing standard used on the Internet, and this causes some
TO THE VASTLY GREATER GOOD that we achieved through the expanded

There is, of course, another solution, and that would be to base the
entire system solely on mailing lists like LISTSERV.  USENET news
software, however, is a superior method of keeping network traffic
down, saving on disk space by keeping only a single copy of a message
at each computer site for common access, and error checking for
bounced messages.  (This is not, of course, to say that LISTSERV has
no features to its advantage.)  I know that Roy knows this but am
expanding on these points for the benefit of others.

The BIOSCI node at the Unversity of Uppsala is already on the Internet
and is using USENET style news software.  Mats Sundvall there among
others is heading the EMBnet effort to upgrade the systems at other
EMBnet nodes to this standard.  Nonetheless U. Uppsala as well as all
other BIOSCI nodes must still rely on a parallel e-mail distribution
system for other computer users in their regions that do not have news

I already mentioned the critical role that SERC Daresbury plays in
keeping U.K. users on JANET connected to the rest of the BIOSCI
network.  JANET has yet another set of network standards to deal with
and one should not underestimate the value that this BIOSCI node
brings to the whole.  SERC Daresbury is also an EMBNet node and will
be involved in the ANU-News effort according to my latest information
on EMBNet progress.

Finally there is our group at GenBank which came out of the former
BIONET Computer Resource.  We handle the routing of messages between
the mail distributions at all four nodes and the USENET groups.  If
you are having any problems with USENET you should direct them to us
currently (biosci at genbank.bio.net).

Longer term we hope to have everyone migrate to the USENET model.  At
that point (reminds me of the communist utopia at times), there will
no longer be BIOSCI nodes.  All that will be needed are the newsgroups
themselves which will be co-equal at all sites that particpate.  The
mail will "just wither away."  

Whether we ever reach that goal or not could be long debated.  I have
other more pressing things to get on with at the moment.  However, as
I said above, decisions in these areas should be made on full
information and not on off the cuff comments complaining about how
complicated things are.  This does not mean that we are closed to
suggestions for further improvements.  We hope that our service is the
best that we can provide, and we have excellent experts in mail
systems, LISTSERV, and USENET systems among the BIOSCI managers.
However, many of these people do volunteer their time from other
projects and things can sometimes be overlooked as a result.  We will
always respond to constructive suggestions and continue to upgrade
BIOSCI as capabilities improve.

Please remember the obvious though.  The latest technology and the
best solution will always be the least widespread.  I have seen the
unfortunate effects of ignoring this obvious point in the past.  The
enthusiasm of experts usually needs some tempering by reality.

				Dave Kristofferson
				GenBank Manager

				kristoff at genbank.bio.net

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