Selling roadmaps for the soul...

Robert Harper harper at FINSUN.CSC.FI
Mon Jun 17 06:37:44 EST 1991

Here is an interesting overview of the state of networking.
Are biologists in the same boat... or are we swimming in the open sea?

do you ever get the feeling that all this NREN stuff is going to
build us a network that's extraordinarily fast but impossible to use?
mitch kapor, in his "building the open road: policies for the national
public network" [*], compares the existing mess in the current state of
the art at cataloging and describing the services available on the
net today as "like a giant library with no card catalog".

who is going to provide the moral equivalent of the rand-mcnally road
atlas, the texaco road maps, the aaa trip-tiks?  what we have now is
much more like the old Lincoln Highway, with painted markings on trees
and oral tradition that helps you get through the rough spots on the

efforts by existing commercial internet providers have been mediocre
at best.  none appear to be much interested in mapping out the network
beyond the immediate needs of their customers.  if you consider that
one of the roles of a commercial internet provider is to provide
access to software archives, and then you take a look at the state of
the software archives on and, you see enormous
duplication, strange and hard to understand organizations of files, no
aids in finding materials beyond a cryptic "ls-lR" file, and dozens if
not hundreds of files which are stale and out of date compared with
the One True Version maintained by the author of the documents. [&]
Visiting these places is like reading magazines at a dentist's office,
you know that what you're reading was new once a few weeks or months

efforts by nsf-funded network information centers have been similarly
muddled and half-useful.  if you read the Merit proposal to NSFnet
closely, you saw plans for GRASP (Grand interface to SPIRES) which was
going to be the ideal delivery mechanism for information about the
NSFnet to users of the net.  Promises promises.  What you do have from is a stale collection of out of date maps [%], a bunch of
traffic measurement aggregate numbers [#], and some newsletters[=].  the work
at isn't all that much better.  part of the problem is
reliance on volunteered information -- the general approach to network
information gathering appears to be not much more than send out a
survey, wait, tabulate the responses.  very little of this work is
what you would call "pro-active", that's why chapter 3 (archives)
lists just 26 of the over 1000 anonymous FTP sites and mail-based
archive servers available on the net. [?] (Think of it as a road atlas
that shows less than 1 road in 40 and you'll get the right idea.)

that's not to say that there aren't skilled people out there, it's
just that they're generally not supplied with resources adequate to
the task they're facing.  you aren't seeing organizations like ANS,
which seems to be flush with cash and hiring skilled people left and
right, hiring anyone with the archivist skills of a (say) Keith
Peterson.  you aren't seeing innovative applications like "archie", a
union list catalog of FTP sites around the globe, funded as part and
parcel of NSF infrastructure; it's being done in Canada, with no
guarantee to continued existence if it starts to swamp their already
soggy USA-Canada slow link or if they need the machine back. [+] you
don't see hosting the arpanet "list of lists" anymore,
they didn't like the contents so it's gone. [@]  the internet library
guides are run as best they can by individuals, and they're in the
form of long ascii lists of instructions on how to connect rather than
an interactive front-end that would make the connections for you --
not that the technology isn't there, just that no one has a mission
and the resources to provide them. [!]

so what do we end up with?  a very fast net (in spots) with a "savage
user interface" [*].  multi-megabit file transfers, you can get
anything you want in seconds, but no way to find it.  regional
networks spending large amounts of federal dollars on bandwidth but
very little on ways to use it effectively.  a vast, largely uncharted
network, with isolated pockets of understanding here and there, and no
one yet who has appeared with any of the proper incentives and
resources to map it out.

Edward Vielmetti, MSEN Inc. 	moderator, comp.archives 	emv at

references for further study:

[*]  discussion in
    see also
    discussion in
[!][.library], also*
    discussion in comp.misc and bit.listserv.pacs-l.
[+] see discussion in comp.archives.admin.  archie information can be
    found in
[%] in  note that several are as old as 1988.
    no readily apparent newsgroup for discussion.
[#] in
    no readily apparent newsgroup for discussion.
[=] in  no convenient way to search through them
    short of downloading the whole set.
[&] for instance, see (empty) (CITI has withdrawn this code) (out of date named cache file still shows as root nameserver)
    discussion in comp.archives.admin
    note that many entries have not been updated since 1989.
    discussion in comp.archives.admin.

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