NSC93: Network Services Conference

Warsaw

Second Network Services Conference, Warsaw, October 1993

The Network Services Conference is an annual get together organized by the European Association of Research Networks (EARN, aka the European end of Bitnet). I was invited to the first NSC, held last year in Pisa, but was unable to attend; I therefore felt morally bound to accept the invitation to this year's conference, held last week in Warsaw. Poland has recently (in the last six months) become a full member of EARN and has good connexions with the outside world, though not, as yet, much of an internal communications infrastructure. For the duration of this conference however, happy networking nerds from the whole of Europe, including many from countries of the former Soviet Union, were to be found pumping email messages from the room full of terminals thoughtfully provided by a number of local computer firms, through Polands new's 60 megabit gateway and thence to homes in Georgia, Russia, Belarus, the Ukraine, Germany, Italy, France, the Netherlands, the UK and even the US.

The need for "quality" networked information was one recurrent motif of the conference; another (intimately linked with it by some) was the need for commercialization of network facilities. To quote the first speaker I heard: "we need to find a way for people to be paid for putting information on the internet". By contrast, there was mercifully little gung-ho technobabble, though the closing speaker did assure us that "every human being on the planet" would have access to the network by the end of this century, and that future conferences would require the use of virtual reality helmets. In its place, there was a surprisingly stubborn anglo-saxon stress on "bringing services to end-users".

The session on training began with a presentation on the UK's mailbase service, funded by JISC and hosted at Newcastle: its un-surprising conclusion was that electronic communities need a lot of hand-nurturing and training, a theme picked up by another speaker from Newcastle, who described an ITTI project which is producing generic training materials for network awareness. How not to do it was well exemplified by the third paper in this session - which described a protoype international EARN helpdesk: having relied on member states to provide publicity for its services, this was singularly underused.

Favourite software of the conference was undoubtedly Mosaic, which was demonstrated live in a bravura display of networking nerve by Robert Cailliau from CERN: pointing and clicking from Honolulu to Oslo to Israel before our very eyes. Mosaic is also probably the nearest thing we currently have to the "User network interface to everything (UNITE)" which was proposed by an equally charismatic speaker from Northern Ireland, while mention of it also elicited my favourite mixed metaphor of the conference from the speaker (George Brett) who said that although it was essential to keep pushing the envelope and going in at the deepend, it was necessary at the same time to keep the VT100 user on board (who is this user? I think we should be told).

Yet another Newcastle speaker (Jill Foster) drew a rather neat analogy between the current state of network publishing and the Sorcerer's Apprentice episode in Walt Disney's Fantasia. In this analogy, the techies currently trying to cope with the unmanageable explosion of networked information are Mickey Mouse contending with all those mops and buckets of water, while the librarians are the sorcerer deus ex machina who will finally restore order, by applying their classificatory, cataloguing, filtering, and archiving skills.

Other sessions I attended included a German speaker on something called UDINE which sounded like another universal interface, but with the added attraction that it would take advantage of ATM (nothing to do with holes in the wall, this stands for 'asynchronous transfer mode' and is apparently the very next thing in broadband ISDN). A Norwegian speaker described an interesting experiment in creating a distributed archive of photographs. An American speaker droned on about the problems of running a Listserv discussion group. In the same session, I missed (unfortunately) hearing the legendary Eric Thomas who was promoting a new user guide explaining why Listserv is the true and only path to righteous network communication. Rich Giordano flew in from Manchester just in time to give a thoughtful paper about the need for interactivity in information generating communities, and how poorly current models of electronic libraries supported it, which had the unusual distinction of citing some real evidence.

I spoke third in a session on "publishing on the network", shared with Terry Morrow (who runs the BIDS service at Bath) and Ann Mumford (who chairs the UK SGML Project and is a CGM whizz). The SGML banner, in particular the TEI flavour, seemed to go down reasonably well -- everyone agreed that the best way of improving the "quality" of networked information was to improve the richness of its markup.

On the whole, however, I did not find the papers presented here particularly impressive. The real business of the conference was evidently being conducted in a number of official and not so official networking special interest groups and workgroups meeting there. Not being a member of RARE or IETF or ISUS or others, there wasn't much opportunity for me to participate in these politickings; I was also disadvantaged by the fact that I had been placed in a monstrous hotel some 20 minutes walk from the conference venue. I did however spend some time impressing on George Brett (from CNIDR) the importance of the TEI Header as a starting point for one Internet Task Force which is supposedly coming up with proposals to improve Gopher's usability by providing associated documentatioon files. If the TEI Header can't be used for that purpose, there's something seriously wrong with it -- and likewise, if the IETF Task Force so charged completely ignores the TEI proposals. This is something which perhaps others in the Steering Committee with the ear of CNIDR might like to pursue (this means you Susan H!).

Secondly I spent some time bending the ear of Robert Cailliau (apparently a largeish cheese --or spider?-- in the World Wide Web) on the subject of what's wrong with HTML. Unlike most HTMLers I've met, this one at least was ready to listen, and something may just come of it.

Lou