UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
Networking- What's In It For Me??
by Jim Lesslie January 1991
(C) Copyright 1991 Queen's University, Kingston Ontario Canada K7L 3N6
********************************************************************** Permission to reprint or adapt this article for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided the author, title and date are acknowledged. Please forward a copy of any publication in which this article is reprinted or referenced to the author.
The purpose of this article is to outline some of the benefits and capabilities of modern networking, and to some extent, de-mystify an area of computing that can be highly technical and complex.
Writing this article presented somewhat of a challenge. Many articles have been written about networking, but such articles are typically quite technical, usually riddled with many different networking terms and jargon, and geared more to the needs of computing professionals or those who are already quite knowledgeable on the subject. Recognizing that such people are still somewhat of a minority, I set out to write an article which had minimal technical content and as little terminology and jargon as possible. I will attempt to highlight the practical uses and benefits of networking, using language that will be understood by the typical reader, and citing examples which relate to common activities throughout the University. While networking is widely used for research and other academic pursuits, it is also being used extensively for administrative purposes. I will attempt to illustrate how networking can benefit both academic and administrative functions.
To a certain extent, the difficulty some people have in understanding what networking is all about and what it can be used for, is that it provides services and capabilities which have not previously been available or possible. At the same time, networking provides us with improved, more responsive ways of doing things we have done for many years. Thus, the benefits of networking can perhaps be categorized as those which present new opportunities and extend our capabilities, and those which apply more to traditional academic or administrative activities.
THE INFORMATION AGE
Simply stated, the basic purpose of a university is to collect, organize, analyze, summarize, disseminate, and publish information. We all work with information in one form or another, regardless of our role within the University. We live in an Information Age, and information is our basic commodity. While the amount of information used and what we do with it varies from person to person, access to this information is key to our being able to do our jobs or fulfil our responsibilities. Some of the problems associated with working with information in today's society are:
--The amount of information that is of some value to us is simply enormous, and growing very rapidly. --The cost of finding and obtaining the information we need can be very high, and seems to increase almost daily. --The locations or sources for our information are extremely varied and numerous. --We need to get access to the information quickly. We live in a fast- paced society and the information changes rapidly.
To be able to remain competitive as a higher-education institution, and to be able to make better use of our time, we must find ways to overcome or minimize the above problems.
DECENTRALIZED MEANT DISCONNECTED
One of the most significant developments in the history of computing was the personal computer. It was relatively inexpensive and easier to use than larger systems such as a mainframe computer, and all of its computing power as available to its one user. Most would agree that it was a major step towards computing for the masses. People who had never used a computer before, soon found it to be an essential tool. At the same time, people who had been using large, cumbersome mainframe computers began to shift some or all of their computing activities to the personal computer.
This overall trend toward decentralization of computing resources is generally thought to have been a positive one. It did, however, result in new problems and limitations, the foremost of which is the relative isolation of each individual from his or her colleagues or other group members. When they had all used the same computer system, it was possible for them to exchange information, or share information of common interest, such as a large database. As they abandoned the large, shared system in favour of desktop PCs, it was no longer possible for a group of people to share a common set of data, or for one person to easily distribute information to other members of the group. Initially, the only practical way of moving information from one computer to another was on a diskette. This did little to solve the problem of not being able to share something like a database. Sharing meant everyone having their own copy, which was both costly and impractical, especially for information that changes frequently. Shortly after PCs began to arrive in the workplace, it became clear that this isolation would be a significant problem, and researchers began looking for ways to overcome it.
Most will agree that the personal computer remains a very useful and supportive tool, but cannot provide all the computing and information processing needs of a given individual. What needs to be done is to extend its reach to access information stored on other computers, and to re-open lines of communication within a group or organization. This is precisely what networking is intended to do.
LEVELS OF NETWORKING
The term Network can mean different things to different people. It can be as simple as a cable connecting two microcomputers together, or as complex as a worldwide network consisting of hundreds of thousands of systems. In discussing networks, it can help to define several different levels of networking, each with its own scope and purposes. This is somewhat analogous to our society, which is comprised of households, neighbourhoods, municipalities, countries, etc. The three primary levels of networking within an organization are:
--Departmental or WorkGroup Networks --Institutional Networks --External Networks
(where External Networks in turn consist of several levels such as regional, national, and international networks.)
Departmental networks, usually referred to as Local Area Networks or LANs, link together the computers within a department. It can be used to access departmental resources such as laser printers, common disk storage, software, and most importantly, departmental information. As well, it provides a means for two or more people within the department to exchange data, documents, electronic mail and other information. Lastly, if it's connected to an institutional network which ties into one or more external networks, a LAN provides a powerful link to the outside world.
An institutional network links together various departmental networks, large central systems such as a mainframe computer, and other central facilities. It can be compared to a major highway which connects the street systems of many different communities to form one large transit system. It provides a pathway for information to flow between different departments and groups within the organization, and provides high-speed access to central systems and facilities. Finally, an institutional network can connect to one or more external networks of varying size and scope.
Much of the information needed by people at Queen's, and many of the people they collaborate or communicate with, are external to the University. Access to an external network provides essentially the same capabilities as access to an institutional network does. The difference is merely one of scope. Instead of a few campus or departmental systems, it provides access to hundreds of thousands of systems worldwide. A connection to a large external network opens the door to a community of millions of people with whom you can communicate and exchange information.
When discussing the benefits of networks, there is a tendency to focus on their ability to transmit large amounts of information at a high rate of speed. To understand how access to one or more networks might benefit you in your specific situation, it helps to be familiar with the fundamental tasks that can be carried out on a network which exploit high-speed and/or high-volume data transfer. The following are the major tasks or activities that can be done through a network:
1. FILE TRANSFER
In a computer, a collection of related information is stored as a file. File transfer is the process of taking a copy of a file stored on one computer, transmitting it over a network, and storing it on a computer at the other end. Networks provide a convenient and fast way of transferring files between computers. Some networks will even handle the conversion of file formats and data representation if the origin and destination computers are not the same type.
2. REMOTE LOGON
Many people at Queen's logon regularly to one or both of the University mainframe computers, typically using a modem and telephone line to establish a connection. It is now also possible for people to logon to these computers through a network rather than a modem, provided the network is linked to the Campus Network (backbone). More importantly, you can logon to virtually any system on any of the external networks, provided you are authorized to do so by the people who manage that system. This is a much better alternative to older methods, such as using a dialout modem or commercial data communications services such as DATAPAC. Information can flow back and forth at a much higher speed, and there is presently no cost for using these external networks.
3. FILE SHARING
As discussed above, a file transfer allows you to obtain a copy of a file to use on your computer. Certain networks can make it possible to work with a file directly from the computer it is stored on, without having to copy it onto your own system. This is particularly important when the file in question is quite large, or changes frequently. The software you use to work with the information can access it directly, as if it was stored on your hard drive or diskette.
4. ELECTRONIC MAIL
Electronic mail provides a means of communicating with other computer users through one or more networks. Electronic Mail can be a much more effective way to communicate than conventional mail or the telephone. While it also has limitations, it provides a fast way to exchange messages or textual information with someone in another city, or on the other side of the world. As well, the same message can be broadcast to dozens or hundreds of recipients, with no more effort than is necessary to send it to one person.
5. INFORMATION SEARCH AND RETRIEVAL
The computer can be a very powerful and efficient search tool. It can sort through large quantities of information very quickly, and deliver to you precisely what you need. Remote logon over networks make it possible to exploit the searching capabilities of a computer to a much greater extent. When you consider that thousands of computers are already accessible through external networks, and that enormous quantities of data and information are available on all of these systems, the benefits of using networks to search for and retrieve desired information are quite substantial.
6. REMOTE PROGRAM EXECUTION
The ability to logon to other computers through a network makes it possible to run programs on these systems. Perhaps there is a software package or program which is not available at Queen's, but is available on another university's computer. Perhaps the program is too large to run on any of the computers you have access to at Queen's, and needs the power of a supercomputer. There are numerous instances where the need to run programs or software on other computers exists. Networks permit you to do so, and have any result sent back to you, or directly stored on your own computer.
A Few Scenarios:
If you are still having difficulty understanding what a network connection can actually do for you, perhaps examining a few typical situations where networks are used will help.
BIBLIOGRAPHIC SEARCHES Researchers spend much of their time searching for references etc. pertaining to their field of study. For years, computers have been used to store and manage bibliographic information, and provide an effective tool for locating journals and other intellectual material. The Queen's QLINE system maintains bibliographic information on all of the University's library holdings, and provides a mechanism for doing various kinds of searches of this information.
Recently, enhancements to the QLINE system and network connections to library systems at several other Canadian universities such as The University of Toronto and McGill University, has made it possible to do bibliographic searches on any or all of these library systems from almost any terminal or computer at Queen's. A number of American university library systems are also accessible through QLINE, and this is only just the beginning. It is expected that literally hundreds of library systems will be accessible through the networks within a year or two.
What this means to Queen's researchers is that they will be able to carry out much more extensive and exhaustive searches for research material, and more importantly, from the privacy and comfort of their office, or even their home. In the past, it was usually necessary to deal with the Queen's Library staff, such as the Inter-Library Loan office, to carry out searches at other universities. Now, individual researchers have the capability to do their own searching. For those who choose not to, the bibliographic search process will still be better, as the library staff can use the networks to quickly search many different library catalogue systems.
While finding material of interest is no small task, the research process certainly doesn't stop there. If a desired book or journal issue is in a library at Stanford, how can I get my hands on it? I'll examine this problem in the last section of my article.
GROUP DISCUSSIONS Consider the situation where a large research project involves people at anumber of different Universities around the world. Collaboration means exchanging information, documents, and viewpoints on an ongoing basis. The research process can be significantly accelerated if this can happen conveniently and quickly. This can be, and frequently is achieved using electronic media such electronic mail and computer conferencing.
Electronic mail allows for one-to-one exchanges or one-to-many broadcasts, and with networks linking everyone together, these exchanges can take place in a matter of minutes. Computer conferencing allows meetings to take place over the network, linking dozens or even hundreds of participants around the world. When I submit a message or comment to a conference, everyone else receives a copy of what I said, whether they are sitting in front of their computer or not. A side benefit of both electronic mail and computer conferencing is that the participants can automatically have a complete record of all presentations and dialogue maintained for them.
Clearly there are still major advantages to face-to-face meetings and presentations, but there are many instances where the benefits realized by attending a conference or meeting in another city, do not outweigh the increasing cost of doing so.
INFORMED BUYING As the economy and university funding continue to decline, all purchases must be carefully considered and be as thoroughly researched as possible. Some one-of-a-kind acquisitions can make this difficult. Wouldn't it be useful if you could talk to someone else who was faced with a similar decision in the past, or several people who already have precisely what it is you are looking for? Maybe you'd find out that there really isn't anything suitable to be found, or that there are certain brands to avoid. It would be nice to hear of other people's experiences before making what might turn out to be an unwise choice. For a department administrator or manager, this would be invaluable.
In the past, people have relied on personal contacts and the telephone for seeking advice prior to buying something. The problem with this approach is that you have to know someone to ask, which is not always the case. The networks we have connections to make us part of a very large community, including many people at hundreds of other colleges and universities, as well as people in the commercial sector. There are thousands of electronic mailing lists, discussion groups, and bulletin boards which operate on the networks, providing forums to discuss or ask questions concerning just about any topic you can think of. These electronic discussions began in the early days of networking as a means for the developers to discuss the future and growth of the networks. Soon after, these people began casually talking about personal interests, politics, and many other non-technical subjects. From there the discussions grew to include thousands of other people who weren't involved in developing the networks, but were regular users. As more people became involved, the range of topics grew quickly. Chances are now quite good that someone out there on the network has some advice or information to offer you to aid in your purchasing decision. All you need to do is learn the basics of using electronic mail for corresponding with such people over the networks.
A DOOR TO OUR FUTURE
These applications of networking technology are already being widely used. Developments in networking, high-powered workstations, and other related technologies will open new doors or further empower us to do our jobs or research more efficiently and with greater results. Here are a few areas where networking will play an important role in the near future:
THE ELECTRONIC LIBRARY Computers are being used more and more to store literary and intellectual material. As high-capacity hard drives and CD-ROM players have become more affordable, the cost to store information has declined significantly. New literary material is often already stored on computers as more authors and scholars use word processors for composing their works. Advances in scanning technologies now make it quite easy to take older manuscripts, journals and books, and store copies of their contents on computers. Finally, improved microcomputer and workstation displays make it possible to view very accurate renditions of original documents and images on these devices.
Plans for a new Library are now well under way. Due to funding and physical space constraints, this new facility may not have the capacity to store all of the original intellectual material needed by Queens' faculty and students. In addition to the lack of space to store books and periodicals, the funds available for additional acquisitions will also be limited. Finally, the University will want to preserve its special collections, rare volumes and other fragile material for the future. Using computers to store and provide access to massive amounts of intellectual material will be essential in the Library of the future. The cost per unit of storage is drastically reduced, and the University can acquire more material faster and more inexpensively. Rare books and limited edition publications can be better preserved, since computerized versions of such valuable material can be made available for general use, and by many different researchers at the same time.
Networks will also play a critical role in the Library of the future. Access to computer-stored versions of Queen's intellectual holdings will be available in any office or from individuals' homes. More importantly, networks will make it possible to view the holdings of thousands of library systems throughout the world as one big virtual library, and provide rapid and convenient access to this almost infinite amount of material.
QUEEN'S FILE SYSTEM Those people who use a microcomputer or workstation should ask themselves the following questions:
1. Do you backup your harddrive or important files as often as you should? 2. Is your hard drive really large enough to hold everything you might want to keep there?
The point behind these questions is that each of us is responsible for backing up and managing the limited amount of disk storage in our personal computers.
Planning is already underway to establish a Queen's File System, which will be a central resource intended to address the above questions, as well as other requirements. It will consist of a very large pool of disk storage space controlled by one or more central systems, and will be directly accessible through the Campus Network. Network transfer speeds will make it possible for a user to back up the hard drive in his or her computer in less than an hour and with little effort on their part. Eventually, the Queen's File System will be able to fully automate this process for the user, backing up those files which have been created or changed since the last backup was done to central disk or tape storage.
The File System will also function as an extension of your own hard drive, expanding the amount of space you can use, as well as serving as an archive system.
The primary objectives of a Queen's File System are to minimize the cost per unit of disk storage, relieve the user from much of the responsibility of backing up their information, and provide an environment to facilitate the sharing of information and software among individuals and departments.
I hope I have managed to achieve my goals of at least partially demystifying networking, and illustrating what a network connection can do for you. Perhaps not everyone has a need at present, but I believe this will soon change, and networks will play an essential role in all of our lives, both at work and at home. Although I haven't referenced them prior to this, some of my discussion has been based on the concepts and goals presented in two recent supplements to the Gazette, specifically, Towards Scholar Centred Computing and Scholar Centred Computing - The Next Generation
If there is any individual or group who has discovered an interesting use for networking and can attest to its benefits from first-hand experience, we would be interested in doing a profile of the networking application in a future issue of the Computing and Communications Services News. Please contact me if you would like to discuss this further.
A). WORLD NETWORKS
TEXT BOOKS: 1. Quarterman, John S. 1990. "The Matrix: Computer Networks and Conferencing Systems Worldwide" Digital Press, Paper, $50. ISBN 1-55558- 033-5. Order Prentice Hall, 1-800-922-0579.
2. LaQuey, Tracy L. 1990. "The Users Directory of Computer Networks" Digital Press, Paper, $35. ISBN 013-950-2629. Order from Prentice Hall, 1-800-922-0579.
3. Frey, Donnalyn and Adams, Rick. 1989. "!%@:: A Directory of Electronic Mail Addressing and Networks" O'Reilly and Assoc., Paper, $27.95 ISBN 0-937175. 1-800-338-NUTS.
B). COMMERCIAL NETWORKS
TEXTBOOKS: 1. Todino, Grace and Dougherty, Dale. 1989. "Using UUCP and UseNet" O'Reilly and Assoc., paper, $17.95. 1-800-338-NUTS.
2. ... 1989. "Managing UUCP and UseNet" O'Reilly and Assoc., paper, $21.95. 1-800-338-NUTS.
C). GENERAL INFORMATICS, TELEMATICS
JOURNALS: 1. Telematics and Informatics: An International Journal. Eds. I.B. Singh and J. Liebowitz. Pergamon Press, Fairview Park, Elmsford, NY 10523. (914)592-7700. $80 (individuals).
2. Telecommunications Policy. Ed. Colin Blackman. Butterworth, 80
Montvale Ave, Stoneham, MA 02180. (617)438-8464. Sterling 99.00.
|Previous Menu||Home Page||What's New||Search||Country Specific|