Way New Network Architecture: Peer web servers and browsers-as-screen-savers

We want visitors to walk away from the [Smithsonian] exhibit knowing that MCI is no longer a traditional long-distance company but an Information Age architect.
-- Brian Brewer, MCI marketing VP, quoted in this week's TimeOutNY

MCI is doing the right thing by sponsoring the travelling collection of our nation's technology attic that is fittingly housed this month in the biggest attic of them all, New York's Coliseum. MCI holds the fate of our collective bandwidth in their hands: a goodly portion of US Internet traffic passes through their pipes.

MCI also holds a goodly portion of my own humble Internet traffic: their DC-based hub is so congested in mid-afternoons that I sometimes have to resort to using a dial-up connection via Compuserve to avoid the digital rush hour. And I am not alone: Computerworld's page one story this week mentions other customers who are pissed at MCI for getting connected to the net.

But it is fitting that Brewer uses the word architect for his company: because (depending on your point of view) we either don't really have any Internet architects or have too many of them.

Being a network architect used to be a proud profession: back in the VTAM days, it was fairly predictable to figure out what kind of links were needed to connect up the IBM mainframe pieces of the puzzle. And even in the "years of the LAN" era it was fun to design Token Ring and Ethernet hubs and spokes. But A.I. (after the Internet), it is no longer easy or fun, and indeed corporate networks are about to undergo a major revolution. This week, LAN Times editorializes problems with PointCast filling up LAN pipes if users improperly set the update options. Oracle managed to reduce PointCast's traffic from 40 to 10 percent of its overall inbound Internet pipe by asking its users to reduce the frequency of its updates, according to a network architect quoted in the story. What a concept: managing one's network via email pleas to set a product's options. What would our NetView chaps say about that?

But just don't put the blame on these way-new screen savers that display stock quotes and the weather in 15 different cities. The real bite in bandwidth is coming when we see web servers on every desktop, and Java jive jamming up the works. Given promises from Microsoft to include peer web services in the next release of NT, and shipping product from IBM and O'Reilly for Windows 95, this is a real fear.

I got these chills when Microsoft sent me a t-shirt with the words "just part of the OS" emblazoned across the front. As a marketing strategy for their Internet server, it is pure genius. But as network architecture, it could spell trouble in river city and motivate me to open up those VTAM manuals. (VTAM is the software that manages IBM mainframe communications.) I do think it is inevitable that we have web servers everywhere, whether they come bundled as part of NT or sold or given away separately.

To some extent, this is just another version of when peer file services came of age: back in the late 1980s, corporate network administrators were afraid of that big bad wolf and predicted that file servers on every desktop would blow their LANs down, just as they had predicted a similar fate in the middle 1980s for VTAM when all those pesky PCs started doing micro-to-mainframe file transfers. Neither situation materialized. Mainframe file transfers weren't for everyone and most of us didn't want to share our hard drives with the corporate hoi polloi. However, it is one thing to share a spreadsheet across the enterprise: add in sound and video to make those columns of numbers really dance and what you have is the makings of a communications nightmare.

It will be fun to watch, and I think MCI is doing precisely the right thing for once: big-time bandwidth will be needed, and it can't come soon enough to prevent my daily 4 pm gridlock in the DC suburbs. So put in those Sonet rings and T3s everywhere, and check out MCI's CyberPlayground at the Coliseum. And maybe MCI will divert just a few of its people from calling me every week trying to get me to change my long-distance company.

Awards, Sitekeeping and self-promotions dep't

The Web.feet award this week goes to Portal Information Network, for first sending out email to all its customers promising free usage for May, June and July, and then retracting the promise in a subsequent email five hours later: "we accidentally mailed one of these announcements to some of our customers, before we actually made our decision on how to proceed," says John Little, CEO of Portal in his second message. Or so the signature says. Oops, indeed.

I returned to my wireless roots last week with an op/ed piece in Communications Week where I debated AT&T Wireless' chief Kendra VanderMeulen. The topic was whether wireless networks will take off, and of course I couldn't resist taking the counter-point position. I wish I could find a reference for both pieces on Techweb, but for the time being you'll have to just read my side of the argument. By the way, watch them for an interesting product coming soon.

This week I am speaking at DCI's Internet Expo conference in Chicago on my favorite topics, Intranets and the web. I hope to see many of you either there or the following week here in New York for PC Expo. In the meantime, I've written another Intranet white paper, this one covering the many technologies that you need to assemble and which ones make the most sense to purchase. I've tried to make some sense of all the various bits and pieces (there is alot more to buying into Intranets than slapping up a web server) and I'm sure there are plenty of products that aren't mentioned: if your favorite is neglected, try to see about getting an evaluation copy to me to look at.

Finally, I wanted to mention one important site change: this week, I began adding advertising to my pages care of the doubleclick.net ad network. Doubleclick has an "ad server" that delivers small ads to my pages: if you find a page with an ad, hit your browser's reload button and you'll see a new ad appear on my page.

I have included ads with mixed emotions and in the spirit of experimentation.When I first began Web Informant last fall, I decided to use the model of attracting sponsors to pay for the site's upkeep. I have a total of five vendors that have given me products, cash, or both: Compaq, Novell, Attachmate, Wollongong (before they were acquired by Attachmate) and Network Associates (the latter a forward-thinking PR firm). I appreciate the opportunities and support from all of the people involved in these companies.

I don't plan on making money fast from these ads, just as I didn't think sponsorships would carry me into retirement. Do let me know your thoughts about the whole process: as I said, it is at this point more of an experiment, and I appreciate hearing of your reaction. Some of you have suggested charging for these missives, but I don't think that would be a good idea.

This essay is composed in HTML and can be read in your browser. This is not always a simple process, and I'll be happy to provide help if I can. If you are getting this directly from me, or if someone is forwarding it to you, and you want to change that situation, let me know. Subscriptions are always free of charge.

David Strom
+1 516 944 3407
Link to this essay on our site
Back issues of Web Informant essays