User Services Restructuring a Major Topic at National Meetings

By Pat Smith, Merit

"The Internet and the NREN [National Research and Education Network] need a NIC [Network Information Center]. The new NIC  must be distributed, participative, cooperative and collegial; we need new models, new tools, and above all new ideas."-Dr. Steven Wolff, Division Director, Division of Networking and Communications Research and Infrastructure, National Science Foundation.

The structure of NICs, as well as user services in general, and the means by which they obtain and distribute information to  users of the emerging national network have become major topics of discussion in the Internet community. Developers recognize the importance of providing information to network users at all levels in a timely fashion.

User services discussions at national meetings

The concern with network user service issues was verified many times over at recent professional meetings such as the 20th Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the ACM/SIGUCCS Computer Services Management Symposium which met in St. Louis, and the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI) and National NET '91 which both convened in Washington, D.C.


Featured at one of the IETF plenary sessions was the presentation of initial plans for an NREN architecture and an NREN management structure. Major points put forth were five "grand challenges" of networking which include user services at all levels: local users, network information centers (NICs) and network operations centers (NOCs).

The user services area of development was termed "absolutely critical" by presenters Bill Johnston of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Peter Ford of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The remaining four challenges noted were scaling (IP addressing), reliability and robustness, routing, and security.

Further discussion of user service issues took place in various working groups which fall under the umbrella of the IETF User Services Area.

IETF/User Services Area

The initial IETF User Services Working Group was formed in January 1989 as a vehicle for helping coordinate and develop network information services activities.

In the two years since its formation, the group has expanded to become one of eight major efforts within IETF, and is known as the User Services Area.

An international forum

"The User Services Area within IETF provides an international forum for people interested in all levels of user services to identify and initiate projects designed to improve the quality of the information available to users of the Internet," commented Joyce Reynolds, User Services Area Director.

Reynolds continued, "The Internet has rapidly developed to encompass a large number of internationally dispersed networks in academic and research fields . . . this growth has placed the user services provider in the difficult position of trying to give much needed user support, while at the same time restructuring the user services system to accommodate continued expansion."

Current working groups in the User Services Area are Internet User Glossary, NOC-Tools Catalogue revision, User Services, Directory Information Services Infrastructure, and Network Information Services Infrastructure.

Information available online

Charters for these groups and minutes of past meetings may be obtained via anonymous FTP to,, (Pacific Rim), or (Europe) under the ietf directory.

IETF/User Services Area Council

In addition to the groups mentioned above, the St. Louis IETF was the site of the inaugural meeting of the User Services Area Council (USAC). The USAC charter states:

"USAC was established to promote and encourage creative exchange of international user service needs and concepts.

"The Internet has become international in scope and USAC intends to aid in coordination of user services in the international model. Constructive input from national and international user services organizations is encouraged in the hope of avoiding duplicate efforts by the various groups."

Members of the Council, thus far, represent Israel, Australia, Japan, Canada, Europe, and the United States.

ACM/SIGUCCS Networking task force

The Special Interest Group on University and College Computing Services (SIGUCCS) is a special interest group within the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) which provides a forum for those involved in delivering computing services on a college or university campus. The SIGUCCS Networking Task Force (NETTF) is dedicated to increasing awareness and understanding of the Internet among SIGUCCS members and their constituencies.

The NETTF convened most recently at the spring SIGUCCS Computer Center Management Symposium in St. Louis, MO. This group is interested in reaching the thousands of potential users who are not aware of the possibility of hooking up to a national network, and the benefits such a network can offer. Outreach and funding for smaller organizations is a main concern of NETTF.

"A primary reason for creating the task force was to have it act as a stimulus to raise the consciousness of everyone involved with the NREN to become aware that the focus of this kind of networking is people, not packets," stated NETTF Chair, Martyne Halgren of Cornell.

The initial goals of the NETTF, established at its inception in October 1989, were to increase awareness and understanding of the Internet; disseminate information and research on development and use of the Internet; promote innovative and appropriate use of Internet resources; and initiate and encourage cooperation between the SIGUCCS membership and other organizations with similar networking goals.

Halgren continued, "I am very pleased to see the attention focused on user services in organizations such as IETF, an organization which has traditionally been centered on technical issues, and by NSF, with its upcoming solicitation, as both represent a major step in understanding that networking is more than just hooking things up."

One of the concerns of the NETTF as well as other user service movements is the need for more centralized services such as a generic "help number." Dr. Wolff concurs: "Two critical services are the 'NIC of first resort' for the novice who doesn't know who else to call, and the 'NIC of last resort' for users who have exhausted all other resources without resolution."

Coalition for Networked Information

Information services was a topic of much discussion at the spring meeting of the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI). CNI is a coalition sponsored by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), and takes direction from CAUSE (association for the management of information technology in higher education) and EDUCOM (a consortium of more than 600 colleges and universities which focuses on academic and instructional computing) through their chief executives. One of its missions is to promote the creation of and access to information resources in networked environments in order to enrich scholarship and to enhance intellectual productivity.

CNI has formed seven working groups to further its mission. The directories and resource information services group, co-chaired by George Brett, Assistant Director, Educational Computing Services, University of North Carolina, and Peggy Seiden, Head Librarian, Pennsylvania State University at New Kensington, met to discuss the issue of a directory of network information and services. During the meeting, working group discussion revolved around three basic questions of how to gather, store, and access the information.

Strategies for attempting to answer these questions include writing a white paper to be submitted to CNI, holding a follow up meeting of the key network information stakeholders, and conducting four research studies.

The identified research studies are: an examination of online resources to determine how to best describe their content/purpose, an investigation of users' needs to determine what information users need concerning online resources, a study of existing models of catalogs and directories, and a study of emerging technologies which may be applicable to online resources.

Working with other information services groups

In the spirit of coalition building, this group is going to work closely with existing information and user services groups such as the IETF User Services Network Information Services Infrastructure and Directory Information Services Infrastructure Working Groups as well as traditional library groups like Research Libraries Group (RLG) and Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).

"It's clear from this spring meeting that there is a renewed sense of energy and interest in this area. This area is not just a directory of network information but also services, education, and resources for all network users," noted George Brett, co-chair CNI Directories and Resource Information Services Group.

The surge in interest and activity in the groups described above as well as in the general Internet community, indicate that the stage is being set for development of a more user-friendly international network environment as we approach the turn of the century.

Taken from The Link Letter, Vol. 4 No. 1, March/April 1991.