WAIS -- Making it Easier to Access Internet Resources

By Brewster Kahle

The Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) system is a set of products supplied by different vendors to help end-users find and retrieve information over networks. Using WAIS (pronounced ways) the user isn't required to become familiar with several different systems. Also, since the interface consolidates data from many sources, the data can be manipulated effortlessly, virtually without regard to their origins.

Thinking Machines, Apple Computer, and Dow Jones initially implemented such a system for use by business executives. These products are becoming more widely available from various companies.

What does WAIS do?

Users on different platforms can access personal, company, and published information from one interface. The information can be anything: text, pictures, voice, or formatted documents. Since a single computer-to-computer protocol is used, information can be stored anywhere on different types of machines. Anyone can use this system since it uses natural language questions to find relevant documents. Relevant documents can be fed back to a server to refine the search. This avoids complicated query languages and vendor specific systems. Successful searches can be automatically run to alert the user when new information becomes available.

How does WAIS work?

The servers take a user's question and do their best to find relevant documents. The servers, at this point, do not understand the user's English language question, rather they try to find documents that contain those words and phrases and ranks them based on heuristics. The user interfaces (clients) talk to the servers using an extension to a standard protocol Z39.50. Using a public standard allows vendors to compete with each other, while bypassing the usual proprietary protocol period that slows development. Thinking Machines is giving away an implementation of this standard to help vendors develop clients and servers.

Where do WAIS servers exist?

Even though the system is very new, there are already several servers:

For more information

Contact Brewster Kahle for more information on the WAIS project, the Connection Machine WAIS system, or the free Mac, Unix Server, and X Window System interfaces. There is a mailing list that has weekly postings on progress and new releases; to subscribe send e-mail to: wais discussion-request@think.com.

You can also retrieve a copy of the WAIS Bibliography by Barbara Lincoln, Thinking Machines, October, 1991. It is available via anonymous FTP from quake.think.com. The directory/file is: /pub/wais/wais-discussion/bibliography.txt It is also available via the WAIS server wais-discussion-archive.src.

Brewster Kahle is the Project Leader for Wide Area Information Servers. Kahle's Internet-mail address is brewster@think.com.

Reprinted from CERFnet News, Volume 3 Number 6.

WAIS-Mac Interface Proposed

By Mark Davis-Craig

The latest and greatest from the world of WAIS was demonstrated for attendees at a WAIS seminar held at the MCNC Center for Communications in Research Triangle Park, NC on February 3 and 4.

Participants viewed a number of demonstrations of WAIS software on several platforms and were treated to a sneak preview of an Apple development project to create a new Macintosh-WAIS interface. The prototype of this interface combines graphics and text to present information in a newspaper-like "front page" format.

Speakers at the seminar included meeting organizer George Brett of MCNC, Cliff Lynch of the University of California, Brewster Kahle of Thinking Machines, and Jim Fullton of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Further information about WAIS may be obtained by contacting George Brett, ghb@concert.net.

Taken from The Link Letter, Vol. 5 No. 1, March/April 1992.