Feature

Managing Internet resources

The Internet is a useful part of the super information highway, but you have to manage its resources if to avoid futile hours in a cul-de-sac

One of the great strengths of the Internet is the ability to move around large amounts of information almost instantly, without having to worry about traffic delays, hold-ups with the postal service, or any other of the numerous problems that can beset conventional communication. Because of this, the Internet can be the perfect tool to improve the efficiency of your business. However, there is a price to pay. Just as the network has to be managed, so does a website, whether it is to be hosted on the Internet itself, or on an internal intranet.

The Internet excels at moving information efficiently and your business can increase its profitability if it can harness the efficiencies that the Internet provides. It is possible to use a computer thousands of miles away to search out a nugget of information in a remote database you can transfer any one of millions of files and programs to your own system and find companies, products and services that meet your needs. However, you will need to become adept at searching out information. If the Internet lacks anything, it is a coherent way for finding what you are after. As the Internet becomes the world's information marketplace, there will be advantages for businesses that set out their own stall.

While a great deal of the traffic on the Internet is still from one person to another, more and more information is being made available for transfer ( not to a single specified individual, but to anyone with an interest in the content on offer. Although this facility started when the Internet was the exclusive preserve of an academic community eager to share research results and ideas, it has not been outmoded by the commercial orientation of today's online offices and workers.

The Internet has always been a community for computer users and has strong links to the world of software developers. It's not just a world of freeware or shareware either. Lotus, IBM and others are using the Internet to ship new software to their users, fix problems and provide support for products in the field.

There is an informal global support network waiting to help with problems, too. The Internet facility called Usenet newsgroups is a fantastically efficient way to get a scoop on anything from computer-related ills to the best place for a business dinner in San Francisco.

Here's a personal example: I was installing Insignia's Soft Windows, a package that lets you run Windows software, on a Sun workstation on a Sunday morning in England and hit a snag during installation. I fiddled about, reread the manual and was still stymied.

The product had to be up and running for Monday mornings, so in desperation, I posted a message to the Usenet newsgroup that I thought would have the right sort of readership. In a matter of hours (this was still the wee hours in parts of the US on a Sunday, don't forget), I had a half dozen good suggestions resolving the impasse. To my delight, I also got a call from Insignia's support department at 9am on Monday to make sure that everything was all right. The power of the Internet!

While there is a lot of good information available for many business missions, it can sometimes be difficult to zero in on what you need. It's particularly important for information providers to make it easy for customers to find and evaluate your expertise in a particular field of endeavour.

There are several techniques you can put your information easily and quickly onto the desktops of potential customers.

One of the basic Internet functions is the ability to log into a remote computer, subject to security restrictions, and use it as if it were right by your desk. That is the purpose of Telnet. Telnet is the name of both the bit of software on your computer and the capability for remote operation.

Telnet was an important element of the first computers that made up the Internet, which ran on one flavour, or another of UNIX. Long before the ascendancy of the graphical windowing user interface, people had to use ASCII terminals that had no or very limited graphical capabilities. Telnet is therefore regarded as fairly primitive because it is restricted to plain text.

There is power in simplicity, however. It takes a fair amount of computer power and communications bandwidth to connect two graphically based computers. Telnet can cram an awful lot of information down a modest telephone connection without demanding a Pentium PC or more at both ends. Telnet is perfect for reading email or conducting simple database queries. As long as you can handle the security implications of allowing remote users to telnet into your system, it can be a very efficient way to meet the needs of travelling or remote workers.

There are a number of public Telnet facilities that allow you to use the power of someone else's computer system to search databases or pass information. You can use text-based Archie or Gopher clients to navigate resources. You can get there by Telnet.

One sterling example of a public Telnet facility has been created by the US Federal Aviation Administration with their DUATS (Direct User Access System). The system enabled the FAA to cut costs and simultaneously improve its vital, safety related services to pilots. Now pilots can get the latest weather and confirm their navigational calculations without having to talk to a human briefer or wait in a telephone queue for the next flesh and blood person to read the weather to them.

Finding Telnet resources is somewhat more problematic. There is no central listing of Telnet hosts that afford public access. However, when you need to use a public service like a Gopher client or a government server like DUATS, you will be able to find all for the details needed to make your connection. A number of Internet access providers sell Telnet-only access to their host systems - which is fine for email and Usenet newsgroups but not for much more.

FTP was also one of the original Internet utilities that got the name of its client software from the protocol used to perform its role in Net life. In the case of FTP, or File Transfer Protocol, there is more complexity than with Telnet to allow for additional functionality.

FTP transfers files from one computer to another on the Internet (or intranet.) The reason to transfer files in this way (rather than attaching them to an email) is that not all email packages handle attachments in the same way. Some cannot handle MIME binary attachment, while other deal in Uuencoded BinHex. There may also be some file size limitations using certain email systems. Most of us have used FTP, although you may not be aware of it. Each time you click on a link on a Web page that downloads a file to your PC, you are using FTP.

FTP has a fairly verbose command syntax, which means that it doesn't matter if you are trying to retrieve files created by UNIX machines, or on a Mac to use on your PC. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that you will be able to run the programs, but it is a good way to transfer files without having to contend with different file formats.

If you have a system that contains files that you would your mobile workforce to have available, it is simple to set up your server as an FTP site. However, you must be sure that you have addressed all of the security implications. Passwording directories, using invisible files and password protecting files can provide additional security.

Other search tools include Archie; the Internet's archive file location service what was named after a comic book character, is a system that lets you search file indexes rather than have to search each and every FTP site that might have the file that you want. It's the best place to start a search for a file on the Internet. Archie can find text documents, data files and executable programs with equal aplomb. You don't even have to know the exact filename for the object of your exploration. You can search for a certain string likely to be in a filename or the file's description.

You could also try Gopher. Gopher allows you to browse through directories and retrieve files, rather like FTP. However, Gopher retrieves files in a fashion that is appropriate for their contents. If you request an image file, Gopher will start the right view application. If the file is text, it will open into a text editor.

You may have heard intimations that the Internet is a community. If you can get away from the point-to-point messaging you will find most interest groups represented. Its all there: the world is reflected in the Internet. That includes your potential customers.

There are a plethora of search engines designed to make it easy for people to find an answer to any query. Most feature advertising and may direct search results to specific companies.

Search engines work by sending software robots out into the Internet that follow every link that they come across. Every page they find is crunched through and indexing process that discards common words like "the" or "and" and list significant words like "money" or "security" or " computer". It then annotates those words with the URL of the page where they were found. When you come along and ask for pages that contain the words "computer" and "security" the search engine runs through its lists and finds the pages where the search terms are present. Advanced search engines like Alta Vista also do fuzzy logic searches. If you are looking for vegetables, Alta Vista will return pages that include "carrot" or "potato" even if the word "vegetable" is absent. Even the meanest search engine takes a great deal of computing power, gigabytes of RAM and very large disk arrays.

Commercial search organisations like Yahoo or InfoSeek are beginning to extract their investment in computer hardware or software buy selling advertising space, charging a fee for searches or both. Businesses that charge for searching services often include more than just web pages in their search: Infoseek includes other Internet resources such as Usenet newsgroups; Individual includes many print publications.

If you are trying to attract attention to a commercial site of your own, it's a good idea to email the person responsible at each of the search engines to get instructions on including your site in their database. Importantly be sure that the heading and text of your lead pages contain all the hooks necessary to assist even the most inept searcher to find you. If you deal in cameras for instance, your home page should also contain the words "photograph", "optical", "picture" "film", "lens" etc.

The ability to find your Web pages is of paramount importance, more important even than smart graphics or dazzling Java animation (which will probably consume most of your site building budget). The text is the key to today's searching technology and your written material needs to be assembled with that in mind.

The wealth of information on the Internet isn't very well organised so it is important to have a good handle of the various resources and techniques at your disposal. It might even be worthwhile to develop an in-house Internet. If you are trying to make the Internet a place where your business is recognised, some thought in making your Internet sites easy to find will pay dividends. Using the Internet to publicise your presence is extremely cost effective.

Rachel Hodgkins


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This was first published in July 1999

 

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