Conference logo Networked Information in an International Context


9th and 10th February 1996 at the Ramada Hotel, Heathrow, UK


DAVID W KOEHLER, Director of Distributed Management Systems, Princeton University

This account was drafted for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on notes taken during the presentation and slides used.


The introduction of the Mosaic browser ignited a fire of interest that has changed the face of the Internet and the way we deal with networked information. The scramble for commercial success on the Internet has brought many technology vendors into the Web trade, resulting in the proliferation of new tools and methods. As these advances define the role of commerce on the Internet, they will also change the way in which routine business is conducted on networked campuses.


On the campus, administrative computing has traditionally occupied a prominent central position with a strong operational focus. It has mainframe orientation, supporting on-line terminals and it is characterised by a superlative levels of security and reliability - the latter in excess of 99%.

An alternative opinion, however, is that it has become boring and outdated, is invariably weighed down by huge backlogs of work, takes too long to respond and has poor accessibility, since it has to have an intermediary between its operation and those who want results from it.

Unfavourable comparisons between its nature and performance and that of the dinosaurs, just after their 350 million year reign, have been offered.


The latest phenomenon is Client/Server architecture, which has swept in with the kind of speed expected of new technology and is busy replacing all administration systems, to a greater or lesser degree. Its characteristics are that it is extremely effective and highly efficient.

Effectiveness is epitomised by the fact that it provides information for decision makers immediately, is adept at supporting new users and can accommodate many thousands of users, rather than the couple of hundred maximum on-line to a mainframe. Its efficiency is derived from its ability to break down organisational layers and put power and accountability at local levels, to provide integrated solutions, with one view of the world and one place for base information, and to reduce redundancy by its distributed system approach.

In investigating Client/Server applicability the prospective user should consider:



The World Wide Web, however, has introduced a new dimension to information technology. It is very open, very public, ubiquitous, extremely easy to access, carries an unbelievable amount of information, eliminates distance and is, frankly, fun to use.

The applications which it can accommodate are practically infinite. Examples in academia, especially the university library environment, include:


A merger of information services and administration will see a combination of Client/Server and Web benefits. It will bring multi-platform access, with, for example, compatibility between Apple Macintoshes and Unix PCs. Common Graphical User Interfaces, using HTML, will help in this respect. Using the Web to deliver documents will provide an efficient and low-cost option and, indeed, the Web represents low-cost client software, in this form of Client/Server hybrid, and the interactive nature of the Web would tend to make the whole system self-documenting and self-training.


The mainframe operating environment still predominates, with investment locked in and legacy systems which change very little, if at all, over very long periods. In regard to performance, most mainframes have problems coping with more than a very few hundred on-line users and the prospect of thousands of users simultaneously logged on would not appear to be practical. The problems of security, with open access, are obvious and somewhat formidable.

Solutions are at hand, however. The mainframe can be adapted as a server in the Client/Server environment. Rather than attempt the daunting task of conversion, the legacy data can be filtered and interpreted when necessary. With respect to performance, it is expectations rather than actual response time which are important and these are currently being set by the Internet, where delays of five or six seconds are tolerated.

Security can be resolved, though perhaps not to a highly secure standard, by, for example, positioning a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) between the browser and a Common Gateway Interface (CGI) and applying encryption technology at the SSL level.


One of the first advantages of utilising the Web in a Client/Server environment is that the database technology does not have to be changed, yet users have real time access to real, operational data. Interpretive servers, also, make users feel comfortable by providing familiarity. The retraining associated with conventional implementation of new Client/Server systems is not necessary on the Web, where ease of use and a philosophy of "just do it" predominate and update of user entered information is so simple and direct that information such as student addresses tends to be more up-to-date and accurate, yet requires no administrative resource.


Whether the Web is the ultimate destination of information technology or not remains to be seen, but taking advantage of it now in administrative computing is at the very least an astute interim strategy. It may well be - as happened at Princeton in December 1995 — that the biggest problem will be in selecting the application with which to start the process. Once commenced, however, it can be expected that implementation will be fast, investment will be encouraged and thousands of new users can be connected, with virtually no training costs. Perhaps one of the most important effects of the Web is its ability to act as a smile generator. What may seem to be a trivial characteristic can prove to be very useful at times of great change, which the Web will - and is already - bringing to campuses world-wide.


Further information is available from

The article "Internet Tools Access Administrative Data at the University of Delaware", originally published in CAUSE/EFFECT in late 1995, will provide additional insights. It is available at URL:

Delaware’s administrative Web site is at

British Library R&D Report 6250
© The British Library Board 1996
© Joint Information Systems Committee of the Higher Education Funding Bodies 1996

The opinions expressed in this report are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the sponsoring organisations.


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This report of the conference was prepared by The Marc Fresko Consultancy Telephone +44 181 645 0080 E-mail

Converted to HTML by Isobel Stark of UKOLN, July 1996