Hopkins in Cyberspace By Mike Field For some time now, one of the most frustrating problems experienced by computer users in the East Baltimore campus has been the difficulty in communicating between machines or groups of machines on campus--even for users who have e-mail. With roughly 13,000 e-mail addresses at the medical institutions, it has proved especially difficult to link them all in one system that allows easy communication, rapid delivery and full access to the Internet. That problem is rapidly coming to an end, however, as the E-mail Project, now under way at the medical institutions, moves toward its goal of providing seamless, transparent communication to all of East Baltimore's clinicians, faculty, staff and students by the end of the 1995 calendar year. The problem in communication stems from the way different departments and offices use different computing systems for different purposes. As computers began infiltrating both the university and the hospital in the 1960s, there was a gradual and somewhat erratic networking of the different machines--generally in the form of one research team establishing contact with another by linking two or more mainframe computers. Those individuals were then able to send and receive an early form of e-mail; some university researchers have been using e-mail for more than 20 years now. With the explosion of personal computing in the 1980s a new form of computer network evolved: the Local Area Network or LAN. Essentially, a LAN is any number of individual personal computers tied together so that they can easily communicate with one another. Some LANs use a central computer, called the server, to provide data and control communication between all the other network computers, which in turn are referred to as nodes. In most cases, if your computer is part of a LAN you can communicate with the other nodes through e-mail; this does not necessarily mean, however, that you can go outside the LAN and send e-mail to anyone on the Internet. Additional connections-- generally through the LAN server--are required, and not every network has made them. That is why you will sometimes meet individuals who claim to have e-mail, but won't have the foggiest notion of how to send a message to you, or how to receive one from the outside. For some of these people, e-mail communication beyond the LAN is actually impossible, because the LAN itself is not hooked to any other system. This, until recently, was a not-uncommon occurrence at East Baltimore, where there are now about 5,000 e-mail users on various LANs. "When we resolved to get everyone connected we soon found out we had some people using mainframe e-mail, some using LAN e-mail and some with no e-mail capabilities whatsoever," said Mike McCarty, acting director of East Baltimore's Network Services Organization. "More than two years ago we chose mail standards and connectivity standards to establish a common protocol so that all the computers and networks in East Baltimore could talk to each other." That standard is the Simple Mail Transport Protocol, or SMTP. By getting all the computers in East Baltimore to communicate using this procedure, e-mail will become seamless, that is, it will permit rapid communication between different computers and networks of computers without disrupting the flow or appearance of the messages themselves. E-mail addresses will be standardized, and all will end with the designation JHMI.EDU. The net effect will be that someone using a mainframe-based e-mail system will be able to send a message to a LAN-based system without knowing the specific commands and parameters used on that system. The other goal, to make communications transparent, means that e-mail will become a standard part of each computer's application, which is the term used to describe the programs or set of programs used by the computer to accomplish the work it has to do: word processing, database management, spreadsheets or whatever. Thus, instead of having to close down programs typically in use just to send or receive an e-mail message, in a transparent system the computer user is able to communicate with others from within the applications already being employed. E-mail becomes a standard part of everyone's computer environment and is a more productive, effective tool as a result. Accomplishing these goals is no easy task in a place as large and diverse as the medical institutions, which includes the hospital, the schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health, the Kennedy Krieger Institute, Bayview, Greenspring and other sites. "The first step was to bring all LAN-based e-mail together," McCarty said. In order to facilitate that arrangement, GroupWise- -the LAN software developed from WordPerfect Office--was chosen as a de facto standard for all local area networks. Currently, said McCarty, about 30 of the various networks use GroupWise, with more joining every week. As they do, it becomes easier and easier for individuals to send messages, append documents and perform a whole range of communications between offices and across campuses. Further steps--which will complete the wiring of the system's "backbone" so there are high capacity network lines linking every building and office, the creation of a central mail server to facilitate speedy e-mail delivery and provide a central listing for every e-mail address, and the integration of the mail server, GroupWise and the Welch gateway to the Internet--are due to be completed by the end of the year. "When we are done with this project almost everyone in the Medical Institutions should find it easy to e-mail across campus, across town or across the world," McCarty said. "By the end of June the delays in receiving mail that some people have experienced should be eliminated. But getting basic e-mail is probably just the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge growth in what we call enabling tools--software that allows you to send pictures, sounds and images, as easily as sending e-mail. I think that's going to be the next big thing." Internet Fair returns This past January's Internet Fair at the East Baltimore campus proved so successful that the folks at the Welch Library plan to do it again. The next Internet Fair, which offers classes on the Internet for all levels of users, will occur July 25 to 27. The fair will include many introductory classes as well as Windows and Mac client software sessions, a session on file transfer protocol (ftp) and a session on UNIX commands for file management. Participation is free and open to all members of the Hopkins community. Contact the Welch Library for more details.
Go to Gazette Homepage