Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 15, 1995

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.

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