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GopherCon '92: Trip report

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                       GopherCon '92: Trip report
                            Prentiss Riddle
                            [email protected]
                                8/17/92


      SUMMARY: GopherCon '92 was a small working session of
      Gopher developers and users.  Focuses included proposed
      extensions to the Gopher protocol; how to organize the
      Internet resources available through Gopher in a more
      usable fashion; Gopher server administration, including
      security and privacy issues; and the future of Gopher
      development.  Also announced at the conference was a
      special offer of NeXT hardware for use as Gopher servers.


BACKGROUND: GopherCon '92 took place on August 12th and 13th in Ann
Arbor, Michigan and was sponsored by CICnet, a regional network in the
Great Lakes/Midwest area.  It was attended by about 50 people (despite
an advertised cap of 30) including Gopher developers, CWIS
administrators, systems programmers, user consultants, and a number of
librarians.  Almost all were employed by universities or regional
networks.

OVERVIEW BY THE GOPHER DEVELOPERS: The conference began with an
overview by Mark McCahill and Farhad Anklesaria, two members of the
Gopher Team at Minnesota.  I liked their summary of the two initial
goals for Gopher:

   -- To provide the plumbing for a great CWIS.
   -- To be "Internet duct tape" for connecting a wide variety of
   networked services.

Although many of us at the conference tended to be driven by the demand
for one or the other of these, ultimately they go together nicely.

GOPHER+: The Monday before the conference the GopherTeam at UMinn had
distributed to the attendees an announcement of a set of proposed
enhancements to the internet Gopher protocol, called Gopher+.  A
revised Gopher+ proposal has been announced to comp.infosystems.gopher
(ftpable from boombox.micro.umn.edu:/pub/gopher/gopher_protocol/Gopher+)
so I don't want to dwell on the details, but Gopher+ is intended
to add some of the things the Gopher community has been calling for:
mechanisms for identifying and contacting data providers and
maintainers, mechanisms for returning more information from the client
to the server, and alternative representations of document types (e.g.
text vs. PostScript).  Gopher+ will be backward-compatible with old
Gopher: old Gopher clients and servers either do now or can easily be
modified to ignore extra information in the Gopher+ protocol, and
Gopher+ clients and servers will continue to work when pointed at old
Gopher servers.  In the words of McCahill & Anklesaria, "Gopher+ is
Gopher with a bag taped to the side to hold more".

Gopher+ raises two broad categories of doubt in the minds of many of
us, which were discussed in almost every session at the conference:
complexity and security.  Will Gopher+ become so complex that client
and server software become impractical to write, especially on low-end
platforms?  ("Will the bag on the side become bigger than the
Gopher?")  This will only become clear when the Gopher Team at UMinn
writes some working code.  The security issues, on the other hand, were
pretty well resolved in extensive discussion (see below).  Overall I
think we all left the conference feeling optimistic about Gopher+ and
happy with the backward-compatible development path proposed by the
Gopher Team.

RELATED TECHNOLOGIES:  Ed Vielmetti of CICnet gave a talk on "what we
would be gathering to discuss if UMinn had never developed Gopher",
meaning primarily World-Wide Web (WWW).  WWW was developed for the
high-energy physics community and serves as a model of what Gopher
could do if a discipline-oriented virtual community invested in it
heavily.  WWW is based on SGML (Standard General Markup Language"), an
ISO standard for marking up text which WWW uses to implement
hypertext.  SGML is a bear and it is a significant investment of effort
to properly add a document to WWW, but the result is quite powerful
(for instance, WWW handles footnotes in hypertext).  The usefulness of
a markup language of some kind for Gopher came up repeatedly,
particularly to solve the "large text" problem (a good use of a markup
language could allow a client to ask for successive chunks of a large
document rather than the whole thing at once).  It was pointed out that
WWW servers can point at Gopherspace, and the possibility of using
Gopher to point at WWWspace was discussed (by presenting an SGML
document as a Gopher directory, in which text and hypertext references
would appear as separate items).  Finally, the relative numeric success
of Gopher over WWW was discussed (there are orders of magnitude more
Gopher servers than WWW servers out there): Gopher seems to have won
out primarily because of the ease of entry (it's much harder to put up
a WWW server than a Gopher server), although another factor may be that
a hierarchical presentation is more appropriate than hypertext for the
broad-based audience of a CWIS.

PROTOCOL EXTENSIONS: The Gopher Team had already spoken about their
proposals for Gopher+, so this was a chance for others in the Gopher
community to air their own wish lists and local modifications to
Gopher.

Fred Crowner and Clifford Collins of Ohio State talked about a lot of
human factors work they had done on their CWIS, primarily through
enhancements of the Gopher curses client: variable 1- column or
2-column format, depending on number of items; help by item, rather
than a single help context; "go words" so users can learn commands
which allow them to jump directly to commonly used items; mail input by
the user ("Ask-a-Programmer", "Ask-a- Purchasing-Agent", etc.);
"chunking" of very large documents (e.g. course catalogs), which proved
to be a serious hairball and which they would now implement differently
(probably by breaking a large document into numerous small ones and
indexing them).  They also put work into making the client more secure
for unauthenticated users.

Andrew Gilmartin of Brown University added a lot of information to the
Unix Gopher's link files: author, provider (not the author but the
person who gave the information to the CWIS administrator),
administrator, expiration, creation and modification dates, keywords,
and index type (full, keyword, none, or all).  This closely paralleled
the proposals for "attributes" in the Gopher+ protocol.  There ensued
some lively debate about the meaning and necessity of several of these
attributes, with the librarians particularly emphatic about the
necessity of maintaining detailed information about the origin of a
document.  This underscored the necessity of fully defining the
semantics of important Gopher+ attributes in advance, so clients and
servers can be written which agree on how to use them.

Lee Brintle from the University of Iowa's "panda" project talked about
some of their extensive modifications to Gopher: printer selection,
remote updating of files by data maintainers, scripting (a forth-based
interpreter in the client to allow massaging of input to and output
from complex servers such as the geography server), grep-like
searching of non-WAISified data, and search by title on the current
level (a la rn and elm).  Panda has evolved into an entirely different
animal from Gopher (for starters, it is written in C++) and it is not
clear which of these enhancements may make it back to the mainstream.
The one Panda feature which seemed to gain everyone's approval was the
ability to put explanatory text at the top and/or bottom of the screen
rather than in an "About" file.

RESOURCE DISCOVERY AND NAVIGATION: Or, as librarian Nancy John of the
University of Illinois at Chicago put it, "collections development,
cataloging and filing." :-)  There has been much discussion in
Gopherland at large of how to develop an index of resources in
Gopherspace, which would then be served out by Archie.  Billy Barron of
the University of North Texas summarized two competing approaches:

     -- "ls -lR", e.g., automated recursive search of all of
     Gopherspace: this is easy and gets you everything in Gopherspace,
     but the quailty of information is low.

     -- Registration: authoritative sites for a particular resource
     would register the resource, either by putting a "LocalResources"
     directory out in Gopherspace or by use of a standard "IAFA
     template" (this could become an "IAFA attribute" in Gopher+).
     This is more work than the "ls -lR" approach, does not get you
     everything, but the quality is high.

Billy Barron favors using both approaches and somehow signaling the
difference to the user.

Tim Howes of the University of Michigan talked about his Gopher to
X.500 gateway, "Go500gw", which was well received.  It is up and
running on port 7777 of totalrecall.rs.itd.umich.edu if you want to
see it in action.

Marie-Christine Mahe of Yale noted that librarians need more than a
single hierarchical view of Internet connections to libraries
(alphabetical? geographical? by online catalog type?), so she built a
searchable index of them.  At returns three items per library ("About",
".cap" and ".link" files) which may be confusing to users unfamiliar
with interpreting Gopher guts.  She sees great possibilities for using
indexes to select libraries based on collection strengths (who'd have
known that there are great Canadian literature collections in
Australia?) and lending policies.

Ed Vielmetti talked about the art of finding the grassroots resource
discovers out there.  Typically an individual will begin to compile "My
list of agricultural resources on the Internet" and periodically
distribute it to a few newsgroups or mailing lists.  Over time it grows
in comprehensiveness and audience.  It may surface in one of the usual
repositories for such lists (such as the Usenet newsgroup
news.answers).  The way to put them into Gopherspace is as a directory:
an "About" file, the text of the full document, and then a collection
of Gopher links which point to the resources (other Gopher servers,
ftp sites, telnetable services, newsgroups, etc.) themselves.

E-JOURNALS BOF: I attended the Birds-of-a-Feather session on Electronic
Journals organized by two collectors of them, Ed Vielmetti of CICnet
and Billy Barron of UNT.  The question at hand was how to organize the
collection of an exploding number of journals published
electronically.  Joel Cooper of Notre Dame pointed out that there is a
bill before Congress which would essentially put the entire output of
the Government Printing Office on the Internet, and said that "if we
don't solve the problem now we'll be buried by it."  Vielmetti and
Barron outlined a proposal to have volunteer collectors or curators
take on the responsibility of assembling collections of Gopher links to
online documents by subject area, possibly starting with the Library of
Congress subject headings and subdividing as the project grows.
Librarian Nancy John said she felt like she was "in a library school
playpen" as she watched non-librarians try to reinvent the wheel.  The
response from the computer people was that (1) librarians may have
begun to catalog online documents but they have not put that cataloging
information into Gopherspace yet, and (2) the Internet is fostering an
explosion of grassroots publishing, not all of which is of interest to
library cataloguers.  One much-desired tool would be a Z39.50 interface
for Gopher, which would allow access to some online catalogs directly
from Gopherspace.  In the converse direction, Nancy John agreed that if
Ed Vielmetti would cut a tape of MARC records, she would add citations
for the E-journals he has collected into OCLC.

HARDWARE OFFER FROM NeXT: One of the few non-university attendees was
Greg Smedsrud of NeXT, who surprised us on the second day by making a
special offer.  NeXT has 120 NeXT 040 cubes which they are willing to
sell to be used as Gopher servers at 70% off list.  There are various
configurations available, but a 16 Mb/400 Mb cube with NeXTStep 3.0
would go for about $3200.  There was some discussion of how much
performance this would mean; Allan Tuchman of UICU said he had a
similar configuration running as a Gopher server which took
approximately 100K Gopher connections per day with no problem.  (An
important distinction was made between a telnet connection to a public
Gopher client and a Gopher protocol connection; Allan of course meant
the latter.)  This offer will only be good for the next two weeks.  I
don't know that it was clear whether the offer extended to everyone in
Gopherland or only the conference attendees.  Serious inquiries only go
to [email protected]

REPORTS FROM THE OTHER BOFS: The "Usability" BOF liked Gopher+,
suggested "gophernews" or the ability in a client to limit a view to
only new or changed items.  The "Gopher+/RFC" BOF went into detail on
the proposed protocol extensions.  Some ideas: more types (archive and
binary archive and the ability for a client to "peek inside" a .tar.Z
file on a server), the ability for the client to ask the server for
specific attributes, and SEE-ALSO, PREVIOUS and NEXT attributes to
allow items to include links to other items.

The "Distributed Workload" BOF divided the Gopher development job up
into three main areas: (1) code development, (2) documentation, and (3)
resource management.  Documentation in particular was agreed to be an
area where the Gopher community at large could help the UMinn
Gopher Team.  Andrew Gilmartin ([email protected]) volunteered
to head up a Gopher documentation effort.  Three areas for enhanced
documentation which need people to work on them: server installation
and administration, porting existing Gopher software to new platforms,
and product development.

SERVER ADMINISTRATION PANEL: A common theme among everyone on the panel
was the need for some degree of centralization of Gopher administration
in order to provide a reliable and high-quality CWIS.  This is not to
say that an institution as large as a university should have only one
Gopher server: we should look forward to "competing" top-level views,
perhaps in the form of departmental Gopher servers, but someone
mandated to bring up a CWIS would not be well advised to pursue the
"Gopher server on every desktop" model of totally decentralization, if
only because desktop users tend to turn their machines off and go on
vacation.

Joel Cooper of Notre Dame reported on his organization's Gopher
administration methods.  Notre Dame uses its campus-wide Andrew File
System as the place for individuals to maintain data intended for the
CWIS.  Each data provider registers with the CWIS administrators and is
assigned a node in the CWIS data tree (perhaps shared with others).
Henceforth, anything which the user puts in her ~/gopher directory is
automatically examined for inclusion in the CWIS.  All documents
submitted to the CWIS must include a template at the top specifying an
expiration date, title, and optional keywords.  The collection robot
adds to this the provider's name, organization, e-mail address, a
posting date, and, at the bottom of the document, a disclaimer to avoid
"kill-the-messenger" problems.  All of this information appears
together with the document text itself in a single file and is visible
to the Gopher user.  Subdirectories under the provider's ~/gopher
directory will be mirrored in the CWIS's data tree.  Micro users who do
not wish to work in an AFS directory can use ftp or a mail interface.
Mail forgery problems are avoided by a feedback loop: when a document
is accepted by mail, the provider receives an acknowledgement by return
mail.  Similarly, documents are expired from the CWIS on the expiration
date and mailed back to the providers, who are free to extend the
expiration date and resubmit them.  Notre Dame's CWIS was designed by a
committee and quality control is ensured by peer review (providers who
do a bad job managing their Gopherspace are asked to do better).  The
Notre Dame method has certain limitations (no indexing, no links out
into Gopherspace, and poor scalability to very large bodies of data)
but it seems to work well for the majority of Notre Dame's information
providers.  It has certain site-specific dependencies (AFS, the CSO
nameserver and the local mailer) but it may be useful as a design model
for other sites.

Dennis Boone of Michigan State reported on several tools he has
developed (largely as perl scripts) for Gopher administration.   They
include his well-known gophertree and gopherls tools and a recently
released pair of scripts which allow keyword searches of Gopher item
titles.  His CWIS allows multiple views of the same data to suit
different needs (topical, organizational and and indexed).

SECURITY AND PRIVACY: This was one of the liveliest sessions at a
lively conference.  I went into it with concerns about possible
security problems in Gopher+, but was surprised by something I hadn't
thought of: the privacy issue raised by the Gopher server's logging
mechanism.  Gopher logs show what was read at what time from what IP
address, often sufficient information to point to an individual user.
While the computer people in the crowd immediately thought of the
possibly trivializable issue of sexual materials on the net, librarian
Nancy John pointed out that (1) libraries constantly face subpoenas for
their user records in court cases involving intellectual property and
other matters, and (2) this is a serious intellectual freedom issue
with far-reaching implications.  In addition to subpoenas,
administrators at state-funded universities must face the fact that
"everything is FOIAble!" (under the Freedom of Information Act).
Librarians have responded by retaining detailed user records only until
materials are returned, then replacing them with general demographic
information.  A short-term solution for concerned Gopher administrators
may be to turn off logging.  Long-term, the server may be modified to
record only a partial IP address or to decouple what is read from what
site is doing the reading.

The discussion turned to access control.  It was pointed out that
hostnames are easily forged, so the Gopher mechanism of restricting
access by hostname or IP address is not perfect.  Wide-area equivalents
of Kerberos may be coming which will allow real authentication,
although not everyone was equally optimistic about that.  An important
distinction was drawn between two levels of authentication: (1)
licensed data (Clarinet, Medline, etc.) when a reasonable effort at IP
address authentication or simply asking the user to enter an ID number
may be sufficient, and (2) sensitive internal data for which only
Kerberos or some not-yet-Gopherized mechanism is good enough.  The
second class of data should not yet be served out using Gopher.  A
complication of authentication for Gopher is that the protocol does not
maintain a connection for multiple transactions and the server does not
maintain state between transactions, so authentication can only apply
to a single transaction.

The security implications of Gopher extensions were a hot topic.  The
use of the Gopher+ "ASKP" mechanism to ask users for passwords was
considered quite harmful: it is not really a secure password method and
it invites spoofing.  The Gopher Team has withdrawn it from the Gopher+
proposal.  The Gopher+ "ASKF" mechanism, which allows the server to
request a file to be uploaded from the client with the user's approval,
was also considered dangerous: a naive user could be fooled into
authorizing that "/etc/passwd" or other sensitive data be uploaded to
the server.  Suggestions for making "ASKF" safer included limiting the
requested file to the current working directory or to some
predetermined temporary file name.

Next came security concerns involved in running a public Gopher client
(a Gopher client accessible via telnet or on a public terminal which is
not tied to a particular user's account).  There have already been
cases of such Gopher clients being used by system crackers to "launder
IP addresses".  The Gopher practice of leaving people at the "front
door" of a telnet site is dangerous (library systems are particularly
notorious about having crackable systems accessible through the same
port as the online catalog).  This is ultimately the responsibility of
the targeted systems, but a responsible public Gopher administrator
will log connections and participate in the tracing of crackers.  This
is an area where better documentation is needed: there should be a
simple document on how to properly set up a public client.

Scripting got delayed till the "open mike", but I'll mention it here:
it was stressed that any scripting language implemented in a Gopher
client must not contain hooks for manipulating local files or uploading
data under the control of the server.  This includes programs
masquerading as simple data (e.g., clients should interpret PostScript
only with a "safe" previewer).  One type of scripting which is strongly
desired is the ability to script telnet or tn3270 sessions (e.g., to
log into a library without the user having to type "NOTIS" once the
telnet connection is made).  This is a problem if the communications
protocol used includes a "send file" ability.  The Gopher Team has not
yet proposed adding scripting capability to the protocol, but a number
of independent efforts are pushing in this direction.

REGIONAL COOPERATION: This discussion was mostly of interest to CICnet
members.  I will say that I was impressed with CICnet's determination
to provide network services, not just connections.  The work they put
into GopherCon was strong evidence of this.

FUTURE CONFERENCES: CICnet has indicated its willingness to continue to
host GopherCons, perhaps every six months, although not always in Ann
Arbor.  As with this one, they will be small regional conferences with
a limited number of slots for attendees from outside, essentially by
invitation only.  They were kind enough to "grandfather in" anyone who
attended the first conference.  I expect that they will continue to be
excellent.

-- Prentiss Riddle ("aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada") [email protected]
-- Unix Systems Programmer, Office of Networking and Computing Systems
-- Rice University, POB 1892, Houston, TX 77251 / Mudd 208 / 713-285-5327
-- Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.