Magazine article Information Today

The Network Is the Nexus

Magazine article Information Today

The Network Is the Nexus

Article excerpt

The Network is the Nexus

Have you played the "Twenty Questions" parlor game lately? The classic first question is "Is it bigger than a bread box?" If the item to be discovered is a personal computer, that question has become exceedingly difficult to answer.

Personal computers are getting smaller, lighter, faster, and less expensive. That's not news. What is exciting is the rate at which this progress is taking place. Trade magazines are already talking about laptop computers soon replacing conventional desktop microcomputers. These same magazines claimed less than two years ago that laptop computers wouldn't catch on until the early 1990s. But when the IRS bought 15,000 of them...things changed.

A recent Arthur D. Little study contends that by the turn of the century, over 25 percent of all engineers will be using personal graphics workstations that outrun today's Cray II supercomputer. As a point of comparison, it would take several hundred Compaq Deskpro 386s--currently the fastest PC available--to come close to that performance.

How are online services going to deal with this awesome local processing power? There is more at issue than upgrading the mainframes currently supplying these services. Within the next ten years, all the features that now represent the added value of dial-up database services will be widely available and inexpensive. The threat of CD-ROM is really just an early warning signal of the upheavals to come.

The intelligent network

So far, the weak link for information providers has been the network, be it packet-switched like Telenet, or the plain old public switched phone network. It's difficult for a sophisticated user equipped with a fast modem and a multitasking graphics workstation to get excited about existing services.

Not surprisingly, it is from the network side of technological progress that the hope of salvation comes for online service providers, in the form of a delightfully appropriate acronym: Intelligent Network/2.

Although IN/2 is not officially affiliated with the new IBM Personal System/2 microcomputer or Microsoft's new Operating System/2, it may as well be. IN/2 is an extension of the original Intelligent Network specification designed to allow Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) to offer local 800 number services.

IN/2 adds new functions for providing information services, virtual private networks, and what can only be called "user-programmable telephone." From this perspective IN/2 can be described as a high-level programming lanuage for the telephone network. Nodes in the IN/2 taxonomy also have specialized purposes. This "feature node" concept assigns types to different nodes according to function--this one for switching, that one for number translation, another for protocol conversion etc.

Out of these building blocks, interesting possibilities emerge for information services gateways. For instance: map a local phone number to a leased line, connect to an online service "kiosk," call up a local user profile database to determine the caller's terminal type, route the call through the appropriate protocol conversion node, and on to a packet-switched network. The "kiosk" node can automatically log into the appropriate service via the signalling channel, which just happens to be packet-switched as well.

If you can do this for online services, imagine what happens when you put these building blocks directly into users' hands. You can automatically set up and take down point-to-point circuit-switched or packet-switched connections, or route data different ways depending on network traffic. Voila! Virtual private networking.

Of course, if you want to get exotic, you could simply make your online database host one of the "feature nodes" directly connected to the network. With a cleverly designed front-end, this node becomes accessible to anyone equipped with a data terminal or, more importantly, any touch-tone telephone. …

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