A Home on the WEB


Børre Ludvigsen

Presented at the First International Conference on the World-Wide Web, May 25-26-27 1994, CERN, Geneva.

(Click on the small pictures in this article to see the full-size versions)

Our family home near Fredrikstad, Norway has been the object of a research project as a multimedia remote workplace since last spring. We have an ethernet of 5 computers plugged into the Internet with full "real time" connectivity provided by a 64Kbps fixed digital line. Our home also has its own World Wide Web server.

Our home - Svingen 10, Kråkerøy, Norway.

The aim of this paper is to give some insight into our experience with continual, and for some of us immersive connectivity to what is commonly called Cyberspace. It will cover both technical aspects as they pertain to the practical installation, maintenance and administration of the network as a fully integrated subdomain of the Internet. It will also cover aspects of functionality, usage and perceived social impact focusing especially on the exposure and opportunity for publication provided by the simple functionality of a domestic World Wide Web server.

CoMMedia

In order to provide a common basis for research and development of nationally distributed multimedia systems, the CoMMedia (Cooperation, Communication & Multimedia) program has been established on the initiative of Norwegian universities and research institutes. Participants in the program are the universities in Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim and Tromsø along with Østfold RegionalCollege, Norwegian Telecom Research (Televerkets Forskningsinstitutt, TF), NR, SINTEF DELAB, SINTEF SI, NORUT IT, UNINETT and the National Library in Rana (NBR).

CoMMedia is a national Norwegian distributed multimedia research program to which the project described below is my college's (Østfold Regional College) contribution. Information about the other participating projects can be found at the project secretariat with UNINETT in Trondheim. (UNINETT is the Norwegian Internet provider for the research and educational community).

Our network - the remote workplace

The project started as a research project into remote workplace technology and use. The aim was simply to have the same resources available at home as I had at work. Primarily, the same access to the network (Internet) and our local network at the college, but also access to the same computing capacity, tools and aids.

With the continual drop in prices of hardware, there no longer seemed to be any convincing arguments for not be able to work with the same functionality at home as at work. The only real and great difference was the idea of the network connection. As my primary area of work is "multimedia" where file-sizes are often not within the realm of easily transportable magnetic media. The idea of being able to move freely around while the data on which one is working essentially remains at one site, was the real appeal of the project.

Our domain

The essential part of the installation, the network connection is sponsored by UNINETT and Norwegian Telecom.

Technically, the installation consists of a 64Kbps fixed line to the nearest UNINETT node which a nursing college about 1.5 kilometers up the road. They are in turn connected with an identical 64K line to the college in Halden, which is 40kms to the south east. Østfold Regional College itself, which is the main node for our county and situated about 120km south east of Oslo on the Swedish border, is connected to UNINETT backbone in Oslo with a 256K frame relay line.

Internally, the house is cabled with thin Ethernet. There are a total of 6 computer connections and at the moment 5 machines are on the net. There are three machines in my personal workplace. In addition, there is the WWW server machine, and one upstairs. Our son's Macintosh in the basement is temporarily disconnected.

Our domain is ludvigsen.dhhalden.no

The bridge between the modem connecting the 64K line and the local net is an HP Router ER, which defines our home as a separate subdomain on the Internet. The machines used in the net are:

The installation of the digital line was done by a service man from Telecom. The rest of the installation, including cabling and connectors was installed by myself. This includes connecting up the modems both here and at the nursing college and putting the router on line and connecting it to the net.

Administration of the system is not trivial when taking into account the Unix machine. However, this is purely by personal choice and done as an exercise in understanding such administration.

Had the network been set up with PCs and Macs alone, system administration would have been left on the servers at the nearest higher level domain, the college. Mail could have been delivered on the remote servers and picked up with client programs such as Eudora or Mailstrom.

The only administration necessary on the local machines would then have been configuration of the TCP drivers on the individual machines. Administration of the router other than software upgrades has been done by UNINETT staff over the network. Software upgrades have been completed through telephone instructions as it is necessary to access the router console from the local side of the router. The software has been downloaded with tftp to the NeXT and then picked up by the router software itself on console commands.

Installation and administration of the http software for the web-server was a fairly straight forward process. The initial server installed on December 18, 1993 was the standard MacHTTP 1.2.1 release, which was subsequently upgraded to 1.2.3 and 1.2.4.

The installation procedure and authoring of 3 html documents took all of three hours from scratch, including the necessary reading of documentation and with absolutely no prior knowledge of either html or http. The server software installation was simply a matter of downloading the package with ftp. Most ftp applications on the Mac will decompress and unarchive the software too. After downloading, all that was necessary was a double click and testing the servers default documents with a client on another machine.

An ftp daemon has since been added to the software running on the server enabling remote access and administration of documents. The network connection was installed around April 15 last year and the whole net was configured and working in early June.

Usage

The users of the net include all the members of the family depending on who is at home at any one time.

The users of the ludvigsen.dhhalden.no sub-domain gathered in early June, just after everything was up and working.

The users of our net: Stig, Antonia, Eva, Sebastian, Linn Iren (on screen) and the concierge.

In the illustration above, from left to right: Stig Olsen (Stig was active on the net while he was a student at ØDH, but has since left us), our daughter Antonia Reime (Antonia is in Ghana at the moment, but will be returning in later this month), Eva Lunde , our son Sebastian (Sebastian is doing an apprenticeship in photography in Sandnes near Stavanger, but will be back in about a year's time), his girlfriend Linn Iren is on the monitor on his lap (Linn Iren studies mathematics at the University in Oslo) and finally myself, the concierge.

We have two basic modes of using the net. Apart from my own fairly intense use of basically all the network facilities installed, the other users mainly read mail and Usenet news. Linn Iren has also made extensive use of remote X-windows facilities when logging into the machines at the University in Oslo from the Mac downstairs.

My own use which spans from fairly simple remote logins, to directly mounted volumes on remote machines (not very efficient over a 64K line) through real-time audio and video applications, is supplemented by fairly useful external use. When traveling, I find myself logging in daily, not only to read mail, but also for the reassurance just seeing the machines working gives. The reasoning being that if the machines are happy, the rest of the house is also whole.

Since the installation of the Web-server, one of the most time-consuming activities on our domestic net has been authoring and maintaining html documents. Initial development of documents is usually done with Emacs on the NeXT. (The very first documents were authored with the old NeXT browser/editor.) After local testing using XMosaic (I have Co-Xist installed on the NeXT), the document is moved to the SE30 through the Quadra, which has the NeXT mounted as a couple of NFS volumes, and the SE30 mounted as an Appleshare volume. Subsequent maintenance is usually done with Emacs on the Quadra. There are several advantages to using Emacs in html-mode. Writing html code directly gives great control over code and cleaner documents that behave better on a variety of Web browsers. Emacs writes files to disk and closes them properly after each write, allowing documents to be opened by clients without having to exit Emacs. Finally documents are tested with Mosaic on the Quadra, Omniweb on the NeXT and Lynx from an outside machine.

A great deal of time is also spent gathering and processing information for the server. The most time consuming and challenging is probably editing and producing films. Even though they are very short, both planning and processing take time.

The server www.ludvigsen.no perched on a filing cabinet in my home

A final technical point. As the disk capacity of the SE30 which runs the Web server is very limited, some of the larger files, such as films and large numbers of pictures are deposited on the ftp server at the college and overseas.

Publishing

Basically, the server is used for 2 purposes. The first is to publish information of personal interest that might be interesting to others, and the second is to attempt to measure the degree of such interest.

The information contained in the server is divided into several main areas:

The layout of the documents on the server is a mix of distributed hypertext in a narrative setting, clickable icons or thumbnails and linear lists. There is also a simple listing in the form of an index set up and also a page of major changes.

The server itself is published on the Norwegian homepages maintained by the University in Tromsø and on the world wide list maintained at CERN.

Results

Since its start in December last year, the server has received 62 400 requests for documents. About 5000 of these requests are from my own machines doing tests and demonstrations for others. The default home page has been requested 11 600 times. The home page for the Levant multimedia servers which publish the cultural material from the Middle East has been published as a separate document. It has been requested 1 800 times.

There is a prominently posted "guestbook" on the server and visitors are requested to contribute "postcards". However, not very many (45) people have contributed.

While html code is trivial and documents are easy to produce, the organization and planning of the server and its contents is not uncomplicated. It is time-consuming and involves a great deal of considering what people may or may not be interested in.

There are however some very interesting implications. The threshold for publishing is very low. While one might spend time considering what people might be interested in, it is not real effort to publish what oneself is interested in. When additional resources of "advertising" are used, information for a relatively small and select group can be published over a large area. The most gratifying experience is receiving positive remarks on information which is of deep personal interest to oneself.

Another real advantage is that one has complete control over the form and content of the information published. The possibilities of getting information presented as correctly as one wants, is vastly improved over normal "reporting" and editing for the non-interactive media.

An interesting experience is the way in which the Web-server compliments some information sources and enhances others. For example, the Um Kalthoum home page which points to songs, texts and films by the famous Egyptian singer, has through messages from readers brought to my attention a recent dissertation which has provided important additions to the pages.

Um Kalthoum's famous song "Al Atlal".

The information on the experiments with the CU-SeeMe teleconferencing software from Cornell has also attracted a lot of people and introduced them to the experiments. The page on the relay service bringing NASA Select programming from the shuttle mission STS-59 was incorporated by NASA into the homepage for the Lewis Research Center at Cleveland during the flight.

The future

It is our ambition to continue the project several more years, gathering experience especially as communications speeds increase. We have at present applied to upgrade the connection bandwidth to 256 Kbps. Both UNINETT and Norwegian Telecom appear to be interested in continuing support for the project.

As ISDN services become widely available similar servers can be expected to come on to the Web. However, the necessary bandwidth for real-time communications such as video and sound will not be covered by ISDN in the near future. Very little experience in such communications will therefore be gained. And while some point-to-point video connections will be made, little group conferencing will be done from private homes. Our experience of the 64K line flooding as soon as more than 3 participants come on line only points in the direction of true high speed communications links.

A live video conference with CU-SeeMe

We are also hoping to be able to reunite the family digitally, even though both our son and daughter move out of the house. Our experience with the enormous advantage of continual access to the net, points strongly toward the need for dynamical bandwidth and instantaneous connections if illusions of smooth and transparent connections are to be maintained.

Our project has brought up the interesting phenomena of WWW servers as frontage for homes on the WWWeb. While our server started as an experiment and in spite of its time consuming nature, I find it very difficult to see this way of making ourselves known to the "outside world" being removed from our house.

We feel that the addition of forms for greater interaction on the part of the users and the introduction of live 2-way video as an integrated part of the server-client system, would bring completely different social dimensions to the server. In its present form, it is an overwhelmingly user-friendly contribution to accessibility to the net. We also see the potential for the use of Web servers and clients in integrating interactive communications and entertainment in the home.

Conclusions

During the year that we have had the project going and the four months that the Web -server has been running, some conclusions have become clear.

Real interconnectivity with the Internet is important. Full graphical connectivity allowing IP traffic throughout giving full graphical interfacing. We have several friends who are interested in our continual connection, and do themselves have equipment for intermittent command-line based Internet connectivity. It appears however, that no amount of describing the World Wide Web and urging them to use text-based browsers is able to arouse much other than perfunctory interest in our Web-server. While those who have had only glances of some of the illustrations, especially from the house and the pets, will make a point out of mentioning that they have "visited".

Permanence and real time connectivity is of course, essential for the workings of the Web-server. However, the remote workplace also has great advantage of permanent connectivity. My students and a number of other "visitors" are regular users of a list of "interesting" servers posted on our Web-server. being able to answer mail and talk sessions instantaneously, provides a degree of "telepresence" that allows one to work with students and colleagues around the world with great freedom and flexibility.

Full interoperability of services is another important aspect of both the remote workplace and the Web-server. It is not until one has had long-term access to the same services as ones normal workplace that full interoperability becomes obviously essential. Being able to transfer large files, do remote logins, have real-time communications sessions, all add to the usefulness and efficiency of a remote workplace.

Real-time interchange and interaction is probably the most interesting of the recent developments available to the "personal computer" community. While real-time communications like talk and IRC, invigorate personal communication., the addition of live video brings in an important element which will require its own organizational environment. Perhaps the World Wide Web is just the kind of environment needed to provide both technical and social framework for wide area teleconferencing.


A Home on the WEB
borrel@dhhalden.no