Trip Report for InterLab'96 Conference

August 19-21, 1996

Denver, Colorado

Joan Winters



InterLab '96 was the third in a series of development conferences for those involved with DOE Laboratory environments on Internet and World Wide Web technical and management issues. As previously, the conference was hosted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). Over sixty people participated. Areas of emphasis this year included new applications, Intranets, search engines, and information management at the Labs. In addition, there was a DOE Headquarters's update and vendor presentations by DEC on AltaVista, Netscape on security, Sun on JAVA, and Textuality on the pros and cons of SGML, HTML, and PDF. The conference closed with a site visit to CableLabs.


A Sampling of Talks

Jim McDonald, LANL, on "The Many Uses of Explorer"

Explorer is a common interface to a set of applications that LANL has put together that provides for full-text search and retrieval on the Web, document management, work flow, and dynamically generated surveys. The system now has 13 million documents with ~250,000 accesses per month. It is funded only by its information providers.

Explorer uses the NCSA Web server, Verity's Topic APIs, Adobe's Acrobat APIs, the Documentum server, Gemstone Object-Oriented Database, MOM Spider, and Sybase and Oracle relational databases. Presently, the system runs on a SPARC 2000 server with four CPUs, lots of disk, and fifteen Explorer Web servers.

In search and retrieval, users may select the particular information areas they want to search by field or full-text using sophisticated queries with Boolean operators, words, phrases, and stems. The group is trying to get out of the business of maintaining HTML. Explorer generally presents the results of the search in ASCII with a link to PDF. A popular use is the DOE Directives.

Work flow is handled through an object-oriented database application that can take input through Web forms, route the input for approvals using business rules, pass the information to Explorer for indexing and publishing, and supply action tracking and real-time graphics. A major application is DOE Success Stories.

A hot topic is the creation on the fly of questionnaires tailored in light the user's input. The respondent can edit his/her answers, backtrack, and change earlier answers, even after the questionnaire has been submitted. Conditional branching and multiple responses to a single question are supported. This application uses an Explorer interface to Sybase. The group is currently implementing tools for building surveys via the Web.

One of the functions next on the list is implementing "alerts". A user's commonly run queries will be saved and run automatically; then the user will notified of changes to the results--a form of news service.

Mark Winter, NREL on "A Simple Generic CGI Interface for Querying Oracle Tables and Views"

A 200 or so line OraPerl script by Kevin Stock? has replaced custom Oracle-Forms C programs that provided a local Unix front end to which hundreds of users connected via modem. The current application in essence supports joins via a select screen and submits an SQL query to the Oracle database. The new, Web interface is cheaper, easier to use, and easier to maintain than the custom Oracle interface. The OraPerl program may be easily tailored to support different queries and views. Mark ( is happy to share the source.

Ethan Weiner, DOE/HQ, "DOE Headquarters Update"

From a search of AltaVista, he found that over 9000 Web sites link to the DOE Home Page (over 8000 to DOE/HQ) and over 70,000 link to one or more of the National Labs. In all, we've created over 160,000 addressable pages.

The new DOE Home Page Action Team will be responsible to IM/IT Management for policy recommendations, documenting management and operational guidelines, and checking out sites for best practices. Among other goals, the Team seeks to promote inter-organizational coordination. (This subject came up several times. At least one interest is in reducing costs through expected reduced duplication of effort.) The committee meets once a month, taking advantage of video teleconferencing.

In the section on Intranets, he spoke of the challenge to corporate culture that the increased pressure to share information brings to the Labs. Historically, for example, managers have liked to hide budget formulation data. Using Intranets tends to make these data visible. To adapt, the Labs require mechanisms to present and share objectives and develop partnerships. There seems to be an increased sense of "ownership" within corporate systems teams. He anticipates a quick infancy and slow maturity of Intranets (like the Web), but maintained they require pre-planning along with evolution as you go. He emphasized it's important to develop what the user needs, not just follow what the technology can do.

Draft OMB guidelines for the use of the Web have been issued to a limited audience. The document "provides assistive guidance NOT policy". Topics addressed include purposes of Web sites, links, access for the non-automated public, the Privacy Act of 1974 as amended (especially regarding collection of email addresses), the Paperwork Reduction Act (especially non-electronic alternatives), the Federal Records Act (especially a "Record Copy"), etc.

Bob Lormand, LLNL, on "The Grapevine -- LLNL's Intranet Application"

Grapevine is their new internal Web site. The previous internal home page grew "like Topsy". The head of Technical Information with a team of six staff writers and six graphics artists worked on the redesign. Their goal was to make any information the staff needs available quickly.

The new internal home page has categories like: the public home page, search index, what's new; from the director, Lab news, calendars, phone directories; organization, services, employee benefits, policies and manuals; administrative information, information resources, training and education, and Web information-- arranged in a matrix. To decide on the categories, the writers (from diverse backgrounds) brainstormed on what people wanted to know most often and mapped existing material into the proposed categories. They did some page-association tests.

A lot of functionality is available through this page, e.g., one may change one's beneficiary or estimate one's retirement income. Phone directory information links to building maps. Budget information is coming. They're thinking of developing classes for administrative staff on Web usage. One person in the Director's Office enters and maintains the calendar.

People like the new interface.

And More

See particularly:

SLAC Talks

Two people from SLAC gave talks:

Jennifer Masek also participated.

Tour of CableLabs

We ended the conference with a tour of Cable Television Laboratories, Inc., (CableLabs). It was established in 1988 as a not-for-profit consortium of cable-television system operators in support of research and development. Its members now serve 85% of the US, 75% of the Canadian, and 10% of the Mexican cable subscribers. Dues are set proportionally to each member's subscriber base. Equipment vendors are not elligible to join.

CableLabs serves primarily as a technology watchdog and clearinghouse. It generally does not do its own research except in evaluative testing. Current areas of evaluation are high speed cable modems (especially regarding scalability and interoperabililty) and other technologies needed to deliver high-speed data transport over the cable network. Specific efforts include verifying the interoperability of MPEG-2 bit streams and testing cable data modems, telephony modems, remote antenna drivers (RAD) for personal communications services, and cable return paths.

CableLabs is involved in standards development such as an open interface for cable modems, monitoring government activities such as the new Telecommunications Act, technology tracking such as individual "bleeding edge" efforts, and technology transfer such as facilitating members' plans for network design and deployment.

One of the consortium's 1996 strategic initiatives is to enhance the cable industry's Web presence, e.g., via creation of a technology test area. The consortium is actively working to get Internet technology deployed over cable.

The main speaker, Jerry Bennington, Acting VP for Operations & Technology Projects, drew an interesting graph of data rate vs. sensitivity to latency on the network. Email requires only a low data rate and has a low sensitivity to latency; streaming video, high data but low sensitivity; network multi-player games, low data but high sensitivity; and application sharing and video conferencing, both high data and sensitivity. He concludes it is reasonable to launch Internet services with existing modems, which can provide 1.5mbps "burst rates" and sustained average rates in excess of 200kbps.

One current project is modeling what happens to completion times when the shared network is loaded with the traffic of increasing numbers of simultaneous users. CableLabs thinks managing the quality of service that users see will be important, e.g., CU-SeeMe is not for parents' monitoring continuously from the office what their kids are doing at home (though CU-SeeMe is relatively bandwidth-friendly); but the Internet currently cannot do resource allocation delivery.

Other results on delivering Internet services over the cable network:

In diverse ways CableLabs is promoting the cable television industry's ability to deliver two-way data, telephone, and video services to customers via a combination of media including fiber, coax, and wireless. Jerry claimed cable is now a leader in defining an emerging, scalable telecommunications architecture with unique broadcast and multicast capabilities. New paradigms are evolving. He noted even a recent NY Times article addressed the coming delivery of telephone calls through the air.

The CableLabs site visit ended with a tour. The Intercast demo stuck in my mind. Data are transmitted with the television broadcast via the inter-line and may be received by a PC with an Intel Intercast card so that, for example, a news story may be accompanied by a Web page. Intercast technology is scheduled to arrive at stores nearby this fall.

Hot Topics and Other Tidbits

Judith Nicholls, FNAL, instigated a luncheon BoF to discuss Web managment issues. In addition to Judy and me, participants included Rita Hoak from Sandia, David Martin from HEPNRC, Michael Roberts from Lockheed Martin, Marilyn Davis from OSTI, and Ethan Weiner from DOE/HQ. Topics included distributed Web organization, distributed Web management, link management, tools for searching, and Web policy. There and elsewhere, data ownership was a hot topic.

Several people mentioned field searching as a way to increase hits.

There were various references to how big Microsoft Office has gotten (100 MB)!

Gus Venditto, IW Labs, Internet World Magazine, noted the fact that search engines (except AltaVista) have become major purveyors of targeted advertising. He said Netscape is earning more money by selling advertising than its own products. He addressed the popularity of the Web for market research, warning that robots may be used to unearth marketing information. Free trial email in return for filling out a questionnaire on personal preferences is another current market research tool.

Bechtel Nevada has acquired MSDSs from Solutions, Inc., and is making these ES&H data available to employees via an Oracle Web server, with which they're very happy.


I spent quite a bit of time with Judith Nicholls. She was particularly interested in finding a way to present News through the Web that is tailored to users' interests and adapts to show only the items they haven't already seen. This behaviour is like a VMS application that FNAL users are accustomed to. I pointed her at the Smart SLAC Home Page that Tony Johnson is developing; but she needs something yesterday and is going to investigate further Marmot from PNL.

At the Explorer session, Judy mentioned that they've found Verity's Topic is very expensive to run. She also said she's evaluating NetCarta's WebMapper to analyze site structure. WebMapper can be used to find and fix broken links. The application runs on Windows NT and '95 and on UNIX. However, on October 21, 1996, NetCarta announced an agreement with IBM to bundle its software suite with the AS/400 Web server. Who knows what this means for its products on other platforms. NetCarta specializes in content management products for the Web.

After Ethan Weiner's DOE update, he expressed interest to those of us standing around in having the DOE acknowledged on all Laboratory pages, perhaps through something like a watermark in the background. Both David Martin, HEPNRC, and I strongly objected with various reasons. I did point out that SLAC already credits the DOE for its funding on the default SLAC Welcome Page.

Regarding perceptions of SLAC's Web at other Labs, David Martin said he likes the SLAC button bars and the way they appear on a number of SLAC pages, giving common access from multiple places to multiple places. He personally makes particular use of the "Detailed Home" and "Search" buttons. Another person told me the central SLAC Web architecture has a very good reputation. She's trying to create a page along the lines of SLAC's Welcome Page and finding it surprisingly controversial. A third person expressed interest in looking into the model I described at SLAC for his lab. In all, I talked with over twenty of the sixty plus participants about various Web matters.

More Information

I took many notes, which I'd be glad to discuss with anyone interested. I also obtained the following handouts:

For more information, see the InterLab '96 Proceedings.

Next Year

After starting and hosting the InterLab conference for three years, NREL has passed the baton on to Oak Ridge. The next conference was tentatively scheduled for May, 1997. The following working groups were proposed: applications, authoring tools, guidelines, search tools, security, Web technical management, tutorials, and joint purchasing. Jennifer Masek volunteered for the Program Committee to plan for next spring; Nancy Grady is its chair.

Attendees held the usual diversity of views on desirable session types for the future from "about the same mix" to more technical sessions, fewer user sessions, fewer vendor sessions, hot issues at the Labs, etc. Ethan Weiner hoped to see more Laboratories sharing information, even collaborating on applications. All agreed on the need to publish an inventory of Internet technology at each Lab. There was interest in trying to identify what applications are portable or could be designed to be portable. Points of contact were identified to gather inventory information and forward InterLab mailings to appropriate people. Mike and Jennifer volunteered me to serve as SLAC's contact.

Last updated 23 Oct 1996.