Trends in Telecommunications (Jul, 1984)

“The significance of higher data communications rates has grown with the deregulation of the communications industry because communication costs are expected to rise. Gamma Technology is claiming that an eightfold increase in data rate (from 1200 bps to 9600 bps) will save several thousand dollars a year if 160K bytes of information are transmitted daily across the United States. Savings would be even greater if data were transmitted overseas.”

Sitting here on my 50 mbs internet connection I’m going to say that guess was a bit off. The total amount data they are talking about transmitting over a year is less than the size of the images in this post.

I also particularly liked that the searches on the third page are for “Computer, Privacy Surveillance, NSA and Tapping”. Just a hunch but I’d guess that the person who made that screenshot probably later joined the EFF.

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Trends in Telecommunications

On-line search software and faster modems for PCs

by John Markoff

Now that the personal computer (PC) has won the battle for office desktop space, software developers are turning their attention toward programs that combine the storage capacity of mainframe computers with the local processing power of PCs. Although mainframes offer PC users access to huge on-line databases of specialized information, how to get to the information and bring it to the PC in a usable form is another question entirely.

In recent months, a new class of PC software has emerged that facilitates the redistribution of tasks between mainframes and PCs. It is called “on-line search” or “database-access” software, and these programs give us a glimpse of how radically PCs will alter the traditional mainframe database-access model based on one central processor and hundreds of remote dumb terminals.

In contrast, on-line search software uses the processing power of the PC to mediate between the researcher and the mainframe database and can offer potentially both a simpler user interface for novices and a more powerful searching tool for experts.

During the past decade there has been an explosion of new sources of electronic information. Several mainframe electronic-information providers such as The Source, CompuServe, and Newsnet have designed their systems specifically for novice users, but most on-line database services require special training to be used effectively. These include databases such as Dialog Information Retrieval Service, Nexis and Lexis, and Data Resources Incorporated.

The high cost of on-line information is also a deterrent to new users. Some databases on Dialog cost more than $100 an hour. This has meant that users generally must undergo extensive training to learn how to develop search strategies to minimize connect time.

Reducing Costs PC-based on-line search software will be beneficial to database users because it will simplify complex user interfaces now found on many mainframe databases and it will permit extensive off-line preprocessing of searches, there- by reducing the cost of information retrieval.

On-line search software introduced to date can be placed in two distinct categories. The first category is composed of programs that are “loosely coupled” to a specific mainframe database. These programs are extensions of intelligent communications software programs and generally permit automatic log-on, query, and downloading from a host mainframe computer.

The second category includes software that has been “tightly coupled” to one or more particular databases. By tailoring programs for interaction with a host computer, software designers are able to create user interfaces that require little knowledge on the part of the user of either micro-to-mainframe communications or the formal database query process.

The emergence of new communication network standards and standards in the on-line information industry will tighten this coupling to the point where the relationship between the mainframe database system and PC software will approximate the current relationship between operating systems and application programs.

Dialog, a subsidiary of the Lockheed Corporation, is the largest collection of public online databases. It has more than 75 million records of information including articles from over 60,000 journals. These records are contained in more than 200 separate databases ranging form biographic databases such as American Men & Women of Science to statistical databases such as U.S. Exports.

Most Dialog reference records are currently available as abstracts that require you to go to a library to obtain the entire article or source (articles can be ordered on line for an extra fee). However, there is a trend toward making the full text of documents available on line. One Dialog database provider, Information Access Corporation, recently introduced two such databases, called Magazine ASAP and Trade & Industry ASAP, that will cover 120 different popular magazines and publications ranging from Scientific American to Playboy.

In-Search.

In-Search is an example of an on-line search program that has been tightly coupled with the Dialog databases.

In-Search, initially designed to be used on the IBM PC or PC XT, was introduced recently by the Menlo Corporation of Santa Clara, California. This program costs $399. It differs from other database-communication programs both in its scope (the program and its assorted reference files occupy more than one megabyte of disk space) and in the sophistication of its user interface, which offers a window-based display environment and “unhooks” the control of the database query process from the Dialog mainframe computer. “Unhooking” means that you’re able to prepare your query in a screen-oriented editor while either on or off line. The process takes place with little interaction with the Dialog mainframe computer.

If the query has been prepared off line, you can log on to Dialog and have the query sent automatically. When Dialog responds with abstracts, they appear specially formatted in an overlapping window display.

Here, again, the user interaction is not dependent on the control of a remote mainframe computer. If you wish to interrupt the flow of information from the Dialog mainframe, you can do so simply by paging backward or forward through the information in much the same way that you can scroll through a text document in word-processing software. Because information from Dialog can be captured in a buffer (In-Search tailors the size of the buffer to the available memory level of an individual computer) on your PC, it’s possible to selectively mark records for later printing. You also can store retrievals to disk as ASCII (American National Standard Code for Information Interchange) text that can be edited by a word processor or called up for viewing by In-Search.

In designing the In-Search user interface, Menlo Corporation has attempted to take concepts from other popular types of PC software. For example, when working in the query editor, you can edit and change lines of text exactly as though you were working with a document text editor. In-Search has even supplied users with the option of the familiar WordStar command-key sequences for cursor control and word and character deletions (the cursor-control keypad is functional as well). The basic In-Search display also contains a menu of command options that are arranged similarly to those provided by electronic spreadsheet programs. By pressing a function key, you can enter a command mode and select a command that will cause In-Search either to send a particular command to the Dialog system or to retrieve information from its own local database.

Although it is possible to first prepare a particular search strategy off line and then retrieve references quickly to minimize connect-time charges, In-Search is based on a different, more interactive philosophy of on-line database use.

Menlo’s president, Lloyd Kreuzer, argues that In-Search is designed to function in a highly interactive manner. This sets it apart from other PC front-end software packages that assume you know what you want before going on line.

In contrast, Kreuzer believes that the most effective way to use a database like Dialog is to be able to alter a search strategy depending on the nature of the data revealed on a search. “Interactive searching is less precise and therefore more likely to turn up things,” he says. “The keyboard is never dead and [in fact] it is uncoupled from the Dialog process.”

When using In-Search on a fixed disk, the program provides local on-line detailed information on each individual database. This information, traditionally provided as printed textual documentation by Dialog (on forms called “blue sheets”), allows you to obtain information on the scope of an individual database as well as information on specific database indexes that aid in refining searches.

In-Search also supplies you with local context-sensitive on-line help both for using Dialog and In-Search. If you have an IBM PC without a fixed disk, you must insert one of four separate floppy disks that represent major database categories: arts, education, and social sciences; biology and medicine; busi- ness, government, and news: and engineering, mathematics, and physical science. On a fixed-disk PC, these files are directly accessible by the program and in the future it may be possible for the Menlo Corporation to use Dialog to download updates both to the on-line reference sheets and to the In-Search program itself.

The search process begins with selection of a database to search in. The first In-Search display shows three windows. Two small windows on the left side of the screen allow you to select one of the four major categories and to select further specific subject areas within each category. After you select category and subject you can select a specific database. At this point you are placed in the query editor (In-Search calls this the Search Keywords and Phrases screen) to formalize a search.

After In-Search sends the query to Dialog, the references yielded by each search are displayed in a separate window referred to as a reference text display. Any search words that you entered in the query editor appear as highlighted text as they are scrolled on the reference text screen.

At the same time, information on modem status is given in a small window in the lower-right corner of the display. When Dialog is sending records, the window indicates Phone-Working. The status changes to Phone-Online after the records have been retrieved or when you interrupt the retrieval process.

For a simple search to answer the question “Are there any books currently available that describe bicycle tours of the California wine-growing region?” You would first select the Books in Print database and then enter the words “bicycle.” “wine,” and “California” in the query editor. You enter each of these words on a separate line. The first three lines of the editor are labeled S1, S2, and S3. On line S4, you enter the phrase “S1 AND S2 AND S3″ to insure that any reference in Books in Print that contains the first three words in its abstract will be located. (Running this query with In-Search located one book: Grape Expeditions: Bicycle Tours of the California Wine Country.) In-Search documents the AND, OR, and NOT logical operators, which are subsets of Dialog’s complete range. However, expert users can implement all the other search operators that Dialog permits.

Effective searching of the Dialog database, even with In-Search, is frequently complicated. Since Dialog is generally a collection of document abstracts, it is heavily indexed, and it is important to understand the structure of the indexes to conduct a complete search.

A Dialog database is broken into records that are composed of fields. A typical record might include fields such as title, author, journal, abstract, descriptors, and identifiers. (Descriptors and identifiers are standard and nonstandard terms used by the database publisher to identify the subject matter of a record.) Each field is indexed either as a word index or as a phrase index.

In-Search gives you on-line access to specific indexes for each database. You can select an index for any term or phrase entered on the query editor screen. You also can send the Dialog database an “Expand” command that shows a listing of indexed words around the particular search word for a particular field in the database. This often will aid in narrowing down the focus of a search. (It is possible to search only one Dialog database at a time, however, some preselection is possible by searching the subject index first with a special command.) The importance of indexed searching was exemplified when I searched for my last name in The Computer Database. No references were found; however, when the author index was specified, Dialog located 106 references.

Possibly the most intriguing aspect of this new class of software is the change that it portends in the realm of microcomputer-to-mainframe communications. The analogy that casts the mainframe database in the role of an operating system, linked simultaneously to many remote application programs, brings many possibilities into view. In this model, interaction between microcomputers and mainframe computers would be similar to program calls to an operating system.

Menlo’s Kreuzer has called upon online database providers to develop an open-architecture, machine-to-machine interface standard that would permit third-party software developers to create a new generation of applications programs.

“(What is needed is) a universal set of calls to create an open standard for the on-line community that will let us, or anyone, write applications programs,” he says. “The information industry literally will explode once we have a machine interface to all the data.”

Such an architecture would move in a philosophically different direction than the one currently being followed by some on-line information providers who have been setting up systems based on hierarchical “user-friendly” menus for novice users.

Instead, Kreuzer is aiming at fundamentally changing the division of labor between mainframes and PCs. While it is logical that the data searching and sorting algorithms will remain on the mainframe computer, the PC can be expected to handle the user interface, on-line help, and preprocessing of the search request more efficiently.

Further Benefits

Tighter coupling of the communications process between mainframe host and remote PC potentially can yield other dividends as well. Higher data-communications speeds is one obvious possibility. In-Search already uses a significant amount of data compression on the large on-line reference files that are stored on the PC to reduce their size by almost 40 percent. There are a series of simple strategies for increasing the data-communications bandwidth as well. If the applications program can be coupled more tightly to the host computer, it is possible to employ a variety of data-compression strategies to go beyond the current 1200-bps (bit-per-second) limitation over phone lines.

Post-processing is another significant area. While In-Search currently formats only downloaded information and stores it to disk or outputs it to a printer, several other on-line search programs permit later manipulation of information as well. SciMate, from the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in Philadelphia, is an on-line search program that is priced at $880 and designed for IBM PC, Apple II, and CP/M computers. It provides for automatic logon and query of four different database systems and includes a local database manager that makes it possible to store downloaded information. The database component of SciMate is called Personal Data Manager. It will take advantage of the record and field structure of information from a host computer or permit you to create your own structure for a local database. Although there are limitations on field and record size, Personal Data Manager permits you to link records to store longer textual documents. You also can move files to word-processing programs or merge locally created notes or documents into the database.

In a smaller fashion. Informatics General Corporation and VisiCorp have developed two complementary programs, Answer/DB and VisiAnswer, that permit the transfer of quantitative data from a corporate mainframe computer to an IBM PC where it can then be loaded into a VisiCalc spreadsheet program for local analysis.

Faster Modems for PCs

Today there are a series of barriers confronting high-speed PC data communications. Most of these barriers fall within the realm of the voice-grade telecommunication network and into existing modem technologies designed to send data over this network.

Yet, while digital technologies are promising dramatically higher communication speeds, a series of new modem designs is being introduced that will bring PC-to-PC data rates up to 9600 bps and, with additional data compression, may push speeds higher.

The new technology wasn’t originally developed for personal computer users, but rather for digital-facsimile transmission systems. Now that the technology has been moved to PCs, it raises a number of possibilities, including using facsimile machines as remote input-output devices for PCs.

Gamma “technology, a Palo Alto, California, data-communications corporation, recently introduced the FAXT-96, a half-duplex 9600-bps synchronous modem board for the IBM PC and PC XT.

Priced initially at $1995 and designed to be used with a synchronous adapter card, the FAXT-96 plugs directly into a card slot in an IBM PC or PC compatible and permits 9600-bps communication over ordinary dial-up telephone lines. The modem includes auto-dial, autoanswer, and multiple-speed features. It connects directly to a phone line and to a synchronous adapter.

The use of dial-up 9600-bps communications is new. It has been made possible because of improvements in modem technology and improvements in the method of encoding digital data on bandwidth-limited voice-grade lines. Control of the FAXT-96 is handled in software from a “master control panel” screen on the IBM PC.

Previous high-speed synchronous modems have been stand-alone units that have been intended for either remote-terminal or micro-to-mainframe communication. The Gamma Technology modem differs in that, although it can be used as a high-speed micro- to-mainframe communications link, a software package also is being offered that permits error-checked PC-to-PC file transmission at 9600 bps.

The shift from asynchronous to synchronous transmission protocols at higher data rates frees the communication process from the start-stop bit overhead, a difference that automatically yields about a 20 percent increase in transmission efficiency.

The significance of higher data communications rates has grown with the deregulation of the communications industry because communication costs are expected to rise. Gamma Technology is claiming that an eightfold increase in data rate (from 1200 bps to 9600 bps) will save several thousand dollars a year if 160K bytes of information are transmitted daily across the United States. Savings would be even greater if data were transmitted overseas.

The FAXT-96 can be programmed to meet several international modem standards set by the CCITT (International Consultant Committee for “telegraph and “telephone). The standards include CCITT V.29 at 9600, 7200, and 4800 bps and CCITT V.27 at 4800 and 2400 bps. Until now, U.S. modem signaling standards have been dominated by AT&T-developed standards. That’s changing, both because of the global need for communications and because AT&T has less influence in an area of deregulation.

There are some limitations. Because sending data at 9600 bps is pressing to the limit what currently is possible with voice-grade lines, poor line quality can make it impossible to send data at that speed. “lb cope with line-quality problems, the Gamma “technology modem automatically tests line quality during an initial handshaking phase and then sets transmission speed at the highest data rate the line will support, ranging from 9600 bps down to 2400 bps. The line test is done by having one system send a known signal to the receiving system. The receiving system knows what it is supposed to get and can make adjustments to make the closest fit.

A recent study by Xerox of facsimile-system performance showed that the same modem technology that Gamma is using would support 9600-bps data transmission worldwide approximately 75 percent of the time over voice-grade lines. Over domestic long-distance lines the 7200-bps rate had to be selected only 27 percent of the time.

In addition to cutting communications costs, higher-speed data communications opens up new applications. Facsimile-to-PC connections would make the transmission of the textual information possible for bit-mapped display on the IBM PC. At 9600 bps the facsimile-transmission time for an by 11-inch piece of paper is 30 seconds. Another possibility is for the transmission of specialized database information that includes diagrams or other images.

9 comments
  1. Hirudinea says: December 13, 201111:04 am

    I remember when I swapped my C-64 300 baud modem for a 1200 baud one, it was amazing, just goes to show you how far we’ve come.

  2. Mike says: December 13, 201112:12 pm

    I visited a college friend this past weekend, he wanted me to tell his son about “pre-internet” (aka BBS) days. I was amazed that I could send an email and get a response from someone across the country in two days after the computers exchanged data at night. Downloading a 250k picture took several minutes, one person connected at a time to a BBS to type a message. I knew of a few local BBS with two nodes but for the most part it was one person at a time.

  3. Clay says: December 13, 20111:07 pm

    Yes indeed. 300 bps and 800 bpi tapes were cutting edge when I started with mainframes in
    university. I still miss punch-cards, ha! Don’t drop that deck!
    Best regards,
    /Clay

  4. hwertz says: December 13, 20116:38 pm

    Too bad local prices have not gone down any in the last 15 years… (with DSL and cable cos here running a duopoly, they have not dropped a cent). And wireless prices have increased (with carriers in the US fleeing from unlimited plans, while they are embraced — perhaps with throttling but not cash overages — in other parts of the world.)

    But yeah, when I told the guys I worked with a few years ago that I had surfed the entire web they thought I was a nut. Back in 1993 or so, there was only about a dozen websites, so I did visit them all. (Gopher was another matter.) We had 1 normal local BBS, 1 “underground” local BBS, and 1 that was long distance but had a dial-through (where it was a local call from here to the dial-through, and a local call from there to the BBS). I never called that one, it was a continuous busy signal.

    Fidonet was quite vibrant with E-Mail, newsgroups, and allowing one to request a file that was on one BBS but not your local one. In parallel with Fidonet, there was UUCP (Unix-to-Unix CoPY) pushing Usenet (which ran back to at least the late 1970s) and E-Mail around, both on the ~56kbps or so internet lines of the day and to systems that just connected periodically.

  5. Mcubstead says: December 13, 20116:56 pm

    Yep, remember when a T1 was thought of as a whole internet pipe line…. If I remember, it could hold 24 modems (28kbs) at 100% load and was good enough to keep 100 users happy, if they averaged the normal 20% utilization. Today 2mbs DSL can hardly keep a single user happy.

  6. Toronto says: December 13, 20117:17 pm

    I have a couple of 9600 bps modems downstairs – one will only talk to identical modems (it’s an early Gandalf) and the other will, if the eeprom survives, dial the Star Trek BBS automatically when it sees DTR on the RS232 interface. It has a few alternate numbers configured, such as the local 2400 bps Datapac (public X.25) access port and a couple of FIDONET nodes. You had to send a BREAK signal to get the alternate number menu.

    Good times.

  7. Clay says: December 13, 20117:23 pm

    Gandalf? Are you an ex-Sharpie by any chance?

    Best regards,

    /Clay

  8. Christian Berger says: December 21, 20111:03 pm

    Well actually back then 64 kbps was already the standard for digital phone lines. Actually in 1989 you could buy your first regular ISDN phone/data lines in Germany, which were 64 kbps transparent and full duplex per channel. You obviously got 2 channels.

    Back then there was even talk about double digit MBit symmetrical lines which would be used for video telephony and television.

  9. Luca-italy says: February 14, 20121:21 am

    John Markoff was the guy who kept dissing Kevin Mitnick from his NY Times tech column. The name stands out because I’ve just finished Mitnick’s “Ghost in the Wires” http://goo.gl/7Rgj0

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