PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Real and imaginary numbers

Well, by now I imagine all you avid surfers are at least connected to the Internet by a dial-up account, and eager for more bandwidth? You aren't? Well, the last time I looked, sales of Internet magazines in the UK were running at about 5 times the number of dial-up accounts. Some of this great differential can be put down to students with access to the Internet via their seats of learning (the same place that many are reputed to talk from when pontificating in the newsgroups...), but beyond that, it's a mystery. Corporate users are not generally being encouraged to do more than email and commercial file transfers.

Certainly some researchers in companies have full browsing access since knowledge grazing is part of their brief to research and discover, but that cannot account for the missing 80,000 implied in the numbers of readers. Plainly many are reading these magazines looking for ideas and encouragement, and are well on the way to signing up.

So isn't it astonishing how little advertising the Internet service providers are indulging in with such amazing evidence of a nascent marketplace looking for somewhere to go? Several complain that they can't handle the business they already have, and there are signs that many who may presently reckon business is a breeze may already be getting unduly complacent if they imagine that this hugely hyped event of 1994 has not gone entirely unnoticed by the more canny and commercially motivated operators who always turn up in time for the main course.

The whole net business currently reminds me of a lucky lottery winner, wandering about in a daze with a dash of euphoria, just waiting for the "money men" to pounce and "advise". Many of the suppliers to the industry are having a hard time wrenching themselves away from the arcane issues that have beset the open systems business for the past twenty years, without even yet fully understanding why their technically superior solutions have been repeatedly stuffed in the marketplace by products of lesser innovative quality and performance. We are talking Fords and Ferraris here folks. Which sells most? Which performs better? Which costs less to won? Which can fixed by a monkey with a spanner, which needs a legion of white-coated mechanics with batteries of expensive test equipment. You get the picture, don't you? So why can't Novell, Sun, SCO and the rest of them?

The new operating systems (I can't name them both because I signed a pact with the dev^H^H^H Microsoft) but I'll give you a clue, one is shipping from IBM and called "Warp" can both give the most user-malevolent of unfriendly UNIX's a run for its money in terms of potential installation horrors.

So whilst the operating systems nightmare continues, allow me to direct your attention to something potentially far more productive and rewarding that you can fiddle with while the Big Boys slug it out and prepare to deliver genuine "plug and play" operating environments that can help provide the basis of the tools that Internet makes available.

In and out in under a second?
What I am about to suggest here as a theme for your 1995 voyage of discovery may seem a little pre-emptive. Nevertheless, I suggest that once you have worked out what it is about the Internet that has everyone so excited, you will want to share this with your fellow beings. Particularly at work, where the rapid expansion of the idea of trans-national "Cybermarkets" is enabling commercial minnows to swim as equals with the multinational leviathans of the deep for the first time.

If 1994 was the year that the world woke up to the Internet and the world wide web in particular, 1995 will be spent working out how to connect more effectively to it to get that essential "on-demand" access that typifies the utility of information resources like CD ROMs, and more prosaically, traditional printed material.

Waiting some ten seconds to get the engaged tone is one thing; waiting 25 seconds for the two modems to negotiate, pass the time of day, check the weather at either end and then get on with the IP is another. But you don't need a leased line connection to achieve the delight of spontaneous Internet, the ISDN service does it all today.

Integrated Services Digital Network is a world-wide standard (of sorts) that provides one or two 64k bps data channels using standard exchange routing numbering (an ISDN number is indistinguishable from a regular common or garden PSTN (public switched telephone network) number. The call charges are even the same.

The inestimable benefit of ISDN is that it takes under a second to connect and drop a call. Using the enduring and original heritage benefits of IP, is possible to set up network routers with integral terminal adapters (TAs) that allow you to place the resources on the far end of an ISDN connection on your Windows desktop, and when you click on that icon, fore the connection be made in such a short space of time that you are obvious to the fact the resource is not locally connected.

Before you get all excited and leap to order it up: the catch. BT want £400 for installing the service, which has not competition as yet. This is even more than the legendarily expensive German PTT service charges. Someone has to pay Ian Vallance's salary I suppose. However, although I feel grumpy about this exploitation, since the line installed is identical to a £99 telephone, and even the terminal equipment isn't that different days, this is still a great deal than any of the earlier iterations of public switched data networks.

Especially when you realise that "Basic Rate ISDN 2" as the entry-level service is known, can be aggregated to provide 128kbps. The call charge doubles at this point, but the connect time halves, if your service provide can lob the bits at you fast enough. I'm looking for routing software that is intelligent enough to dynamically adapt the rate to take full advantage of the 128k bps option, since UK transfers on the same provider's backbone should be up to the mark, although many overseas routings are still going to be held below 64k bps.

When introducing ISDN I said that it was a "sort-of" standard. That was in an effort to gloss over the fact that the first pass of ISDN modems—or Terminal Adapters to give them their correct titles—are like the pupils at the first sitting of a language class, struggling to understand each other whilst endeavouring to communicate with a very rough and ready basic syntax. The variability of idioms, accents and dialects make the process a nightmare for the time being; but it most certainly will eventually be sorted out, if only when Microsoft decides to exert itself once again to bang unruly heads together and enforce a flawed standard that reminds us of the inevitability of the expression "lowest common denominator".

There are standards, and there are efforts to implement them, but serious ISDN users have become resigned to arranging to use the same manufacturer's TA's at either end if they want a quiet life. In the UK, we are bleesed with the markteing—conscious Sonix and Dataflex who are bent on making this new revolution in datacoms accessible to all.

So watch out for ISDN, it's the going to be the "in" thing for the well connected net surfer. The present high costs charged for ISDN net access are going to fall, if not collapse, by the end of the year, and then everyone who is serious about information and communication can have near instantanenous net access at better than leased liune speeds, without paying through the nose.

Sounds too good to be true? Well, that is precisely why ISDN is inevitable as an integral part of the building of public information systems. In another of those technology déja vu scenarios, the UK has several manufacturers with good technology available today, albeit at prices that cannot be described as inviting just yet. There is a degree of market protection here as the US and Far East don't seem to have cottoned on to the potential just yet (they are probably as befuddled by standards as the rest of us) so support your local terminal adapter manufacturers like Datalfex Design and Sonix, and we may yet end up with a successful and world-leading high technology supply industry that sets the standards for others in mass markets; not just another case of showing the rest of the world the way to our pockets by doing all the hard work first.

There's no harm in dreaming, is there?