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Archive for November 30th, 2007

The Long And Winding Road

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 30 November 2007

I was recently an invited speaker at Intute’s first Staff Conference, which was described in a blog post on Intute’s newly launched blog service. The title of my talk was “What If Web 2.0 Really Does Change Everything?. Before exploring the challenges which the range of externally hosted Web 2.0 service would pose to a JISC-funded service such as Intute I took the opportunity to revisit the early days of Intute, when, in the days of the eLib programe the services were known as Subject Based Information Gateways (SBIGs), before becoming known as the RDN (Resource Discovery Network) prior to their current name.

What, I asked, was the key to Intute’s success? Was it, I wondered:

  • ROADS: the open source software which formed the basis of services such as SOSIG in the early days?
  • The lightweight whois++ distributed searching protocol supported by ROADS, which would allow users to cross-search across the various SBIG services?
  • The MySQL database, which formed the core data management tool for ssome of the services?
  • The PostGres database, another open source relational database management system, which provided richer functionality than MySQL?
  • The distributed approach to development and hosting, which enabled a diversity of technical approaches to take place?

From today’s perspective, we can see that the only technical component of the Intute service from the list given above which is still critical is the MySQL database. ROADS is now festering on SourceForge and the whois++ protocol seems to have dropped off the radar screen, having been superceded by the SRU/SRW cross-searching protocols which were designed for a Web environment. And the distributed development and hosting approach has been replaced by a centralised service, hosted at MIMAS.

At the conference I argued that the success of Intute wasn’t due to the initial technical choices. Rather it was due to the effectiveness of their outreach activities, with staff from SOSIG, EEVL, OMNI and the other hubs regularly appearing at conferences, giving seminars, running training sessions and writing articles for many publications.

There was, however, one piece of technical innovation which has shown itself to be sustainable, which was described in a short paper on “RDN-Include: Re-branding Remote Resources” by myself, Pete Cliff and Andy Powell published in May 2001 in the WWW 10 Conference Poster Proceedings. RDN-include allowed the RDN service to be embedded in third party Web pages. The initial development made use of a CGI script which needed to be installed on the institution’s server. However we realised that there was always likely to be a SysAdmin barrier (“no third party script to be allowed on my server”) so a lightweight JavaScript alternative was also developed, RDNi-lite. And, as described in a post on Integrate Intute content on the Intute blog, this service is still being provided, although under a new name and using, I believe, rewritten software.

A focus on users? A lightweight approach to embedding content? This sounds pretty much like Web 2.0 to me. As I said in my talk, I think the success of Intute was due to the Web 2.0-style approach they took, before the term was coined.

But in the light of what we now know, how might Intute have developed? We can see that the distributed approach taken initially wasn’t sustainable, and the emphasis on cross-searching would have been misplaced in a more centralised model. Looking at The History of Yahoo! it strikes me that, in an alternative universe Intute could have been the Yahoo! of the planet.

We thought we were at the start of a long and straight Roman road in the days of eLib. Looking back, we can see that it was a long and winding road, and occasionally we’ll realise that we’ve been heading in the wrong direction and retrace our tracks. If we were starting all over again, which way would we go?

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