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The Web is not Just for the Internet Anymore.

By: Scott Bradner

What happened to those key technologies? It was only a year or two ago that the Distributed Computing Environment (DCE) was a sure bet, client/server has been around for a while, starting out with PCs talking to mainframes and migrating to PCs talking to larger PCs, and in the last few years it seems like I've gotten hundreds of advertisements for PC-based database query tools. Until recently these technologies have been seen as the correct way to do many of the computing tasks in an organization, but there seems to be a change in the wind -- the web seems to be taking over.

Web tools offer quite a bit now and promise to offer much more in the future. The most important reasons to use web technology are 1/ there are web clients for a very wide range of user platforms, and 2/ different clients are not required for different servers.

There is a boom market in web browsers, there are multiple products, and even freeware available for almost any computer platform that can support a graphics screen. As a comparison, it can be quite hard to get DCE support on all of the platforms that might be in use in a company. (Apple Computer being one of the companies that decided that it was better to not play than to play with someone else's ball.) Even where the DCE tools are available, it can be quite a task to develop client software for all of the platforms. This has even led a number of companies to decide to ban systems that do not support DCE.

The user does not need a different piece of client software to access each server, as is the case with most other access technologies. The browser used to look at the home page for the latest Disney movie can also be used to register an IP address within the organization.

I have seen or heard about web-based systems to access personnel records, configure routers, update time cards, register IP addresses, look up phone numbers, interface to an SNMP management station, and even one to configure an X Window server. (Sort of like using a Coke machine to sell Pepsi.)

New web features, such as the Java down-loadable routines will increase the flexibility and potential of using the web technology in place of many others.

There are problems with this trend. Currently the web has no agreed upon standard way of doing security. That will come in time, but until there is, it might not be a good idea to let professors update student's grades on the registrar's computer. Knowing who someone is over a network connection always involvs a bit of faith, however it would be good to reduce the ammount of faith required in certain cases.

Also, just as I do not think that any one networking technology will solve all of the networking needs of the world, I also do not think that any one interface technology is best for all applications. The web was not designed for some of the functions that would be best employed for some applications, for example, watching a real-time display of traffic flowing though a router. I've seen some rather ingenious contortions done to try and use web technology instead of writing some special purpose client program.

It does look like web technology can be used productively within an organization for a range of applications. IBM might have been thinking of this when they announced their MVS mainframe-based web server, but you should not assume that all questions have the same answer.

disclaimer: Harvard is in the business of creating and sometimes answering questions. Having just one answer would cut off half of the business. In any case, the above are my own opinions.