Here's a historical curiosity...
Trip report: 1993 GopherCon
Original version at
Internet Gopher Workshop and Internet Gopher Conference
April 12-13, 1993
CopherCon '93 consisted of two events: an invitation-only workshop for
about 75 participants focusing on technical details mostly related to
the Gopher+ development effort, and a larger conference of some 250
participants covering a broader range of topics including CWIS and
library applications of Internet Gopher. Both events were jointly
sponsored by the University of Minnesota and by CICnet.
Day 1: the Workshop
GOPHER HISTORY: After greetings from our hosts, things got rolling
with reports on the past, present and future of Gopher from the UMinn
GopherTeam. Farhad Anklesaria began by recounting the history of
Gopher development: UMinn's first attempt to design a CWIS resulted in
a classic design-by-committee monstrosity, to which the Gopher Team
responded by proposing a very simple protocol which they believed they
could actually implement. The proposal was not well received by the
CWIS committee, but after an attempt to out-source computing services
at UMinn failed, its opponents retreated and the Gopher Team was
permitted to proceed. (This was enlightening not only as an example
of the effect of political history on technology, but also because it
may explain something about the Gopher Team's mistrust of design by
committee, about which more later.) The talk also illustrated how much
ground Gopher has covered: from in-house demo to a very popular
technology and an RFC (#1436) on the IETF standards track in just two
GOPHER PRESENT AND FUTURE: Mark McCahill gave an overview of the
features being developed in Gopher+, the upwardly-compatible extension
to the protocol (also known as "a gopher with a bag on the side to hold
-- Item attributes: meta-information about Gopher objects.
-- Multiple views of objects.
-- ASK blocks: a method of passing information from the user to the
server. While originally conceived as a forms fillout mechanism,
ASK blocks are now expected to provide much more, including a way to
make structured queries against a database.
-- "AdmitOne", a home-brewed authentication mechanism based on
McCahill also mentioned some future directions for Gopher development:
-- Support for URNs and URLs ("Unified Resource Names" and "Unified
Resource Locators"), a pair of standards in the IETF process for
identifying Internet resources.
-- A Gopher->Z39.50 gateway.
-- The idea of combining ASK blocks with an authentication mechanism
to create read-write Gopherspace. (While I find the prospect
intriguing, I wonder about the wisdom of jerry-rigging it this way
rather than designing the necessary protocol extensions to support
-- Support for Whois++ (an IETF effort intended as a simpler
alternative to X.500).
The other members of the Gopher development team reported on their
-- Paul Lindner, author of the Unix server and curses client,
continues to enhance the base Gopher versions while working on
Gopher+. The latest version of the base Gopher client now offers a
download menu for dialup users; a better CSO interface; faster I/O;
and snazzy dialogue boxes. The base Gopher server now uses a config
file to eliminate compile-time defaults; user-configurable filename
extensions; better numbering support ("Numb=" is fixed); and
improved IP-based security. The Gopher+ server and client are
coming along: they already implement forms via ASK blocks (the
resulting information is processed by being handed off to perl
scripts); alternate views and languages; extended information about
items; and AdmitOne authentication. Upcoming enhancements for the
Gopher+ client include specification of preferred data types and
languages to take advantages of alternate views and a pretty,
integrated pager, while Paul's plans for the Gopher+ server include
automated mirroring of data and the integration of a relational
-- Bob Alberti reported on fixes to the Gopher-FTP gateway.
-- Dan Torrey spoke of his work on the PC client: he had programmed
himself into a corner with the previous version, so he threw it out
and started over. The result is PC Gopher III, which is
multi-threaded to allow for menu accessibility even in the middle of
a retrieve and appears much faster to the user. Future plans
include a new memory management scheme to allow for Gopher+ and
files over 360K; support for other TCP/IP stacks; internal support
for 3270 sessions; and improver "helper" applications (image viewers
-- Dave Johnson reported on his Mac client work. He has made
various speed and user interface enhancements to the base Gopher
client, and also has written a Gopher+ client which supports item
attributes, alternate views, ASK blocks and AdmitOne
VERONICA: Fred Barrie and Steve Foster of the University of Nevada at
Reno led a session on Veronica. Veronica is making great strides in
the direction of reliability and responsiveness by dividing the work:
at the time of the conference there were two Veronica servers up (at
UNR and CNIDR), with three more expected soon. Recent improvements to
Veronica software include faster server code, boolean support (AND and
OR, but not NOT or parens), and better data harvesting and cleaning.
Some Veronica statistics: UNR has been receiving 150,000 queries per
month; it takes 30 hours to prowl "known Gopherspace", meaning the 400+
servers in the UMN master list and their children (amounting to 1200
servers all told); Veronica detects over 10 million Gopher items, which
it reduces after eliminating redundancies to about 1.5 million items;
Veronica's database now takes up 350 Mb for raw data and 40 Mb for the
index; up to 10% of the items in Gopherspace turn over in 1-2 weeks.
There is a lot to be gained by making Veronica use Gopher+ attributes,
such as abstracts, keywords, or a controlled-vocabulary classification
scheme. Not only will Gopher+ allow for better searching, but it
should help with one of the most common user requests, namely
additional context surrounding the items returned from a Veronica
Problems still to be solved: scaling (although this may not be a
problem -- Barrie and Foster think that 12 servers should be sufficient
through the end of the year); how to let people control their own data
harvesting (ideas: a cache at the top of the Gopher tree, perhaps in a
".veronica" file, and/or coordination through regional networks); lack
of permission to publish information gathered by Veronica ("we haven't
been sued yet"); "Where am I?" questions for users; topic-oriented
Veronica servers; meta-searches (like a "monster mindex").
GOPHER+ DIRECTIONS: This session began with a "lively exchange of
views" between the Gopher development team and members of the Gopher
community who felt that Gopher would benefit by paying more attention
to standards which either already exist or are in parallel
development. To overdramatize the split, one could call it an argument
between "design by committee" and "design over a couple of weekends".
Among the points of the critics: Gopher should try to be more
expandable and more easily integrated with other protocols (we should
avoid the need for gateways if possible); Gopher should support MIME
types, which is distinct from supporting *a* MIME type; Gopher has
confused the encoding type (e.g. compressed) with the content type
(e.g. text), while MIME keeps these distinct. The standards which were
most often discussed as being of potential benefit to Gopher were MIME,
WWW, WAIS (and Z39.50), URLs and URNs.
Paul Lindner gave a short but provocative talk on a proposed
"geographic" view type, "directory/GVIEW", which would present a menu
as an image with "hot spots". His original idea was for "geographic"
menus like maps of bus routes or Gopher sites, but it could also be
used to create Gopher menus which would resemble VNS pages or WWW
hypertext documents. (I am struck by the tendency of the these
technologies to start resembling one another.)
ACROBAT DEMO: Gary Cosimini of Adobe gave a talk on a very
interesting forthcoming product called Acrobat which is intended to
move Adobe from being a printer company to being a document language
company. Evidently Adobe was surprised to see PostScript become a
means of transmitting documents from place to place, ridden as it is
with printer dependencies. Acrobat is Adobe's answer: a program which
converts between PostScript and a PostScript-like document language
called PDF ("Portable Document Format"). It is Adobe's bid to come up
with a standard so ubiquitous that they are calling it "electronic
paper". In addition to increased portability, PDF has several features
desirable in a document exchange format: it retains the structure of the
document, allows direct access to any page in the document, allows for
embedded special fonts and replaces missing fonts on the fly, includes
efficient compression techniques, and is extensible to include
multimedia and programmatic objects in the future. PDF will be an open
format and Adobe plans to help develop "save as" modules for common
document preparation tools. Adobe plans to offer Windows and Mac
viewers for PDF this summer and DOS and Unix viewers soon thereafter.
If it catches on this would be a good candidate for a Gopher data
type and could solve many document incompatibility problems.
ATTRIBUTE REGISTRY: This was dominated by another exchange between the
Gopher development team and the proponents of compatibility with other
standards. The main proposal was that rather than Gopher developing
its own attribute registry, Gopher should use the IANA ("Internet
Assigned Numbers Authority") registration process, which according to
some only takes 3 to 4 weeks. There was also further discussion of
MIME. Result: the UMinn GopherTeam agreed to look harder at MIME.
SOFTWARE LICENSING: The much-awaited confrontation between Shih-Pau Yen
of UMinn and the Gopher community at large was heated, as expected.
Mr. Yen presented a draft of a three-tiered licensing scheme: separate
categories of licenses for educational institutions, small businesses
and large businesses. Mr. Yen pointed out that all UMinn software
released prior to GopherCon would be considered freeware and not
restricted by the license, hence the license covered effectively only
future Gopher+ development; furthermore, the licenses restricted only
Gopher servers, not clients. Under the proposal, educational
institutions would be exempt from licensing fees and in fact need not
even sign the license. Rates for businesses would vary according to
the size of the business and the use to which it put its servers
(whether it charged for information served out); rates would go as high
for large businesses as the greater of $5000 per server or 7.5% of fees
charged for Gopher services.
Among the criticisms of Mr. Yen's proposal: By charging fees
exclusively for servers, he would penalize organizations which wish to
put information into Gopherspace to the benefit of us all; it might
make more sense to charge for clients. The license agreements defined
fees per year and made no guarantees that fees won't go up in
subsequent years, raising fears of price hikes once the market was
hooked on Gopher. The language of the license agreements defined the
size of a business by the gross incomes of all entities owning a share
of or partially owned by the business, which would mean that one
wealthy investor owning 1% of an otherwise small business could kick it
up into the large business bracket. Finally, there were the familiar
complaints that the UMinn code wasn't written entirely by UMinn, that
it has or will soon have freeware competitors, and that it doesn't come
with the sort of support structure one might expect from commercial
software. Mr. Yen seemed determined to proceed with licensing fees of
some kind, and it was unclear to me how much he would modify his
proposal in the light of the comments at GopherCon.
Day 2: the Conference
The second day began with a recap of the Gopher update from day 1.
REPORTS FROM MONDAY'S BREAKOUT SESSIONS:
Using Other Technologies -- MIME, Kerberos, Z39.50, etc (Jane Smith,
CNIDR): Repeated the plea that the Gopher developers take a harder look
at other standards and strive for interoperability.
Cataloging E-journals and Resources (Billy Barron, UTDallas): Spoke
about the gains to be made from improved Veronica, including a
controlled vocabulary for searching and use of Veronica data for
research on the most common terms currently used in Gopherspace titles
and Veronica searches. Experiments in the past few months suggest that
Gopher classification efforts based on schemes like the Library of
Congress or Dewey Decimal system are less successful than ad hoc "used
Security, Authentication and Signatures (Tamara Iversen,
Northwestern): Session focused on a hole in the design of the AdmitOne
authentication scheme discovered by Lee Brintle of UIowa; suggested a
modular authentication scheme selectable by each Gopher site.
Gopher Front-Ends to Databases (Paul Lindner): A number of efforts have
taken place to integrate both relational and flat-file databases with
Gopher. Two basic methods are common: a "shadow" system, in which
reports are generated from the database and moved into Gopherspace, and
on-line access to an interactive query engine. Paul plans to work
toward integrated Gopher support of one flat-file db (DBase is the most
popular) and one generic SQL db.
GOPHER+ ATTRIBUTE REGISTRY: The Gopher development team agreed to
consider using the IANA registration process in the future. For now,
new attribute types are to be registered by sending mail to the
gopher-news list and reaching some sort of consensus in the ensuing
NEW GOPHER USES AND TOOLS: unless otherwise specified, any tools
mentioned here are said to be available in the archives on
Jughead (Rhett "Jonzy" Jones, UUtah): "Jonzy's Universal Gopher
Hierarchy Excavation And Display", this is like a local veronica --
it allows for search by title of items in a local Gopher hierarchy.
It supports boolean searches (AND, OR and NOT). A Gopher tree of
some 45000 items takes about 30 minutes to walk and 10 minutes to
Procmail (Marie-Christine Mahe, Yale): a mail-to-whatever gateway
which Marie-Christine has used as a way to put things into
WELL Gopher (Paul Holbrook of CICnet): an interesting collection of
original text resources from a well-known Internet watering hole.
Highlights include works by Bruce Sterling and Stewart Brand.
Gopher to nkosi.well.sf.ca.us port 70.
Ac (Eric Morgan, NCSU Libraries): an interactive tool for the
systematic acquisition of electronic journals.
OS/2 Gopher client and server (David Singer, IBM Almaden Research
Center): the client is already on boombox, the server is expected
Gmail/gmailcal (Prentiss Riddle, Rice University): a
mail-to-gopherspace gateway with an accompanying events calendar
Grabdata (Mahesh Subramaniam, Notre Dame): a tool to gather data
from users' AFS directories, perform various validation checks, and
move it into Gopherspace.
Relational database of course schedules (Ed Moy, UCal): A gateway
between Gopher and a relational database containing a course
schedule. Works by selecting a set of courses and successively
limiting it by such categories as day, department, starting time,
ending time, room, instructor, etc.
MOOGopher (Erik Ostrom, Gustavus Adolphus College, and Larry
Masinter, Xerox PARC): An object-oriented MUD (multi-user
dungeon/dimension) with an integrated Gopher client. Objects in the
MUD can contain Gopher items, and users can move about Gopherspace
analogously to exploring a MUD. To see this in action, telnet to
Jay's House MOO at theory.cs.mankato.msus.edu port 1709.
Overview of MSU tools and applications (Rich Wiggins and Dennis
Boone): Lots of nifty things at MSU, including sound archives
(historic voices and 1992 Presidential debates), tools to generate a
Gopher "road map" and analyze Gopher logs, an "online photo gallery"
of campus sites, and a "guest book" for recording user comments.
The coveted stuffed gopher was won by Erik Ostrom and Larry Masinter
SERVER ADMINISTRATION: The Server Administration breakout session was
in some ways a continuation of the tool-off, but it got beyond tools to
cover Gopher administration and design philosophy as well. Joel Cooper
spoke more about how Notre Dame copies data from individuals' AFS
directories into Gopherspace. The procedure includes much
error-checking and requires files to include a template containing
information about author, expiration, etc.
Dennis Boone spoke about the design rules for the MSU CWIS, which may
bear repeating here:
-- Ample "About" files.
-- No "hunt the wumpus" games -- hierarchy is preferable to a maze.
-- Lots of navigational tools (e.g., a title indexer)
-- The root directory should include help and be understandable
-- Directories should not exceed a screenful in length
-- Identity of data providers should be attached to all documents
-- Reliability: 24 by 7 support for Gopher services
-- Lowest common denominator: assume screens <= 72 columns wide
and <= 16 rows high
-- No dead ends, no sparse directories
-- Local-use information is most important
-- Break these rules when necessary
Paul Lindner spoke about the trials and tribulations of getting a CWIS
off the ground at UMinn. Although he and the rest of the Gopher
development team are celebrities in Gopherspace, he's "just another
joe" at his home institution. Some interesting tidbits: the principal
servers at UMinn are a mirrored pair of Macintosh IIci's running AUX;
they carry out some 50000 transactions a day. UMinn is interested in
ways to provide redundant servers, including the use of DNS route
shuffling. The UMinn method of CWIS design emphasizes decentralization
using small, cheap hardware, typically Mac servers. They see
decentralization as a proper response both to the fact that "machines
go down" and the need to put power in the hands of the people with the
I spoke about our experiences at Rice University with RiceInfo and some
of the formal steps we've taken (the "RiceInfo Management Proposal",
CWIS committees, Data Maintainer's Agreements, etc.). I also noted
that, like MSU, we see reliability issues as encouraging reliably
maintained central services over a potential chaos of less reliably
maintained small servers.
ORGANIZING SUBJECT-MATTER BASED GOPHERS: A lively breakout session
which made me wish I could have attended the other library- and
resource-oriented sessions earlier in the conference.
Dan Jacobson of Johns Hopkins spoke about his biology Gopher server; he
believes in the need for control to be in the hands of specialists in a
field, not librarians. He also spoke of the need for context: guess
what happens when a biologist does a veronica search on the word
Mike McGervin of Stanford spoke of his work building a Gopher server of
medical informatics sources based on ten years' experience with the
SUMEX-AIM ftp archives.
Librarian Nancy John of the University of Illinois mentioned an Educom
paper by Howard Strauss entitled "Anarchy in the CWIS". She spoke of
the need to go beyond old methods developed for print resources
(including the LC and Dewey classification schemes). One promising
direction is the use of Veronica with Gopher+ attributes (Academic
Discipline, Audience, Format (newspaper or novel), etc.) to provide
needed context for searches.
(I piped up from the audience with a plea for feedback mechanisms from
users and a community organized around each subject area, rather than
depending on Gophermeisters discovering resources in isolation. I'd
like to see a set of discipline-specific newsgroups or mailing lists
devoted to the discovery of resources. I also talked a bit about
"linkmerge", my ad-hoc scheme to merge subject-tree directories from
other sites. Much to my surprise, people seem to like it, even the
librarians who I expected to be horrified.)
CLOSING: The conference ended with a general question and answer
session. Highlights: Someone suggested a common conference at which
Gopher, WAIS, WWW, etc. developers could meet (a good candidate to host
such a conference would be someplace like CNIDR). Paul Lindner agreed
to put ".cap" support back into the Unix Gopher server as an #ifdef
option. The Gopher development team talked again about farming out
documentation to outside volunteers.
My conclusions? There's lots happening in Gopherspace. It was very
exciting to see all these talented people carrying out all of these
great ideas. Gopher's explosive growth is continuing with no end in
sight. At the same time, I was disappointed that Gopher+ has not
matured more than it has -- there are still nagging details about the
protocol, the feasibility of small clients, and the licensing of
UMinn-developed software which could make Gopher+ less successful at
fulfilling its goals than basic Gopher has been. I had hoped that
these issues would be put behind us at the conference, but it is now
clear that we will continue to struggle with them for some time.
-- Prentiss Riddle ("aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada") firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Unix Systems Programmer, Office of Networking and Computing Systems
-- Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
1993.05.11 / 1998.05.14