A Proposal for Development of Chebucto Suite

This proposal has been submitted to Industry Canada in August, 1995.


Chebucto Suite provides a powerful and easy-to-use interface and management platform for community network systems, Free-Nets or other environments where interchange of both local information and access to the Internet are key aims within the context of many users and controlled access. It has been assembled by volunteers (see end) for the Chebucto Community Net (CCN) in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and consists of the integration of programs developed elsewhere along with modifications, custom-written programs, documentation and training materials developed by CCN.

Chebucto Suite has been distributed free-of-charge to other community networks who are using it successfully. Further development work is required to make it easier to install and manage for personnel of only modest technical skill and experience. This development will make CSuite a practical, inexpensive choice for communities of all sizes whether they have access to advanced technical support or not.

This proposal seeks funding of $99,600 over two years to further the development work and provide support to communities using the result. After this initial development work, it is expected that ongoing development will be managed on a volunteer basis and that ongoing support will be self-financing through the contributions of communities using CSuite.

Overview of Chebucto Suite

Chebucto Suite is based on World-Wide Web (WWW) protocols which were developed at CERN in Switzerland and have now become the driving force for the explosive growth of the Internet. These protocols allow access via both lowest denominator text-only interfaces and the latest graphical browsers. Most of the development has been concentrated on the text-only interface, but we are increasingly using Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripts to make the functionality available on any platform.

Much of the development work of CSuite has already been integrated back into the publicly available version of lynx (University of Kansas). However, there is considerable added value only resident in CSuite. This includes the integration necessary to provide a complete, but constrained, user environment:

Perhaps more significant are the tools and framework for managing the system as a whole:

All parts of Chebucto Suite developed by CCN are now and will remain free to use for groups dedicated to free access to information. Parts of CSuite that have been developed elsewhere are presently free to use for these groups, but remain governed by any conditions attached by the original authors.

Although fully functional, CSuite is under active development and is not yet suitable for general distribution. For the very adventurous, we are making snapshots available but can offer no support other than that available on a mailing list dedicated to this purpose. The first step to obtaining CSuite software is to subscribe to the mailing list by sending mail to majordomo@chebucto.ns.ca containing the one-line message "subscribe csuite-dev".

As of July, 1995, we are very close to having the first distribution ready for testing.

The ultimate goal of Chebucto Suite is not only to provide an excellent and highly functional user interface, but also to be easy to set up and administer. We envision a single fill-out form for configuration and installation and full set of administrative tools for monitoring and controlling the system. All the software is intended to be portable to both low-end and high-end machines and easily distributed over many machines.

The achievement of this goal will allow a small community with limited financial and technical resources to run a full-fledged information and communications system with a minimal investment and very modest expertise and training. On the other hand, the largest communities will be able to also run Chebucto Suite on the most sophisticated distributed systems. The net effect will be that development in the most fortunate communities will benefit the least fortunate as well.

Virtual Community Networks

Our most recent development presents another option for a small community. We are starting to develop a "Virtual Community Network" (VCN) model whereby a large site running Chebucto Suite will be able to host a number of other communities. These VCNs would be autonomous in every important aspect except for expensive capital infrastructure and full-time technical support staff which would be centralized and acquired at marginal rather than full cost.

To a user in another community, a VCN appears to be their own. They dial a local access number. They enter through a home page that focuses on resources in their community. They seek assistance from members of their own community. They join their own local society which helps to sustain their network.

To an information provider from another community, the VCN appears as their own community resource. They coordinate with other people and organizations in their community. They focus on local events and resources while being able to link to provincial or worldwide resources through standard World Wide Web links.

For the local organization running a VCN: they organize the local information, they receive local members dues, they organize training for users and Information Providers (IPs). They ensure that enough local dialup lines are provided and paid for. They provide support for local Public Access Terminals (PATs) by organizing and training volunteer teams. They receive training for their trainers from an established organization, they do not have to worry about central computers, Internet connections or technical administration. When they have problems they have someone to call.The initial startup of their community net is a much less daunting task.

The host community that provides resources for one or more VCNs belonging to other communities must incrementally improve their facilities and resources: more disk space, more computer capacity, increased Internet bandwidth and more support and operations personnel.

The software on the host computer(s) must be able to support the illusion of multiple autonomous Community Networks in one: when a user connects, their location must determine what home page they see, what registration process they see, what address they are asked to send their memberships and donations to; the VCN administrators must be able to independently approve IPs and assign locations to them, they must be able to access their own membership database and generate reports from it. These capabilities are only a few of those that must be provided.

Chebucto Suite is now capable of much of what is required but it will need more development to handle all the necessary tasks.

The physical arrangement to accommodate VCNs is very straightforward. Within a community, the VCN organization provides a bank of local dialup modems connected to the host community by a leased line or other technology. These modems could be leased from an existing Internet Service Provider (ISP) where one already has a presence in the community. Where there is no existing ISP, the local VCN could establish its own facility or contract with an ISP to establish a presence.

Future Development

To move Chebucto Suite from its current status of a functional system that requires considerable expertise to install and maintain to the goal stated above will require a modest development effort that is beyond the means of the current volunteers. We estimate that a single skilled employee working for one year can make the transition to the point that further improvements can be continued by volunteers.

Some additional part-time assistance will allow existing CCN and Dalhousie Computing Science staff to participate in the work and provide support to communities using CSuite.

Specific future plans include:

Proposed Budget

Sept 1995 - March 1996
	7 months salary for programmer		$21,000
	benefits for above			  3,000
	workstation for above			  7,000
	part-time assistants			  9,000
	benefits for above			  1,000

	Total					 41,000
April 1996 - March 1997
	salary for programmer			$36,000
	benefits for above			  5,400
	part-time assistants			 15,600
	benefits for above			  1,600

	Total					 58,600

Appendix I - Feedback

A number of existing or developing community networks are using or planning to use CSuite. Here is what they say:

Dan Trottier, Chair - Technical Committee, Hamilton-Wentworth FreeNet, Hamilton, Ontario:

The Hamilton-Wentworth FreeNet is due to go on-line by the end of April/95. We have considered several different interface packages including FreePort and Gopher but found the Chebucto suite of software and support files to be the most flexible and supportable environment for our needs.

The developers and volunteers at Chebucto have done an excellent job of integrating standard freely available software into a coherent and stable environment for electronic information exchange. Based on widely accepted Internet standards the Chebucto software allows our FreeNet to interchange information with millions of other users and sites around the world.

Randy Dodge, Vice-President St. John's InfoNET Assoc Inc.:

The St. John's InfoNET (aka St. John's Free-Net) will launch on Apr 4, 1995 using the Chebucto Suite software provided by the Chebucto Community Net. Without this software, we were faced with a decision of making something home-grown or paying for the Freeport package. The Freeport software wasn't to our liking and we were impressed with the maturity and features of the Chebucto Suite - we installed and were running within 4 hours !

We are quite grateful to Chebucto Community Net for their work and will be helping with the Suite development as we proceed.

St. John's InfoNET would not have been able to launch on schedule without the Chebucto Suite.

Saskatoon recently launched using CSuite. Groups in Ukraine, Slovenia and Australia are using or planning to use it.

Appendix II - Chebucto Suite Authors

In addition to those who have contributed to packages developed elsewhere that we are using as part of Chebucto Suite (who are credited in the text above), the following volunteers to Chebucto Community Net have participated. This list is, of course, not exhaustive -- it excludes many people who have tested the software and documentation -- a valuable contribution.

Technical Team:

David Trueman (david@cs.dal.ca)
Trent MacDougall (trent@cs.dal.ca)
Gerard MacNeil (macneil@cs.dal.ca)
David Murdoch (djm@duncan.alt.ns.ca)
David Benoit (benoit@ug.cs.dal.ca)

Documentation Team:

Renee Davis (davisr@duncan.alt.ns.ca)
Gerard MacNeil (macneil@cs.dal.ca)
Rob Currie (aa019@chebucto.ns.ca)
Bonny Lee (aa043@chebucto.ns.ca)
Leslie Foster (aa079@chebucto.ns.ca)
Matthew F. Wulfman (aa027@chebucto.ns.ca)
Carlos A F Freitas (aa011@chebucto.ns.ca)
David Trueman (david@cs.dal.ca)
Joan Brown-Hicks (aa025@chebucto.ns.ca)
Carol Sin (aa068@chebucto.ns.ca)
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