August 1996 € Volume 23 € Number 4


Getting Connected


By Mohan Sodhi


Success is a function of not only who you know, but also what you know. Fortunately, the Internet and online services -- both part of "cyberspace" -- can help you "meet" other operations research professionals online and learn about OR-related issues. While I am sure cyberspace will become an important part of our lives in the foreseeable future, I am not sure it will necessarily be the Internet, so this column is titled more generally "cyberspace," a word introduced by William Gibson in his dark novel, "Neuromancer."

There is a need to make sense of this new technology that has burst upon the world, and to see what makes sense for OR practice. Certainly, the Internet and online services are everywhere and those of us who are not already connected are under the pressure to do so by colleagues and by the high-pressure marketing campaigns of the online services.

This new world order is chaotic. On one hand there is so much going on that you just want to say, "Stop the world and let me off." On the other hand, there is so much hype that no one wants to take a chance on missing the boat. Sometimes it seems as if Microsoft and Hollywood have already taken over cyberspace. Maybe, as someone said in a conference recently, the Internet is like teenage sex everyone is talking about it, very little is actually happening, and when it is happening, it is probably unsafe anyway!

This column targets OR practitioners interested in safe cybersurfing while addressing such cyberspace issues as how and why OR practitioners should get connected, and what is happening of note to OR practice. My personal goal is to get the OR community to concentrate on using and/or building a few useful resources in cyberspace; not to encourage scattered efforts on every new cyberspace technology (Java, virtual reality, multimedia on the Web, etc.) when there are more important issues of simply getting connected, using existing resources fruitfully, and creating new services that need to be addressed.


Why OR Practitioners Need Access
As with anything else in life, getting connected to cyberspace is a great solution, but we must find the question first. So, instead of trying to figure out which online service to join, or which Internet provider to call, we should first try to figure what we are trying to accomplish. Why do we need access to cyberspace as OR practitioners? As I already mentioned, getting connected can get us both ingredients of success -- networking with people and information. Moreover, for OR, many efforts are already underway by INFORMS and academic groups to provide Internet-based services to the OR community at large using the Internet. Some of these are listed below. Details will follow in future columns. An article in Interfaces [Sodhi 1995] provides a guide to the Internet for OR professionals.

Internet-based services of interest to the OR community: Various Web sites, including:


How to Get Connected
What service should you use? There is a bewildering array of choices, ranging from the various Internet providers to online services such as America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy and Microsoft Network. In addition, there are the Internet-only services offered by the online services, e.g., AOL's subsidiary, Global Network Navigator (GNN), and CompuServe's SpryNet. Last but not least, you may already have e-mail and Web access from work. I recommend the following procedure in selecting how to access cyberspace:

STEP 1: Determine if you need to get private access to cyberspace even if you already have access from work. As a recent academic-turned-practitioner, I am facing the issue of how to get connected myself. I have an IBM "butterfly" laptop with Windows 3.1 and the following means of getting connected already in place: (1) my University of Michigan account that provides me with e-mail and Web access through Novell's LAN Workplace remote software with local numbers in many cities through a provider -- MichNet; (2) my corporate e-mail account through Sabre Decision Technologies (SDT), which gives me local and remote e-mail access with Novelle's GroupWise and access to the Web from within SDT but not from remote locations.

An embarrassment of riches? Hardly. I will be living in London for a few months. That rules out making international calls into MichNet phone numbers from a cost viewpoint. The SDT e-mail account will not do either, mainly because of privacy issues and secondarily because of not being able to access the Web. I remember seeing a survey of companies in which more than 25 percent of managers admitted to browsing employee e-mail. While many companies clearly state that company e-mail is not private, it is preferable not to mix your private e-mail with work-related e-mail.

Moreover, in a world where companies merge, split or change names, or where employees change jobs, it may be worthwhile to have an e-mail address that does not change. (Incidentally, this is a good reason why INFORMS might consider creating virtual mailboxes for its members.) My recommendation is that you sign up with an Internet provider or online service.

STEP 2: Think about how you will use this access. For instance, your usage could include communicating with friends using e-mail, subscribing to mailing lists, and using the Web to get information on OR-related software.

STEP 3: Determine criteria for selecting a provider or online service:

  • Constancy. Select a company that you expect to stay around for a while since your e-mail address will be tied to this company.

  • Cost. The model for cost across providers is quite similar; usually a fixed monthly cost, and an hourly charge for usage above a certain minimum. Once you have selected a provider, keep costs down by limiting online time to useful connect time. Some providers allow you to disconnect the phone easily after getting messages, compose messages while disconnected, and then upload them all in a batch.

    Likewise with news groups. If you have such a feature, expect your connect time for the purpose of pricing to be about five hours each month even though the time you spend on the computer may be 20 hours or more.

  • Ease of use. This includes ease of setting up mailing lists and folders in which to store archived e-mail. After all, you will be the primary user, so a good E-mail program would be very useful. The same goes for news readers and Web browsers.

    STEP 4: Based on the criteria, first determine a "working set" from which to select a provider, then "short-list" and try out at least two before making your selection and announcing it to your friends or subscribing to mailing lists.

    After my first cut, I had CompuServe, AOL, Prodigy, GNN and SpryNet. Based on the above considerations, I trimmed down my list to AOL and its subsidiary, GNN. Between these two, I decided to focus on GNN. The GNN technical support people told me that I would be able to access it in London. Moreover, I would be able to continue using my e-mail program, Eudora Pro, and Netscape. With better pricing than AOL, and with all the functionality I wanted, after trying it for a couple of days before leaving for London, I forwarded my Michigan mail to this account and also announced it to my friends.

    When I reached London, however, I was unable to access the account. I had to use my AOL account to get technical support from GNN to answer my query. The answer was, "I'm sorry, but that feature is not yet available." I was told the only option I had was dialing international long distance, an expensive proposition.

    With nothing else to fall back on, I had to use AOL. But AOL did not tell me there is a surcharge ($6-$24 an hour) for international locations depending on the city. I found this out only after I got an e-mail saying that the surcharge was being doubled in many locations! Moreover, the functionality of e-mail, news reader and Web browser is limited in my 2.5 version of AOL compared to what I had been used to with Eudora Pro, Trumpet news reader and Netscape Web browser. (CompuServe lets you use a Web browser of your choice.) Needless to say, I will review my decision when I get back to the States.


    Conclusion
    As you can imagine, while cyberspace is abuzz with excitement about Java and virtual reality and electronic cash, my problems are still at the point of finding a suitable provider to get connected. I suspect this is the case with many other OR practitioners. Getting connected requires careful decision making and testing, and, as my experience shows, even (or especially) large companies promise a great deal more than they actually offer. So, following the above four-step procedure, short-list and test drive cyberspace access with different providers carefully, and do not announce your e-mail address until you have used the service for a while.

    It is certainly worthwhile getting access to cyberspace with an e-mail account and Web access. Then, with the operations research e-mail list servers, news group and Web sites that I will cover in the next issue, you can network with people and find pertinent information. And, success will surely follow.


    References
    1. Sodhi, ManMohan S., "An OR/MS Guide to the Internet," Interfaces, November-December, 1995.


    Dr. ManMohan (Mohan) S. Sodhi is Senior Consultant at Sabre Decision Technologies (SDT) and is currently in London on assignment. He is the founder of the OR news group, sci.op-research, and helped design and create INFORMS Online. He can be reached at Mohan_Sodhi@SDT.com (note underscore) for SDT-related matters, and, at least for now, at MohanSodhi@AOL.com (no underscore) for non-SDT issues. He welcomes feedback.


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