Serving Your Internet Needs Since 1992

Judson Knott
Associate Director
Office of Information Technology
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Paul Jones
Technical Director
The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities
University of Virginia

D-Lib Magazine, February 1996

ISSN 1082-9873


SunSITE began in 1992 as a simple ftp server with enhanced search and retrieval capabilities and has grown to be one of the major destinations on the information highway with over forty-seven billion bytes of data. The rapid acceptance of the Internet and the kinds of services provided by SunSITE have radically changed information distribution and retrieval methods and will have significant impact on the teaching and research missions of the university.


During the 1992 Presidential Election Campaign, there was a significant change in the way voters could obtain information about the candidates and their positions. Whereas previously voters depended upon media reports for much of their information, in 1992, they could access such materials directly and unfiltered from the original sources. This opportunity was created through a joint venture between Sun Microsystems Computer Corporation (Sun) and the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) called SunSITE (Sun Software, Information, and Technology Exchange).

SunSITE, located at UNC-CH, was one of the first electronic repositories on the Internet to incorporate emerging networked information discovery and retrieval tools, and today it averages over three million accesses per week. From the beginning we realized that information servers such as SunSITE would be essential research tools in the development of digital libraries. People who use SunSITE are drawn not only to the graphically-oriented interface and search tools but also to the underlying collection of materials. We view SunSITE as an important tool for understanding how multimedia and wide-area networks will impact the University in its teaching and research missions. To facilitate that understanding, UNC-CH has established a faculty position to direct and encourage research and multi-disciplinary teaching activities related to SunSITE and is setting up a new-media lab to give faculty and students direct access to SunSITE.

The Early Days

The original SunSITE was created in response to a Request For Proposals (RFP) from Sun Microsystems Computer Corporation to establish an anonymous ftp archive on the Internet. At the time the RFP was issued, the Development Group at the Office of Information Technology was exploring available networked information technology as a means of unifying campuswide information services. In response to the RFP, UNC made a proposal not only to provide anonymous ftp services, but also to enhance these services through the application of emerging information technologies such as Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) and Gopher to simplify locating and retrieving information contained in the archive. UNC was subsequently selected to partner with Sun in creating the original SunSITE. From this modest beginning, the SunSITE program has grown to include over twenty SunSITEs located around the globe and continues to contribute to the phenomenal growth and diversity of information services on the Internet.

SunSITE went on-line in May, 1992 on a Sun SPARCstation 2 with 32 megabytes of memory and approximately four gigabytes of disk storage. The initial objective chosen as a success indicator was to achieve an access rate of ten thousand file transfers per month by January, 1993. However, SunSITE quickly became a popular destination on the Internet and by early October, 1992 was transferring over five thousand files a week.

During the early days of SunSITE, the OIT Development Group at UNC-CH focused their efforts on integrating and expanding the use of evolving networked information technologies to simplify access and on building the content of the SunSITE collection.

SunSITE staff carefully tracked networked information retrieval technology and was actively involved in developing tools that expanded the capabilities of early access protocols such as WAIS. Documents and textual information on SunSITE were typically WAIS-indexed to permit full-text searching, and WAIS formats were expanded to support easy location and retrieval of non-textual documents such as spreadsheets and maps.

To build the information content of SunSITE, staff members created locally-managed information resources and began to reach out to others with valuable information resources who lacked the means of storing and distributing this information.

One of the earliest collections made available on SunSITE was material related to the 1992 Presidential Election Campaigns. SunSITE staff contacted the campaign committees of all presidential candidates and offered to collect, organize, and electronically distribute any information the committees were willing to make available to SunSITE. The Clinton Campaign responded enthusiastically and contributed much of their material for distribution on SunSITE. Once Clinton was elected, the White House press office continued to share information with SunSITE for public distribution, including full text of presidential press conferences, statements, town meeting transcripts, and even documents like the federal budget. When important documents like the National Health Security Plan were issued, the White House press office would often send an advance copy to be fully text-indexed under WAIS and organized for Gopher access via SunSITE. When the printed document was officially released, the electronic document would be put online and often, once the initial printing was distributed, SunSITE was the only means for obtaining timely access to these documents.

Outreach to other information providers has also helped to build the SunSITE information archives. SunSITE staff began to discover others with valuable information resources who lacked either the technical knowledge or the computer resources needed to prepare and distribute their information electronically. SunSITE began a policy of outreach, offering technical consulting services and access to SunSITE resources to assist these fledgling or disenfranchised electronic publishers. Some of the earliest collections added to the SunSITE archives through outreach are the extensive sustainable agriculture archives maintained by a Chatham County, NC farmer; the first daily cartoon on the Internet, Dr. FUN, which has since gone on to syndication; EXPO (still Tim Berners-Lee's favorite site), a collection of Chinese Music; and OTIS, a collection of Internet collaborative art.

Throughout this period, SunSITE expanded both its collections and the use of networked information distribution and retrieval protocols. Local collection development efforts were further enhanced in December of 1993 when CISCO Systems, Inc. joined with the SunSITE Project to sponsor the development of educational materials for Internet distribution. The resulting CISCO Cearch archive is an extensive catalog of educational resources that are freely available to schools and educators worldwide.

SunSITE added World Wide Web services in early 1992 and soon thereafter added a dedicated T1 communications link (1.5 Mbits/sec.) to handle network traffic from SunSITE to off-campus locations.

In October of 1994, the UNC-CH campus radio station, WXYC, began simulcasting its off-air signal and became the first worldwide 24-hour radio broadcaster on the Internet. Not only does SunSITE assist in distributing the WXYC signal across the Internet, but interested parties can access SunSITE to retrieve the software tools they need to listen to WXYC or gather information on the legal issues surrounding Internet simulcast.

In addition to the SunSITE efforts at UNC-CH, Sun continued to expand the SunSITE Program by establishing SunSITEs around the world. By strategically placing SunSITEs and encouraging SunSITEs to share and replicate heavily-accessed collections, Sun is helping to establish a worldwide electronic publishing service.

Where we are today

Today, there are more than twenty SunSITEs located around the globe. The first of these was established at Imperial College in London, England and the latest came online in Beijing, China in December, 1995.

At UNC, SunSITE services are currently provided on a six-processor SPARCCenter 1000 with a gigabyte of memory and over fifty gigabytes of disk storage. The resources available on SunSITE today range from free applications and operating systems software, to graphics and art, to fiction, poetry and literature and music, to religion and politics and cultural studies. We have continued our outreach efforts and have formalized our criteria for adding materials in our Collection Policy. SunSITE at UNC currently averages about half-a-million information requests a day and holds over 47 billion bytes of information and software for free distribution via the Internet.

What the Future Holds

There are many challenges that lay ahead for Internet information service providers. The foremost among these is to manage and respond to the overwhelming growth in demand for these services. Each new technological advance in the Internet community creates both new opportunities and increased pressure to provide such services.

As information repositories and knowledge factories, universities and other educational institutions must embrace Internet technologies. The economies and timeliness of electronic publishing will require that universities use the Internet in support of their research activities. Changing demographics, which are focusing our attention on extension and outreach issues, will require that universities find new and creative ways to reach a rapidly changing student population. These new technologies will likely lead to the creation of virtual universities where enrollment and registration for classes, distribution of class materials and collection of assignments, access to libraries, office hours and lectures will all be provided across the network and where students can matriculate and graduate without ever physically visiting the campus.

Some of the newer technologies that we are actively exploring at SunSITE such as virtual reality, Internet-based video services, and object technology will undoubtedly be key components in the creation of virtual universities.

Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) is an evolving standard for describing three-dimensional space via the Internet. SunSITE has begun a 3D representation of its multimedia holdings using VRML to allow visitors who think spacially to navigate our site.

From its early days, SunSITE has been interested in video-casting on the Internet. During the UNC Bicentennial in 1994, SunSITE organized an MBONE broadcast of the visit of President Clinton to UNC for the celebration. UNC Alumni and other interested parties could participate in the event from Australia or Germany. SunSITE also used CU- SeeME to help broadcast the Black Crowes benefit concert for Oklahoma City, and SunSITE and WXYC are now experimenting with Xing Technologies' Streamworks for higher quality audio transmission. This month SunSITE and the School of Information and Library Science of UNC will participate in a remote teaching/conferencing experiment with the Computer Science Department of the University of Virginia using the innovative Grounds-wide TeleTutoring System. This system provides for electronic office hours, digital broadcast of lectures, remote study groups, and virtual classrooms.

Perhaps the most important technology gaining wide acceptance today is object technology. Object-Oriented Programming Languages like the recently released JAVA can significantly increase programmer productivity through reuse of code and JAVA has been incorporated into the latest version of Netscape to bring true interactivity to Web pages. This ability to "program" a Web page allows information providers to include sound, video and animations in their designs and to dynamically alter a page in response to user input.


We began looking at Internet-based information technology tools at UNC-CH as a means of unifying and simplifying access to campuswide information systems. Our early efforts in this area resulted in the SunSITE Project, and once we understood the technologies and gained the technical resources to provide such services, it was a natural progression to collecting and distributing information electronically. The resulting demand for these materials has clearly demonstrated the viability of these technologies and has paved the way for even more robust technologies that will support the creation of virtual universities and research communities.

Copyright © 1996 Judson Knott and Paul Jones

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