|Title||Building a Network Information Services Infrastructure
P. Smith, A. Marine
Network Working Group D. Sitzler
Request For Comments: 1302 Merit
FYI: 12 P. Smith
Building a Network Information Services Infrastructure
Status of This Memo
This memo provides information for the Internet community. It does
not specify an Internet standard. Distribution of this memo is
This FYI RFC document is intended for existing Internet Network
Information Center (NIC) personnel, people interested in establishing
a new NIC, Internet Network Operations Centers (NOCs), and funding
agencies interested in contributing to user support facilities. The
document strives to:
- Define a basic set of essential services that Network
Information Centers (NICs) will provide to Internet users,
including new mechanisms that will facilitate the timely
dissemination of information to the Internet community and
encourage cooperation among NICs.
- Describe existing NIC services as an aid to Internet users
and as a model for organizations establishing new NICs.
This document reflects the work of the Network Information Services
Infrastructure (NISI) working group in the User Services area of the
IETF. Because the working group participants represent a cross-
section of existing Internet NICs, the opinions expressed herein are
representative of groups currently providing information services
within the Internet community.
Table of Contents
1. PURPOSE........................................................ 2
2. DEVELOPMENT GUIDELINES......................................... 3
3. DEFINITION OF A NIC AND A NOC.................................. 3
4. HISTORY........................................................ 3
5. ESSENTIAL NIC FUNCTIONS........................................ 5
5.1 Provide Information Resources................................. 5
5.2 Support End-Users............................................. 6
5.3 Collect and Maintain NIC Referral Information................. 7
5.4 Support the NIC Infrastructure................................ 7
6. EXAMPLES OF PRESENT NIC SERVICES............................... 8
6.1 Direct User Support........................................... 8
6.1.1 Referrals................................................... 8
6.1.2 User-to-User Communication.................................. 8
6.1.3 Application Support......................................... 9
6.1.4 Technical Support........................................... 9
6.1.5 Emergency Services.......................................... 9
6.2 User Training Services........................................ 9
6.3 Marketing and Public Relations Services....................... 9
6.3.1 Newsletters................................................. 9
6.3.2 Other Publications.......................................... 9
6.3.3 PR Activities............................................... 9
6.4 Information Repository Services............................... 9
6.5 Administrative Services....................................... 10
7. EXAMPLES OF PRESENT INFORMATION DELIVERY MECHANISMS............ 10
8. DATABASE ACCURACY ISSUES....................................... 11
9. SECURITY CONSIDERATIONS........................................ 12
10. AUTHORS' ADDRESSES............................................ 13
The purpose of this document is to define the role of NICs in the
Internet and establish guidelines for new and existing NICs regarding
the user services they provide. This document is also a move toward
standardizing NIC services, which will aid in the development of an
overall information infrastructure that will allow NICs to easily and
routinely cooperate in assisting users.
NICs for networks that are part of the Internet may be called upon to
serve users of the greater Internet as well as those of their own
networks. This responsibility brings with it the added challenge of
coordinating services with other NICs to better serve the general
Internet community. Toward that end, this document also proposes
some easily implemented changes to facilitate the exchange of
information and services between NICs.
2. DEVELOPMENT GUIDELINES
The NISI working group observed several guidelines when developing
this FYI RFC.
1. While recognizing that the new infrastructure should be built
on existing services, programs, and technology, the working group
did not want to limit its thinking to the present, preferring to
consider new approaches and to think toward the future. The goal
is to move in the direction of an information services
infrastructure for the National Research and Education Network
2. The working group recognizes that a user support system must
accommodate a diverse user population, from novice to network
3. The working group recognizes that not all NICs are interested
in providing service at the Internet level nor in providing service
directly to end users. Some NICs have special areas of interest
and serve a more limited community. Many campus NICs, for example,
restrict the scope of their efforts to campus computing activities.
Therefore, an Internet NIC must have policies, procedures, and
delivery mechanisms in place to serve not only end-users, but to
aid other information providers and user support agencies.
3. DEFINITION OF A NIC AND OF A NOC
A Network Information Center is an organization whose goal is to
provide informational, administrative, and procedural support,
primarily to users of its network and, secondarily, to users of the
greater Internet and to other service agencies.
A Network Operations Center (NOC) is an organization whose goal is to
oversee and maintain the daily operations of a network. Although
sometimes one organization may fulfill the duties of both a NIC and a
NOC, this document assumes NIC functions to be separate from NOC
functions and addresses NIC functions only. Obviously, however, a
NIC must work closely with its NOC to ensure users get the best
When the original Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET)
was formed, SRI was assigned the essential administrative task of
registering every host on the network and maintaining the Official
Host Table. This host table was needed to interconnect the hosts
into a network. SRI also became the repository for the RFCs, most of
which were only available in paper copies because a file transfer
protocol had yet to be specified. Because of its role as a central
information repository in these ways, SRI became the natural place
for users to call with questions, and the first NIC was born.
In 1984, the original network split into two networks: the ARPANET
and the MILNET. The ARPANET was laid to rest in 1990, and the
original NIC became the Defense Data Network NIC (DDN-NIC). This NIC
was sometimes referred to as the "SRI-NIC" or sometimes simply as
"the NIC". Today this NIC is maintained by Government Systems, Inc.,
and provides information services to the MILNET portion of the DDN,
as well as performing several administrative duties that serve the
entire Internet community. SRI continues to provide general Internet
information services and maintains an FTP repository.
The days of having just one or two networks are long gone. Today,
the Internet is an international collection of thousands of networks
interconnected with the TCP/IP protocols. Users of any one of these
networks can use the network services provided by TCP/IP to reach any
of the other networks.
There are other major wide area networks, such as BITNET and DECnet
networks, that are not based on the TCP/IP protocols and are thus not
considered part of the Internet itself. However, users can
communicate between these networks and the Internet via electronic
mail, so Internet NICs often answer questions regarding these
NICs exist for many of the networks that make up today's Internet.
For example, in addition to the MILNET, in the United States there
are the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), the Energy
Science Network (ESnet), and the NASA Science Internet (NSI). All of
these networks provide NICs.
BITNET is a non-TCP/IP network that is accessible to the Internet via
electronic mail. Its administrative organization, the Corporation
for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), supports NIC services
for BITNET users.
Many networks in countries other than the United States also provide
NIC services. For example, such services exist for NORDUnet, which
connects national networks in the Nordic countries, and JANet, the
Joint Academic Network in the United Kingdom. The BITNET
counterparts in Europe and Canada are the European Academic and
Research Network (EARN) and NetNorth, respectively.
5. ESSENTIAL NIC FUNCTIONS
Network Information Centers exist to provide services that make using
the network easier and more attractive to users.
To help meet this goal, four essential NIC functions have been
identified as those that every Internet NIC should perform. These
are the basic functions that define the minimum level of Internet
information service. Each Internet NIC should:
- Provide information resources.
- Support end-users through direct contact.
- Collect and maintain NIC referral information.
- Support the NIC infrastructure.
The level of each service and the exact mechanisms for providing
these services depend on the needs of the particular network user
community. Funding, staffing, and implementation issues related to
these functions are left up to individual NIC organizations.
Presently, only the first two functions, providing information
resources and directly supporting end-users, are routinely performed
by Internet NICs. The variety of ways in which these services are
provided is described more fully in the section on, "Examples of
Present NIC Services".
The last two functions, collecting information about other NICs and
supporting the NIC infrastructure, are new roles that have evolved as
the Internet community and the number of NICs have grown.
Each of these four essential functions is discussed in some depth in
5.1 Provide Information Resources
Information resources refers to both online and hard-copy resources,
such as online files, marketing information, and newsletters. NICs
help users gain access to relevant information in several ways.
- Obtain information online from other sites and store
it at the local NIC where users may access it.
- Refer users to information stored at other locations
around the Internet. This option requires that each
NIC maintain up-to-date information regarding such
- Create information, such as newsletters, marketing
information, tutorial files or documents, and make
it available to users. In this case, the "creating
NIC" is solely responsible for the content and
accuracy of the information provided.
In all of the cases above, users need a way to verify the
authenticity and currentness of the information. Accordingly, each
NIC should provide the following information for everything it makes
available to its users and the Internet community: 1) a time stamp,
2) a revision number, and 3) the name of the NIC that produced the
document. The NIC should also maintain contact information regarding
the source of a file, but does not necessarily have to include such a
contact in the online file.
5.2 Support End-Users
A NIC serves as the principle source of network information for its
end users. NICs field a variety of user inquiries, such as requests
for how to get connected to the Internet, how to locate and access a
particular application on the network, how to determine an e-mail
address, and how to solve operational problems. Each NIC must take a
best effort approach to responding to these inquiries and take
responsibility for a user inquiry until it is resolved in some way.
Resolution may be answering the question, referring the user to the
appropriate information source, or coordinating with a NOC to resolve
a user connectivity problem.
To facilitate this role of information provider, the following
delivery mechanisms are used:
- Telephone "hotline" support. All NICs need to be
available to answer phone inquiries during the
- Electronic mail. An electronic mail address acts as
an electronic help desk. For consistency, the
electronic mail address should be of the form
NIC@domain (e.g., NIC@DDN.MIL). Such a common
addressing convention will move toward
standardization of these "electronic help desks" and
will increase the chance that users will know where
to ask for help. In addition, a user inquiry to a
NIC e-mail address should either produce a human
response or an up-to-date machine response that
performs a triage function by advising the user
where to go for particular categories of problems.
For example, a message to NIC@NSF.NET could return a
message alerting the user to the NNSC@NNSC.NSF.NET
and the NSFNET-INFO@MERIT.EDU mailboxes, both of
which provide information for NSFNET.
- Electronic information transfer. NICs should
provide information in electronic form, and make it
available across the Internet through mechanisms
such as anonymous file transfer, electronic mail,
and remote databases.
5.3 Collect and Maintain NIC Referral Information
With the recent dramatic increase in the number of networks, users,
and applications accessible via the Internet, it is impossible for
any one NIC to maintain comprehensive, up-to-date information of all
the services and information available. Because such information is
distributed among many NICs, it is essential for each NIC to be aware
of other NICs and their areas of expertise. Such shared information
among NICs ensures that Internet users will be referred promptly to
the correct information resource.
In an effort to gather data about NICs and their resources,
information will be solicited from each NIC and placed in a database
called "nic-profiles". This database will be available to all NICs.
Such shared information among NICs ensures that Internet users will
be referred promptly to the correct information resource. For
information regarding joining or using the nic-profiles database,
send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
5.4 Support the NIC Infrastructure
It is essential that each NIC take an active part in supporting the
NIC/Internet infrastructure. Two means of providing such support are
- Attend the IETF User Services Working Group (USWG).
NICs are encouraged to participate in the USWG, an
ongoing working group of the IETF, which is
chartered to identify, discuss, and recommend
solutions to user service issues. The group meets
regularly at the IETF meetings. (Information about
IETF meeting schedules, etc., is available for
anonymous FTP from nnsc.nsf.net. The directory is
ietf.) The USWG has spawned a variety of working
groups dealing with specific user service topics.
To join the USWG mailing list send an e-mail request
- Participate in nic-forum. An electronic mailing
list, "nic-forum", will provide NIC personnel with a
means of soliciting information from other NICs,
offering solutions to common problems, and posting
information of general interest. A NIC can register
in the nic-forum, as well as provide information for
the nic-profiles database, by sending a message to
6. EXAMPLES OF PRESENT NIC SERVICES
There are a variety of ways through which existing NICs fulfill the
basic requirements previously indicated under "Essential NIC
Today's Internet NICs provide network users with a wide array of
value-added services. The types and levels of services vary for any
particular NIC depending on a number of issues such as funding,
audience served, available resources, and mission of the network
An overview of some of the services offered today by Internet NICs is
listed below. This overview provides examples of the essential
services recommended earlier, and also gives a flavor of the many
avenues through which value-added user services are provided. This
section provides examples, not recommendations.
6.1 Direct User Support
The main objective of a Network Information Center is to provide
support for network users. Most NICs provide both telephone and
electronic mail hotlines for convenient user access. Existing NICs
also often serve as intermediaries between users and the technical
experts who provide specific information. Because NICs interact
directly with end-users, they can frequently evaluate their services,
and modify them to accommodate changing user needs.
6.1.1 Referrals. Today's NICs are aware of other Internet resources
and keep such referral information as up-to-date as possible.
6.1.2 User-to-User Communication. NICs can facilitate interactions
between network users. Often this is done through conferencing
or electronic mail. For example, a NIC can set up a computer
conference dealing with a specific discipline or perhaps a
specific topic so that users can share ideas and information
with each other. Some NICs establish special interest groups and
hold in-person meetings to promote the exchange of information
between their users.
6.1.3 Application Support. NICs often provide user support for
specific host applications in addition to providing information
and support about the network to which the host is attached.
6.1.4 Technical Support. Technical experts are available at NIC
locations or elsewhere to trouble shoot user problems. The range
and variety of technical expertise varies with the organization.
6.1.5 Emergency Services. Most NICs provide immediate notification to
users of impending events that may affect their network usage.
This is often done through electronic mail bulletins which state
the particular event, its impact, and its duration.
6.2 User Training Services
NICs sponsor seminars, classes, and training workshops intended to
assist users in understanding the network environment. These
training events range from general "what is the Internet" to
workshops on specific topics such as how to use a super-computer
6.3 Marketing and Public Relations Services
6.3.1 Newsletters. Some Internet NICs publish newsletters which are
used to inform subscribers about network developments and tools,
and as marketing documents to try to get more organizations to
attach to the network.
6.3.2 Other Publications. Many NICs also produce a variety of
general purpose brochures and "how-to" documents which are
distributed to potential network users.
6.3.3 PR Activities. NICs may be involved in a variety of public
relations activities from writing and distributing press releases
about new network developments to holding press conferences to
announce significant technological events.
6.4 Information Repository Services
An important activity of NICs is producing and/or collecting
information of interest to their users. Most NICs provide
hardware to store such information online and distribute the
information to their users both electronically and in hard-copy
6.5 Administrative Services
Many NICs perform registration services, such as registering user
information in a white pages database, keeping a record of hosts on
their networks, or keeping a record of contacts for hosts, networks,
7. EXAMPLES OF PRESENT INFORMATION DELIVERY MECHANISMS
Information is delivered to network users via a wide variety of
mechanisms. The most common methods are electronic mail and file
transfer protocol (FTP); however, information is also relayed via the
telephone, FAX machines, U.S. mail, and in-person seminars, as well
as via electronic bulletin boards and remote database access. NICs
are always looking for ways of making information broadly accessible
so that the maximum number of network users can use it effectively.
The following table lists the various information delivery methods
used in the Internet today, and notes the kind of information
distributed using each method.
Table 1: AVAILABLE INFORMATION AND DELIVERY MECHANISMS
Delivery Mechanism Type of Information Available
FTP Network maps, functional specs,
draft RFCs, newsletters,
protocols, any information in
a file: ASCII, binary, etc.
electronic mail General information, newsletters,
announcements, security alerts,
network status information
bulletin board General information, announcements,
hard copy Newsletters, user guides, resource
guides, press releases, promotional
presentations/seminars Network applications, technology
trends, technical overviews,
general information about Internet
environment, TCP/IP overviews
Telnet Remote systems, applications
person-to-person Answers to specific questions,
contact information, referrals
electronic conference Other users, discipline-specific
information services General information, promotional
information, local interest
directory services Phone book information (white
pages, and eventually yellow pages)
library services Bibliographies, full text,
phone Specific requests, contacts,
referrals, connecting assistance
U.S. mail Newsletters, user guides
FAX Variety of printed material
Finger, whois User data
8. DATABASE ACCURACY ISSUES
As has been mentioned elsewhere in this paper, NICs often are the
sites of databases of various types of information, which are
maintained for various reasons. It is recommended that NICs
emphasize the importance of keeping such data as accurate as
possible. In addition, it is important to allow people some control
over personal information about them that may reside in a NIC
database, especially if the information will be available publicly.
It is recommended that, as part of the process of collecting
information for a database, a NIC should disclose the following
information to those supplying data:
- Why the information is being collected and how it will be used.
- What the consequences are of not providing the asked for data or
of revoking data in a database.
- Which information asked for is mandatory and which is optional.
- Which information will be made public.
- How the data can be updated and who may provide updates.
- How and how often the NIC will solicit for data updates.
A NIC should actively seek updates to its data at least once a year.
The date publicly available data was last updated should be part of
the public information available about that data. In general, users
should know when personal information about them is available in a
public database, and have the opportunity to change it or revoke it.
9. SECURITY CONSIDERATIONS
Because NICs interact directly with network users, they will have to
deal with network and host security issues at times. NICs should be
aware of those agencies and groups on the Internet that have the
responsibility of handling security incidents so that users can be
properly referred when necessary, and so the NICs themselves have
resources to call on should a major incident occur. NICs should be
aware of security issues and security information resources, such as
network mailing lists and the Site Security Handbook (FYI 8, RFC
1244), and advocate the importance of security considerations to
their users. NICs should have explicit procedures in place to follow
in the event of a security incident. Such procedures will probably
include the means of interacting with both response centers and NOCs,
as well as with users.
10. AUTHORS' ADDRESSES
Dana D. Sitzler
Merit Network, Inc
1075 Beal Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2112
Phone: (313) 936-2648
Patricia G. Smith
Merit Network, Inc
1075 Beal Avenue
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2112
Phone: (313) 936-3000
April N. Marine
Network Information Systems Center
333 Ravenswood Avenue, EJ294
Menlo Park, CA 94025-3493
Phone: (415) 859-5318