Life Before (And After) Archie

Peter Deutsch and Bunyip Information Systems

First Published: Internet Business Journal
Date Published: 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Kevin Savetz

There probably aren't many long-time Internet users who haven't heard of - or more likely used - "archie," a program for searching for files at anonymous FTP sites.

Peter Deutsch is one of the people behind the scenes of the Archie program. He is president of Bunyip Information Systems Inc., a startup company specializing in Internet-based information tools. Bunyip, based in Montreal, Canada, was founded in early 1992 by the creators of archie.

Archie began in 1986 when Deutsch was systems manager for the School of Computer Science at McGill University in Montreal. His predecessor had tried to convince the university to connect to the Internet, but because of the high cost - about $35,000 annually for a slow link to Boston - it was hard to convince the right people that the investment was worth it.

As he took over, Deutsch found himself with several temporary links, a subscription to CSnet (now defunct) and a load of old equipment. With a little pressure on the administration, they set up electronic mail gateways, newsfeeds and other Internet resources. Deutsch shook the right trees and managed to pay the bills.

He calls the birth of archie a "classic example of serendipity." An associate, Alan Emtage (now Deutsch's partner in Bunyip) was declared "resident pack rat," and in charge of tracking useful free software on the net. In June of 1990, "Alan wrote some simple scripts to go out and fetch listings for him so he wouldn't have to log on to each site by hand," Deutsch said. Outsiders became interested in the service, so they added a front end to the software so others could do their own software searches.

The service was a hit immediately. "Within a couple of days we were seeing as many as 20 or 30 queries a day. I promised Alan and Bill Heelan (who worked on the initial implementation) that I'd by them lunch when it hit 30 a day," Deutsch said. He has yet to deliver on that promise, although today archie serves an estimated 100,000 queries a day at some 25 sites worldwide. "Someone has suggested that the lunch must be bought in Australia!" Deutsch joked.

The initial availability of the file-searching script that was to become archie was one of the first examples of people offering "cycles" on the Internet, rather than just access and disk space, Deutsch said.

"We simply worked our way up from running links, to running system services such as DNS and e-mail gateways to running user services such as archie," Deutsch calls it "working our way up the Internet food chain."

Deutsch and Emtage formed Bunyip in January, 1992 "to support new versions of archie and to and allow us to pursue our own particular vision of how the new crop of Internet services should all be put together." The first commercially-supported version of archie - a complete rewrite of the software - was made available in October of 1992.

Deutsch built Bunyip's support staff from his university associates - of the team of six people, most now work at Bunyip. Today, Bunyip employs five fill-time workers and two part-timers.

What's a Bunyip, anyway? "A Bunyip is any one of several things," Deutsch said. "Before we came along it was, among others, a creature from Australian Aboriginal mythology, a character from a popular Australian children's story, a four person skydiving maneuver and - I think - a kid's show in somewhere like Philadelphia. We chose the name because I am in fact half Australian and as a kid I read the book I mentioned. The name kind of stuck in my head. Alan didn't seem to mind so we went with it."

The early archie software was free for service providers to obtain and use. Bunyip is trying to turn a profit, however, so Archie is now commercial software. Bunyip charges sites who offer the archie utility. "We had to start charging if we were to continue to support the archie software. Of course, there is no requirement (for service providers) to then start charging for individual queries, and in fact there are all sorts of good reasons why providers shouldn't want to do this. The norm is still unrestricted access to the entire community from most archies," he said.

"I don't think charging for information is a crime, any more than charging for food is a crime," Deutsch said. "On the other hand, I agree that letting people starve is a crime and right now people are starving for information."

Deutsch is trying to build a self-sufficient information publishing industry on the Internet. Their goal is to get as much information as possible on the net.

Currently, all of the Internet's archie sites pay the license and support fees. Deutsch points out that the cost of the license fee is minimal in relation to the cost of hardware and maintenance.

"Australian and European sites are very interested in minimizing trans-oceanic link traffic - those lines are expensive and delaying a needed upgrade for even six months can easily save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Since FTP is the single largest contributor to their traffic, anything we can do to help people find things they need locally is a win and an archie license is thus pretty easy to justify," Deutsch said.

In North America, the reasons service providers offer archie are more varied. "Some smaller sites are happy to raise the profile of their institution. Some commercial sites are interested in product differentiation and name recognition, offering their customers something besides a raw bitpipe. And yes, some sites do believe that it is in everyone's interest to give back something to the net for the whole community," he said.

The onslaught of new network tools available, like Archie, Gopher, Veronica, World Wide Web and so on, have benefited the community of end users, Deutsch says. The applications broke a mental log jam that developers were in in the late 1980s. "At that point, although the Internet was growing at a tremendous rate, people were still using essentially the same tools as ten years previously... the "big three" of telnet, e-mail and FTP reigned supreme and the energy was going into packet formats, routing and maybe Domain Name Service." Deutsch said. "Nobody was worrying about the end user, since the end user community was assumed to be a bunch of computer science grad students who could look out for themselves." The new crop of tools that have emerged in the past three years "allows all sorts of things that weren't possible before. Something important is now underway and I think it's probably as significant as the wide-scale deployment of electricity in the last century."

"Once people saw that the net really was more that a way to exchange e-mail things started to really take off and we're now finding people using it regularly who are not computer science and engineering geeks. I think this is the single greatest change since we started. I like to think that those of us who helped with that first crop of new tools are in part responsible for this," he said.

Bunyip's current project, currently being tested, consists of an information publishing and distribution service based on archie. The initial pilot will concentrate on offering a basic set of system information offerings, including the existing archie, an index of Gopherspace, a Yellow Pages service (for finding services throughout the Internet), an index of mailing lists, and "a whole bunch more," Deutsch said.

Bunyip will offer the software to access providers for a yearly fee for redistribution to their own community. They in turn can give it away or charge for it as they see fit.

So, is there life after archie? Deutsch thinks that this is just the beginning. "People are starving for information," he said. "Once we have more valuable information - not just better formatted filenames in archie, I mean quality reference works and so on - you're going to find people will be willing to pay something for tools that help them tame Cyberspace. This in turn will bring in more information, which will feed the cycle...and we're off to the races. It's breath-taking to watch it happen right before our eyes. It's like the PC revolution all over again, only this time I find myself helping to make it happen. This is without a doubt the most fun I've ever had."

Articles by Kevin Savetz