Project SunSITE

First Published: Web Week
Date Published: 1995
Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Savetz

Somewhere in the depths of the tarheel state lies a group which has spawned a veritable Mafia of HTMLers, intriguing sites and information technology pushers. The University of Northcoast Carolina's SunSITE is the birthplace of a plethora of the Net's finest sites: NandO, OTIS, IUMA, even the Elvis Home Page.

The SunSITE Project describes itself as a repository of digital archives including U.S. government hypertexts, exhibits, archives and expositions, but it is much more than that.

The organization's bland self-description, for instance, doesn't mention OTIS (which stands for Operative Term is Stimulate), a gallery, exhibition space, and browsable sketchbook for artists around the world. OTIS began in January 1993 as an image-gallery for the Internet, and a publicly accessible place for artists to store and exhibit digital copies of their images along with information about themselves and their projects.

SunSITE is headed by Paul Jones, a lecturer in UNC's schools of journalism and mass communication and library science and the inventor of SunSITE. Jones is the organization's only full-time employee. The rest of SunSITE's employees are UNC students. Contributors are actually all over the world, collaborating across continents. SunSITE's nature is collaborative and entrepreneurial.

What kind of stuff does SunSITE want? "We have a criteria, but that criteria is not well defined," Jones says. "Is it cool? Does it have any relevance, and does it implement information technology in some way that is innovative? Does it push a creative, social artistic edge?"

Other SunSITE projects include UNC's radio station, WXYC, the first real-time 24 hour Internet radio station. There's also the Vietnam Pictures Archive, U.S. Government Hypertexts and Zen@SunSITE, a collection of information about Zen philosophy.

Indeed, not all of it is useful, but all of it is interesting. Take, for example, The Elvis Home Page - or the Church of the Subgenius pages, which Jones calls "a sort of freak show of the Internet World Fair." The content of humor is as important as the content of serious research. "I have no problem with entertaining people, I think it valuable. That's part of what were trying to understand - how do you attract papule, how do you have utilitarian content, and have stuff that is fun and interesting?"

SunSITE has latitude because it has been able to have independent funding through sponsorships, rather than from the university. SunSITE is sponsored by cisco and Sun, two companies whose deep pockets and close ties to the Internet make them perfect matches for the project. The companies grant hardware and personnel funding. "SunSITE wouldn't be possible with the sponsorships," Jones said. "They enable me to employ very creative people and give them the latitude they need to do creative work."

Just putting content on the web isn't enough - "Our goal has always been for the content to be cool, if not useful. Useful helps too." Jones estimates there are 100 or more projects at UNC's SunSITE.

"The goal of SunSITE from the beginning was to create a repository of materials of interest to Sun users," Jones said, noting that the definition was purposely broad. "We wanted to develop and be involved in the first implementations of information discovery and retrieval protocols. For instance, one of the things we did that Sun could not do itself was WAIS-index all the newsgroups related to Sun." Cisco and sun exert no editorial control over SunSITE's content. Today, SunSITE still develops information resources with the sponsors, such as writing papers and collaborating on special projects.

Growing the talent

The University "isn't supposed to hoard the talent, it needs to grow the talent," Jones says. Indeed, many of the resources born at there, and the people who have created them, have moved on. For instance, SunSITE's Jim Fullton is now Director of Research & Development at The Clearinghouse for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval. UNC Alumnus Darlene Fladager went on to MIT Press and Dykki Settle went on to be vice president of Ventana On-line.

Students involved with the project come away with skills and experience that will likely be a big headstart in the job market. "There is so much more than coding involved - in fact, not much coding at all. With things changing so quickly technically, the most basic skill is not coding but the ability to become involved in the right kinds of projects and to drop the wrong kinds. Creative people with a good portfolio and solid experience in taking projects from ideas to reality are worth their weight in gold," Jones says.

IUMA - the Internet Undergound Music Archive - was born as SunSITE but has since spun off. "IUMA wasn't interesting just because they had a bunch of California garage bands; they were using some serious MPEG compression. They were pushing people to help develop players in the public domain, so people can play good quality sound instead of just 8-bit 8-kilohertz, so we all win."

The creators of OTIS were based at the University of Omaha, but weren't able to implement their vision there, so they went to SunSITE for help. Although online visual arts collaborations was likely to get folks at Omaha in trouble for undergrad geeking-out, it is just the sort of thing SunSITE searches for.

And the daily comic strip Dr. Fun is now Dilbert's buddy at United Media.

"There are two sides to SunSITE," Jones says. "One side that allows us to overcome proximity by working with folks all over the world." However, part of SunSITE's magic comes from cramming all those maniacs in a room and letting them code away. "Placing creative folks together and giving them the tools they need is also helpful and it's the other side of what we do here." Interestingly, most of SunSITE's student employees aren't computer science majors; more come from history, music, philosophy, journalism, video, library school, political science and other disciplines.

Jones used to have to solicit student interest in the project, but today "great folks come to be involved in the project," he says. "They often propose their projects to me and to the group. Some of the projects end up being off-the-clock labors of love. Others become a part of what we have to do to keep going."

Not Created by Committee

The SunSITE project is a just over 3 years old. The system started on a single Sun IPX. SunSITE was announced at Educom in October of 1991 -- the goal was 1,000 file transfers during January 1992 -- but it was a proven success even before it was announced to the public, having moved 10,000 files in the two weeks before the official announcement.

Today, SunSITE's biggest problem is still it's popularity. SunSITE runs on a sparcCenter 1000 and a dedicated T1 line, which is choked to capacity 98% of the time. The system is growing to meet demand in the near future: it's 20-odd gigs of disk space should be upgraded to 60 by this summer, and Jones hopes to see the T1 upgraded to a faster link by fall.

Perhaps more significant than speedier hardware, the SunSITE project is becoming part of Journalism and Mass Communications and part of Information and Library Science curriculums at UNC.

UNC's SunSITE was the first, but today there are 13 other SunSITEs scattered around the globe. Each has a unique slant and temperament. "I think you'll find that each is looking to find their own way although many mirror our collections," Jones says.

"The project was not created by a committee. As you cruise the web, the interesting and innovative and creative work isn't don't by committee. There's a difference when a project group does a project and when a committee does it. Committees are guardians in nature. If you want to make innovative, groundbreaking stuff, guardians are not useful," Jones says.

Articles by Kevin Savetz