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Deployment Strategy of Netscape at CERN

  Miguel Marquina IT/User Support

In my role as the person responsible for the User Support activities, I have been invited to offer you some clarifications concerning the deployment strategy followed by IT Division regarding the Netscape browser, and also to launch a new proposal which, we hope, will improve the situation as far you are concerned.

Although you may find this article rather verbose, I felt it was important to provide you with the necessary information so you could have a better perspective for understanding why the events have happened the way they did.

The article is structured into three different sections: first of all a brief summary of the current availability on the different CERN platforms is given. This is followed by a short history of the deployment made so far and the background reasons for it. (You might want to skip this in a first reading.) Finally the immediate steps for the near future and a new proposed policy, which IT Division would like to follow after endorsement by the User Community, are presented.

What is available at CERN and who looks after it?

The following is a summary of the Netscape versions available at present on the different public services:
NICE:2.02       Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 2 Gold
     3.01       Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 3
     3.01 Gold  Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 3 Gold
     4.04       Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 4
     4.04       Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 4 mail

UNIX:2.02       netscape
     3.01 Gold  netscape -version beta,netscape -version gold

Macs:2.02       NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape Lite
     3.01       NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape
     4.03       NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape Test

The corresponding responsible teams and the contact points are:

Netscape: the complete story

Sometimes the reasons behind the way the Netscape browser has been introduced and deployed so far on the different CERN platforms may have not been explained clearly enough to users. This has created, in fact, some confusion regarding policy (or, from the user point of view, an apparent lack of it).

The last "light" version of Netscape

When Netscape Navigator (version 2, or 2.02 to be more precise) was introduced at CERN in April 1996, we all considered it one of the best Web browsers ever released (beating its closest competitor NCSA Mosaic, which never went beyond version 2.6, leaving 2.7 in a beta state forever). Netscape was packed with plenty of functionality, even with the early touches of JavaScript, and still was relatively modest in required resources compared to version 1.1N.

Version 3, still called "Navigator", came about six months later, and there the problems began. First of all, the UNIX versions were not completely stable. As usual in the commercial world, the company had developed first the PC version, followed by the Mac and UNIX ones, and the consolidation and quality of the finished product seemed to have the same ranking of priorities. By the time UNIX users were starting to experiment with version 3, the PC users were well using it as a de-facto standard.

One problem above all showed up immediately during our deployment tests: version 3 required at least twice as much memory resources, imposing on PCs and Macs a bare minimum configuration of 16Mb to have it usable. For a NICE user this was not really a problem (they had gone into standardizing on 32Mb PCs a while before), but many Mac users were left behind and serious concerns were raised on the impact of the concurrent running of the UNIX versions on the overall performance of our public UNIX Services (PLUS and WGS).

Due mainly to this dramatic change in the resources required to run 3.01 Gold (the Navigator final stable release), it was decided to make it available on the UNIX platforms through the ASIS repository via the commands:

           netscape -version beta, netscape -version gold
but not to turn it into the default user version (which stayed as 2.02). The NICE Service, on the other hand, proposed it to their users as the recommended version since the typical NICE-PC configurations could afford it without problems.

The deployment asymmetry created by the above did not disturb users too much until version 4 came out (except for CERNSP where 2.02 was not Java-ready and users wanting these features had to resort to the "beta" version).

Netscape Communicator

Its release history is quite disappointing. Scheduled initially to be released by spring 1997 and after several months of waiting for the promised software, versions started to be available (starting of course with the PC one) in June.

One of the major points of interest from CERN's point of view was the change of its mail protocol to be aligned with the one recommended here (IMAP versus the previous POP3; see related article, "Two Different Ways to Handle your Mail", in this issue). Actually the decision of Netscape to support IMAP in its latest release gave some hope to the CERN Mail Service team that the Mail component would allow the long-desired cross-platform standardization on a single mail agent which could be used by NICE, Macintosh and UNIX users alike.

It has been perhaps the one most outstanding single reason to have driven our different teams to be definitely pro-active about the deployment of version 4 on the various platforms, although not the only one; the slow degradation of the QuickMail service was putting pressure on the decision making process and the response from enthusiastic beta-test users was encouraging.

The feelings about the "Holy Grail" solution were so strong that something essential was being "ignored": the fact that we were testing the different version upgrades (four by now, the latest dated November 1997) almost at the same speed as Netscape Corp. was producing them.

As a consequence we were in the debugging front-line of their product rather than allowing a safe period of time and letting their large customer market do it for us (as had been done in the past, a reason for which the software has been always introduced at CERN with a bit of delay compared to its official release).

The other point of concern (even greater than before) is that the Communicator suite is now a product which exceeds in complexity and size any of the previous versions. Care has to be taken in deciding which of the modules to offer, and even then how to provide default user configurations which match CERN recommendations (thus simplifying notably the support tasks).

While 4.04 seems to be solid enough on Macs and PCs (fixing a variety of bugs present in earlier upgrades), we wish to be reassured of the stability of the UNIX variants and evaluate in a controlled environment their possible impact on our public Services.

Proposed Deployment Strategy

I have tried to explain and, to a certain extent, justify the criteria used so far by IT services in the introduction of the different versions of Netscape on-site. They have certainly not been intended and should not be understood as a deliberate brake to allowing users to get the latest technology on their desktop.

Having said that, it is clearly desirable (and you have already pointed this out to us) to have a uniform policy regarding Netscape releases on the different CERN platforms, if for no other reason than to prevent de-synchronization effects such as access to different features depending on the platform you work on.

For these reasons, we intend to submit the following proposal to the relevant bodies where user representatives are involved:

  1. Keep only one default version, the so called "Certified" version, available on all platforms (NICE, public UNIX Services and Macs through the DIS/MAC software repository server).

    The aim is to offer the same release (4, 5, etc.) everywhere, although sometimes it may not be possible because we depend on Netscape producing stable versions on all platforms within a reasonable timetable.

  2. Offer Netscape 2.02 as the "Light" version (as long as it is compatible with the CERN Recommendations and Guidelines concerning the production of WWW information on all platforms at CERN).

  3. Offer a "Test" version of the software at any given moment, which will be made available as soon as basic stability criteria are fulfilled (as far as the corresponding services can certify).

    The name is supposed to convey to users the idea that the software has not yet been certified by the relevant CERN services and should, in that respect, be used with caution. For instance, pages produced for the test version may not be usable/browsed correctly by users of the current default version.

    In general the test products need not be the same version across all platforms, but will frequently be the latest version released by Netscape for that platform.

    As far as access is concerned, the software will be offered to users in the following way:

    NICE:Certified   Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape
         Light       Start Menu:More Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape 2 (Light)
         Test        Start Menu:Test Applications:World Wide Web:Netscape
    UNIX:Certified   netscape
         Light       netscape -version 2, netscape -version light
         Test        netscape -version test
    Macs:Certified   NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape
         Light       NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape 2 (Light)
         Test        NOVELL:Srv0_Nice:Srv0_Nice.MACPGM:Install Applications:Install Netscape Test

    Steps for the immediate future

    Netscape 4.04 is stable on the PC side, and this seems to be true also on the MAC side. In order to bring all services concerned into gradual harmonization, we intend to complete evaluation of the UNIX versions at the beginning of 1998. After a testing period during which we would like to collect all relevant user feedback, we hope that version 4.04 will be introduced as "Certified" at the end of January 1998.

    We hope that from then on we will be able to satisfy better your expectations or at least you will have a better understanding of why we have become rather conservative when implementing for 10000 CERN users what many have already available on their home computers.

    next up previous
    Next: End of the Central Support for UIM/X on HP-UX Up: cnl229.html Previous: Extensions to the Weekly Accounting Reports