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Intranets unplugged

A low-profile software consulting firm called Tibco and networking giant Cisco are helping Web publishers broadcast information directly to users.

A low-profile software consulting company called Tibco and networking giant Cisco Systems (CSCO) are working together to make it easier for Web publishers to broadcast information directly to users.

Both Microsoft and Netscape Communications, not to mention a host of smaller companies, have recently announced their intention to develop Internet "push" or broadcast tools that send information automatically to users' desktops instead of waiting for them to request it from a particular Web site.

For example, a user could subscribe to a stock quote service that would alert him or her every time a stock moved by more than two points or to a news service that broadcast updated headlines every hour.

While many industry leaders think this broadcast metaphor is the future of the Internet, the change from a more passive method of distributing information also threatens to overload existing Web server infrastructures with a constant flow of data downstream to users. The Tibco-Cisco alliance is designed to avert this problem by upgrading the Internet infrastructure specifically to relieve network congestion and speed download times in an environment where large amounts of data are being continuously broadcast.

The two companies announced today that they intend to submit technical standards for a new "publish and subscribe" model to the Internet Engineering Task Force, a key Net standards body, by the middle of next year. They also will name key partners--including Sun Microsystems, ISP Netcom, database firm Informix, and digital ID provider VeriSign--that will all pledge to support the "publish and subscribe" infrastructure.

In addition, Oracle will work with Tibco to integrate the "publish and subscribe" middleware into Oracle's Network Computing architecture.

"This announcement is about a new set of plumbing for the Internet to do the push model of information dissemination, as opposed to the 'request and reply' or client-server," said Mark Bowles, Tibco's chief technical officer.

To succeed, Tibco's initiative will require the cooperation of players at several levels: ISPs, networking hardware vendors, firewall makers, content publishers, and Internet users.

"In our view, to solve the problem you have to get people at all levels of the value chain together to take one step forward together or the problem would not get solved effectively," said Bowles, whose company is owned by publishing giant Reuters, which itself plans to use the new model to push financial data to its subscribers.

Tibco's proposed standard, technically called a "reliable multicasting protocol with subject addressing," calls for content publishers to broadcast new information once to a Web server instead of broadcasting separately to every subscriber. The intelligence in the Net itself--principally in routers and switches at various ISPs and in proxy firewalls at corporations--would then route that information to the subscribers.

The company says the modification could dramatically reduce traffic on Internet backbones, cut congestion at popular Web sites, and lessen the need for Web publishers to buy new server hardware when their traffic increases.

"If you're watching stock quotes or sports pages, the difference between sending data to thousands of subscribers in parallel, as we're doing today, vs. sending only one copy of each message is a major savings in server power and bandwidth," Bowles said. "That is our contribution to improving the responsiveness and bandwidth utilization of the Net."

But Tibco's initiative works only when everyone receives identical data, notes Kim Polese, CEO of Marimba, a start-up that has received lots of attention for its new Castanet technology, which can be used to push data or even software upgrades to users.

"It's not efficient to deliver personalized content and information; it spews out the same thing to everyone," Polese said. "The other big challenge is that you have to support it throughout the network."

Nevertheless, Tibco has assembled an impressive lineup of supporters for its launch. Cisco will embed the proposed protocol into the operating system that works with its routers, which Cisco estimates can handle about 80 percent of Internet traffic.

Sun, meanwhile, aims to make its Java programming language a key part of the "publish and subscribe" environment.

So, what's in it for Tibco? The company will also announce the new TIBnet family of products, set to ship in stages between March and June, that will help implement the "publish and subscribe" model.

The products include the "TIBnet engine" client software for Internet users, a software developers kit for building applications that take advantage of the model, a firewall proxy that supports the underlying Internet multicasting protocol, a utility kit for ISPs, and various other tools for publishers.