Practical Technology

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Gophering the Internet


Let’s face it, getting the most out of the Internet isn’t easy. Even archie, described in my last visit, only helps with one specific area of net use, finding and ftping files. Probably more than a few of you have been saying, “The net is neat but why does it have to be so hard?” Well, these days, with the right software, it doesn’t have to be so hard. There are two user-friendly programs that makes using the Internet’s resources easier than ever before: gopher and wais.

Before this dynamic duo showed up, some of the net’s most valuable resources were only available to a lucky few in the know. The most important of these resources are the online databases. These systems provide public access to everything from library catalogs to technical documentation collections. Unfortunately few people knew how to access these databases. Now, with gopher at your side, you can liberate this information for your own uses.


Gopher and wais may sound like Ren and Stimpy, but they’re anything but cartoons. Unlike the other tools I’ve been looking at, ftp and archie, gopher is a general purpose information tool. Gopher builds on the foundation of ftp, archie and other information sources to erect an easy-to-use, menu-driven interface to the net’s file and informational resources.

Gopher was ‘born’ at the University of Minnesota, the Golden Gophers. Its name is a bad pun on the University’s sports team name and the program’s purpose, ‘go-fer’ the data gopher!

Unlike archie, which relies on a centralized archie database of ftpable files, gopher doesn’t rely on any particular data collection. To use the analogy of a library, archie is like a card catalog dedicated to publicly available files. Gopher, on the other hand, is like a librarian. Gopher doesn’t know where a particular item is but it does knows where to find out where information is hiding.

The best thing about gopher is that you don’t have to have a clue about where some file or bit of information is. IP addresses, file formats, domain names, forget ’em, with Gopher you don’t need to know Unix esoteria. Gopher does the dirty work, all you have to do is pose the questions.

Getting a Gopher

To get gopher started you should have a gopher client on your system. If you don’t, you can telnet your way to a site with a publicly accessible gopher client the same way you can access archie.

You shouldn’t have to do this, however. Gopher client programs are free and come in makes and models for almost every architecture and operating system under the sun. While the Unix character-based interface is the most common front-end to gopher, you can also get a HyperCard-style gopher for the Macintosh and a DOS-character interface based sub-species for PCs. You can get the right one for your system by using archie to find a nearby site with ftpable gopher files. If all else fails, you can always find the gopher clients at the site: in the pub/gopher directory. Always look for a closer site first, however, everyone who a net’s expert knows about boom-box and that site can be very busy.

Once you’ve installed the program, usually a simple task, although you will require system administrator privileges on Unix systems, you type gopher at your command prompt. You’re then presented with a set of menus. You then select the choice that looks like the best path to your informational destination. You could, for instance decide, that you want to find a library with a copy of the newest Tom Clancy thriller.

In the pre-gopher days, you’d do this by telneting to every computerized library catalog you could think of. Right, like everyone knows IP addresses or domain names for automated card catalogs. Even after you found your library and its access point, you then faced the problem of how to log into the system. Some just let you right in, some require a user id of ‘guest,’ others, ‘anonymous’ and so on. And, if you made it that far, you’d have to figure out to that system’s particular each idiosyncrasies. It’s no wonder that until recently Internet information access has been a black art practiced only by net gurus.

Go-Fer It.

With gopher, however, the gopher server takes care of all this. Your client gopher starts looking for the information. It does this by first checking for local resources, usually a gopher server, or telnets to a preset gopher service.

Gopher clients come with a pre-coded gopher server they look to for information, but this can, and should be, changed to access the closest available gopher server. The server, presented with your request then tries to figure out where to find the information. All you know, sitting at your desk, is that a few seconds after you start your inquiry is that gopher has presented you with menu choices that take you closer to your destination.

These choices come in two forms: resources and directories. A directory, marked with a ‘/’ at the end of its menu item, indicates that choosing this item will lead you to a sub-menu. Resources are, like the name indicates, actual sources of information.

From the menus, you proceed to narrow down your choices until you can reach an appropriate resource. In our search for our Clancy high-tech shoot em-up, for example, we can probably live without looking into card catalogs for libraries thousands of miles away,

Eventually, you end up with what you and gopher agree is probably a system or program that can supply you with the information or file you need. At this point, you and Gopher go-fer for it.
When you access a resource, gopher takes over the job of logging in to the computer and service. Gopher also shields you from the local system. No matter what you’re logged into, you use gopher’s search interface, not the remote systems.

This has one great advantage, you never have to learn the ins and outs of a database you may only use once. There are two mirror image problems to gopher’s approach. The first is that while gopher can perform fairly complicated searches, you may not know if the software gopher is talking to can handle it.

Archie, for example, can only search on a single word. Or, you could try searching for say ‘386DX and Unix’ Some systems take that to mean you want to know about books or articles which contain both the words ‘386DX’ and ‘Unix.’ Others assume you really want the phrase ‘386DX and Unix’. With gopher, in the way, you’ll only know that your searches are going wrong.

The flip side to this is that gopher defaults to the lowest common denominator searching. The resource you’re accessing may be capable of very precise searches, but you’ll be limited to gopher’s search capacities. Gopher, for instance, can’t tell the difference between lowercase and uppercase. This may not be a big deal if you’re only occasionally on a data hunt, but big-time information hunters will want to throw gopher out the window. At least they’ll feel that way until they recall how much work hunting for information without gopher is.

Another thing you should keep in mind with Gopher’s is that sometimes Gopher may dig up an information resource for you that you can’t access. The most common example of this is are the news services. The UPI news feed is available, for example, on many academic sites but its inaccessible from most commercial sites no matter what the gopher menu says.

Another interesting point is that not all gopher servers are the same. Some servers may be much stronger in certain areas than they are in others. That’s because gopher servers tend to be best connected to local resources. The original gopher server at the University of Minnesota, to no surprise, is filled with information resources from that school. One of the neater things about gopher, however, is that you’re not limited to a single server. You can use gopher to hunt for other gopher servers that might give you access to information that’s more your speed.

Flaws, and all, you’ll never mistake gopher for such powerful single purpose, online information retrevial engines as Ziffnet’s Computer Library, gopher does have its good points. Because gopher brings the almost limitless information resources to your reach, gopher is an invaluable tool for any Internet explorer. Gopher’s not the only one that making the Internet a better place for information hunters. Next time around, I’ll take a look at wais and, still making the transition from experiment to the essential, the Web.

A version of this story was published in Computer Shopper in 1993.

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