Account services

Bulletin Informatique, Octobre 1998, 30-32.

EIONET – The Extranet of the European Environment Agency

Introduction

EIONET (the European Environment Information and Observation Network) was established with the same Council regulation (1290/90) that also laid foundation to the European Environment Agency.  Thus, EEA was created as a network organization from the start.

The telematic network of EIONET was built with the support of DGIII's IDA Programme, DGIA, and EEA's own budget during 1996-98.  It now consists of 35 installed nodes across at National Focal Points (NFP) of the European Union member countries, those of the Phare (Central and Eastern European) countries and at European Topic Centres (ETC).

NFPs are units in national environment ministries or other authorities, whereas ETCs are contractors of EEA that cover information processing in some thematic area, such as air, water, soil, and nature.

The main purpose of EIONET is to facilitate the collection of information for the process of reporting on the state of environment.  It is a collaborative network, where information originally produced by the numerous National Reference Centres (NRC) is in a co-ordinated way collected to the NFPs and merged at the ETCs for publication by the EEA.  Besides data collection, EIONET has also other technical uses such as project co-ordination, facilitating documentation for meetings, reducing information overload, and being a generic platform for application development.

Technical solutions

Each EIONET node comprises a server (running one of 4 different implementations of Unix) that runs the CIRCLE groupware.

(Note: CIRCLE is known as IRC at the Commission, but since the term IRC is standardized in the Internet with other meanings, we have customized it for EIONET and another name has been adopted.)

CIRCLE (a.k.a. IRC) has been developed by European Dynamics S.A. in a project led by Eurostat and sponsored by IDA.

Its main capacity is document management, where lots of functionalities are supported such as user uploads, metainformation, search, and email notifications.   Other functions include NNTP-based newsgroup discussions, meeting announcements, and a generic web space, called information service.  These services, that are powered by the servers of the underlying Netscape SuiteSpot, and hence are fully Internet-aware, have been packaged to protected project areas called interest groups (IG).

Information about users is held in an LDAP-based common site directory, where also usernames and passwords are kept. From the site directory, users can be hand-picked to the various IGs where they may have different access rights.  Access rights are fully customizable and can be overridden with a great flexibility within the document library.

EIONET operates as an Extranet.  That is, all the servers are on the open Internet within the domain eionet.eu.int.  The servers have a public welcome pages, but entering CIRCLE services requires logging in using
the 'Basic Authentication' mechanism of the HTTP protocol.

EIONET servers are protected by routers and firewalls that drop all other packets than those destined to the http, nntp, ldap, and smtp ports of CIRCLE.  This level of security has been considered appropriate by the owners of the data.

Use of CIRCLE on EIONET

There currently are about 50 interest groups on the EIONET CIRCLEs combined. You can find a list of them at EIONET public site http://www.eionet.eu.int/.

A procedure to collect total statistics is still being developed, but a rough estimate of the current use is about 200.000 hits /month.  The real usage patterns are still  developing, though, as most servers have had their groupware just for a few months.

The most popular uses are joint editing and reviewing of documents.  An author uploads a draft and solicits comments on email or to newsgroups.  Contributors' input is taken up in the next version by the author.  Major products such as the 2nd Dobris Assessment on State of Environment in Europe and the EU'98 Report have been produced that way.

Email attachments are no longer distributed to groups of people — just URLs to documents on CIRCLE libraries are sent around.  This saves a lot of disk space and also gives the benefits that people joining a project at a later phase have access to documents, and the material is organized once by the originator instead of each recipient separately.

There also is a site directory at EEA with information of 500 users, which is becoming increasingly important.  As this is an LDAP-based service, it can be shared by other applications such as email and metadatabases.  Helpdesks at EEA in Copenhagen and European Dynamics in Brussels can assist the users and system administrators.  An EIONET Newsletter is produced 2-3 times a year.

Future

Naturally, there are lots of services that EIONET can not yet provide.  All the nodes are almost islands now.  Even their site directories still have to be combined.  NNTP-based newsgroups are difficult to use by some firewall-challenged sites, and a workaround for that, such as an NNTP-HTTP gateway, is a must.

A new service is being developed which scans all the nodes and interest groups for newly released material and produces a summary "What is new on EIONET" using multiple channels such as email, web area, and push technology.

Currently, there is no mechanism to upload structured data and automate dataflows between sites — everything has to be done by just mirroring Interest Groups and their documents.   In document management, full version control, dossiers, and workflows are on our wish list.  Probably these features will find their way in future releases.

IRC-CIRCLE is gaining momentum and several Directorates-General have implemented it.  There also interest outside European institutions.  While there are commercial products that could offer similar functionalities, such as AltaVista Forum and OpenText LiveLink, the advantage of using our own product is to have access to the developers.  Especially the multi-site features that we will implement and are important for European reporting dataflows, would not be easily customizable using OTS software.  Managed right, IRC-CIRCLE  could become a force on commercial marketplace, too.

EIONET has probably been pioneering in deploying Internet-based groupware in such a large scale.  Lots of new concepts and ways of work had to be invented while it was built.  We are still finding our way in many issues, and are open to share our experiences.



 
HANNU SAARENMAA, Project Manager, EEA
<hannu.saarenmaa@eea.eu.int>