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End of URLs as we know 'em?

August 10, 1999
Web posted at: 3:33 p.m. EDT (1933 GMT)

by Carolyn Duffy Marsan

Network World Fusion
domain names graphic

(IDG) -- Tired of gripes from end users who can't find specific documents on your intranet? Your problem may soon be solved thanks to a proposed Internet standard that replaces long, complex URLs with regular words.

The so-called Common Name standard is on the fast track for approval within the Internet Engineering Task Force, which is expected to designate a formal working group for the task in August. Proponents of the planned standard say a first draft should be completed this fall, with adoption in browsers, portals, search services and directories anticipated next year.

The Common Name standard will benefit organizations that run large Web sites by reducing the number of end-user support calls and lowering help desk costs. For end users, the standard means no longer having to remember or type in a series of dots, dashes and backslashes in order to find the information they need.

The Common Name Resolution Protocol will operate behind the browser to match words or phrases, such as company names, book titles or songs, to their underlying URLs. Unlike with URLs, more than one item can have the same common name as long as the two items are in different categories. For example, typing in the word "Apple" might bring up Apple Computer's Web site or information about growing apples, depending on the context of the request.

"Our vision is extremely simple: We want to provide a structure for computers to access URLs," says Nicholas Popp, chief technical officer at Centraal and a co-author of the proposed standard. Centraal is a directory service provider. "There's a layer of naming that's missing - a layer that is human-friendly and that would simplify navigation," he says.
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"Anything a home page provider can do to make it easier for end users to find information is useful," says Vic Powell, Webmaster for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Powell, whose Web site contains thousands of pages of documentation and averages more than two million hits per week, calls the Common Name standard "very interesting."

With a standard in place, enterprise customers will be able to set up their own services to locally register common names for documents that reside in their intranets. For example, a 1996 budget report could be accessed by simply typing in "1996 budget report."

"You won't have to remember the HTTP address. You can just call a document by its name," explains Michael Mealling, a senior research engineer at Network Solutions and one of the authors of the proposed standard.

Common names are used to navigate the Web today in the form of Centraal's RealNames, Netword's NetWords, America Online's KeyWords, Netscape Navigator's Smart Browsing and CompuServe's Go Words.

The IETF group wants to unify all of these proprietary approaches with a standard API.

Once standardized, common names could be used in applications such as:

  • Corporate databases, where the common name is the one used internally to identify a document, an item in inventory or a product coming off the manufacturing line.
  • Electronic commerce sites, where the common name is a brand name and refers to a stock or part identification number.
  • Business directories, where the common name calls up contact information, products or stock quotes.
  • White pages, where the common name is a last name and it calls up a telephone number or e-mail address.
  • Yellow pages, where the common name is the name of business or a description of the business and calls up a related Web site.

"This is an Internet technology that is ideal for intranets," says Marshall Moseley, a consultant to Netword and a member of the IETF group pushing for a Common Name standard. "Imagine a company like Boeing having a database of all the engineering documents for the F-22 fighter and being able to pull up documents by their regular names and not their URLs."

The Common Name standard could eventually be integrated with e-mail standards to allow end users to send messages without knowing the recipient's e-mail address.

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A resolution protocol for Common Name Namespaces (IETF)
Netscape Smart Browsing
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