Tuesday night, New Year’s Eve, I boarded the plane for New Zealand. Traveling west on New Year’s Eve gives you at least two excuses to celebrate, provided you cross the international date line after midnight. If you cross before, you get no chances unless, of course, you don’t tie your celebrations to arbitrary chronometric indicators.
Twenty hours later, I landed in Auckland to await my flight to Wellington. Customs impounded the salami I had bought as an offering for the restaurant critic of The Bangkok Post and told me that if I did not reclaim my links within 28 days they would be destroyed. Not wishing to be responsible for the wanton destruction of four innocent salamis, I paid my NZ $5 fee for a sausage hotel at the Ministry of Agriculture and Finance, and assured the officer that I would return as soon as I could.
I must admit that in the course of traveling, I’ve gotten a bit jaded about waiting lounges, but the Air New Zealand Koru Club in Auckland was a refreshing change. After a breakfast of fresh kiwi salad and coffee, I was offered the use of a shower, razors, and the daily newspaper. Computers, Xerox and fax machines, and other office equipment were warmed up and waiting.
Arriving in Wellington, I was met by Richard Naylor and his two sons, Jeremy and Chris. Richard runs the computer department for the city of Wellington; I had come to learn about City Net.
Even though it was the middle of summer vacation, a “southerly” had blown in and it was cool and windy. Richard dropped me off at the St. George hotel for a nap. Before going to sleep, though, I had to flush the toilet a few times just to watch the water swirl down in the opposite direction from what I was accustomed to. Having empirically narrowed my geographical coordinates to the Southern Hemisphere, I went to sleep.
Two hours later, Richard and the kids picked me up for a tour of New Zealand’s capital. We went first to the new NZ $150-million city complex just being finished on the edge of Lambton Harbor. The complex includes not only the city offices, but a hands-on science museum for children, an art gallery, a huge library, and many other facilities for the public.
The Council in Wellington used to own everything from a milk bottling company to the bus service and the power company. Although many of these functions have been privatized, Richard’s group still provides computing services to many of them. The collection of computers is known as City Net.
Most of the computing power comes from a large DEC installation, including nine big VAXen and a dozen µVAXen. Over 60 gigabytes of disk space are available, most of it in a VAX Cluster. The cluster provides disk striping, volume shadowing, and dual porting of disks, all facilities that help ensure good performance and reliability. In addition to the DEC equipment, there is an AS400 used to automate the library, as well as 50 PCs, a Honeywell, and an IBM RS 6000.
Since the city used to own the tram service, Richard was able to pull fiber throughout the downtown area, stringing it above the tram lines. Inside the buildings, unshielded twisted pair was used to wire the individual offices. Both voice and data went over this common infrastructure.
With a staff of 55, the computer department is able to deploy an impressive number of applications. A layered mapping database has the entire city of Wellington in it, including everything from sewers to phone lines to all roads and buildings. The mapping system is extensively used by city employees ranging from planners to mechanical engineers, and is even available to the general public through terminals in the library.
What is most interesting about City Net is its open philosophy. An Ultrix machine on the edge of the network is on the Internet and city employees have access to the full range of Internet services. City Net even provides accounts to the general public on the gateway system. Over 500 citizens of Wellington use the machine at no charge.
Wellington has a very active bulletin board community with over 35 boards in a city of only 150,000 people. Many of these boards use the Waffle BBS software, which includes support for the UUCP protocols, making integration of the bulletin board community into the Internet as simple as dialing up the City Net hub. That night, I watched 9-year old Jeremy composing messages for a pen pal in Pittsburgh on a little Toshiba laptop running the BBS software. The minute Jeremy was done, his older brother grabbed the machine. Periodically, the laptop would be plugged into an RJ11 jack and mail exchanged with the central system.
Everything from a World Wildlife Fund training center to the children’s museum to the milk company accessed City Net. Richard even wanted to put a hospitality database on the Internet to allow tourists to Telnet in and plan their vacations.
City Net is one of the best examples of a network as a truly public infrastructure I have seen. Extensive use of e-mail by children as part of Kids Net, the Discovery Museum, or just individual correspondence with pen pals helps to ensure that there will be a new generation of computer-literate children.
Providing a public utility to organizations like the milk company or the general public is done at very little marginal cost to the city. Many of the resources, such as the Internet gateway, are viewed as necessary for the city to do its job. Extending that service to the public or to commercial enterprises helps the city as a whole, as well as the direct users.
Invited for dinner to Richard’s house, I brought two packets of Astronaut Ice Cream, which turned out to be the perfect gift. Chris was heavily involved in the local chapter of the Astronautics Association of New Zealand and had heard of this astronomical delicacy only through rumors. Chris wanted more information for his club, so his dad suggested that he Telnet into the NASA public server or send e-mail to some of the online PR hacks. Chris wanted my email address so he could ask me questions later.
After a delicious dinner with a truly computer-literate family, Richard dropped me off back at my hotel. I had a Steinlager beer and watched steer wrestling from Montana in the bar before going up to pack for the next day’s trip.