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Full text of "BSTJ 52: 10. December 1973: Interactive Information Management Systems. (Chai, D.T.; Wier, J.M.)"

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Volume 52 December 1973 Number 10 

Copyright © 1973, American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Prinled in U.S.A. 

Information Management System: 

Interactive Information Management 

By D. T. CHAI and J. M. WIER 

(Manuscript received October 5, 1972) 

This paper and the following three describe computer systems to store, 
retrieve, and manipulate information. These have all utilized time-shared 
computer systems. All have evolved toward a system constructed of modular 
component parts and having a high degree of user interaction. Consider- 
able attention has been given to implementation in a form suitable for 
simple transfer to systems of adequate capability with minimal pro- 
gramming effort. The data bases involved are all hierarchical in organi- 
zation. The major parts are a language facility, a data base manager, a 
processing package, and numerous coordinated administration functions. 
The parts are currently assembled into a package which can be applied to 
an arbitrary hierarchically structured data base with little user effort. 
The component parts are also available for integration into more tailored 
systems for special applications. 


This paper and the three that follow it discuss various aspects of 
the problem of using computers to store, retrieve, and manipulate 



information. In particular they describe computer systems for carry- 
ing out important parts of such work. These parts have been integrated 
into a system for handling information. The system described in these 
papers has been designed so that a user and the computer system can 
interact heavily in reaching the solution to a problem posed by the user. 
Systems generic ally related to the ones described here have appeared 
in great numbers in the past decade. 1_e In general they all use a com- 
puter to store, process, and provide results from information contained 
in a "data base" controlled by the computer. However, this deceptively 
simple description hides the many differences between the systems 
which make them less generally applicable than would seem immedi- 
ately evident. No attempt will be made in the following to be complete 
in categorizing such systems. However, enough information will be 
given to place the present work in perspective with respect to im- 
portant requirements placed on such systems in various applications. 
To circumscribe the work reported here and its potential field of 
application, let us characterize information systems according to the 
properties indicated in Table I. 

The systems which have been implemented using the tools reported 
here generally are most useful in applications corresponding to the 
earlier-given of the choices in the various categories. The amount of 
information contained in the data bases served is generally less than 
50,000,000 characters. The information is heavily structured into a 
hierarchical format. The users are typically not highly skilled in the use 
of computers. A typical request placed on the system will require fewer 
than ten seconds of processing. Finally, the user will always expect an 
answer in less than ten minutes, often in less than one minute, and 
occasionally in less than ten seconds. 

These figures are dictated by the uses to which the systems are 
usually put, tempered by economic and computer limitations. Rela- 
tively small packets of information are supplied to the system in any 
one transaction. Further, requests to provide information and pro- 
cessing are simple since the user employs on-line composition of re- 
quests and interpretation of the results delivered. 

The properties implied by this method of interaction cause the re- 
sulting system to be somewhat specialized in order to carry out such 
operations to the satisfaction of the potential users. The following are 
a few cases where the decision to handle processing in the manner indi- 
cated may adversely affect the applicability of the system to other uses. 
In order that response time to a given request be short, the system 
tailors its operations to deal with a spectrum of requests assumed 
known at the time of system origination. Thus, requests for large 


Table I — Characterization of Information Systems 

Amount of Information: 
Up to 100,000 characters 
100,000 characters to 50,000,000 characters 
50,000,000 characters and up 

Structure of Information: 


Non-computer skilled 
Computer skilled 

Size of Transaction: 
Less than 10 seconds of processing 
Greater than 10 seconds of processing 

Time Scale: 
Less than 1 minute 
1 minute to 10 minutes 
Greater than 10 minutes 

amounts of output, complex or lengthy processing, or data stored in 
some order much different from that assumed may result in poor ser- 
vice. Specifically, mass business data processing is frequently not well 
handled in this way. 

Since the system is designed to serve an interactive user as well as is 
feasible, the data base may be more difficult to update or set up in the 
first place than one specifically designed to be processed as a whole. 
In the same vein, restart procedures are generally more difficult to 
incorporate as such operations take time and thus cause poorer time 

The decision to utilize a hierarchically structured data base means 
that other organizations will be unavailable, except as they can be 
mapped onto a hierarchy. 

The concentration on serving users who are perhaps not skilled in the 
use of computers limits the complexity of potential operations. 

The exact degree of difficulty for other applications caused by each 
of these choices varies. The positive benefits obtained have been 
adjudged sufficient rewards in the thriving areas where the system to 
be described is used. 

II. system description 

All of the elements of the total system to be described in these papers 
have been implemented on a time-shared computer system. The com- 
puter system thus takes care of many of the details involved in serving 


many users. Some of the more obvious and important of these are: 

(i) Provision of an interface to a communication facility. 
(u) Provision for separating users into categories and keeping them 

{Hi) Provision of a flexible charging structure. 
(iv) Provision for physical storage allocation. 

The parts of the information management system are assembled in 
a modular fashion. Between each of them is a well-defined interface 
for exchanging information. The components are put together as shown 
in Fig. 1. 

In this figure the users are shown impinging on the system at the 
left. This contact takes place via the switched telephone network. One 
or more users can be connected to the information system described 
at any time. Each user interfaces with the Natural Dialogue System 
(NDS). The Natural Dialogue System is described more fully by 
Puerling and Roberto. 7 It provides the ability to carry on a relatively 
simple interactive pseudo-English conversation with the user in order 
to ascertain his needs. 

When an adequate amount of information is available to define the 
user service request, the Natural Dialogue System passes information 
sufficient to define the request to a processor. The processor chosen is 
determined by the user-NDS dialogue. The processor then uses its 
input data to make calls on Master Links (ML) to provide specified 
information from the associated data base or send some to it. Master 
Links, using facilities described by Gibson and Stockhausen, 8 carries 
out the operations required on the data base and returns the data 
needed. The chosen processor then formats the response and sends it 
to the user. The whole sequence may be reinstituted by the user by 
placing a new request before the system or the user may actively (by 
signing off) or passively (by hanging up) abandon his quest. 

In this system the processors are one of two types : 

(*) Job-specific ones that have been specially programmed for an 

(ii) General-purpose ones that have been found to be useful in 
numerous applications and that thus are provided to all users, 

In addition to these elements there exist a number of auxiliary 
capabilities which are necessary to the smooth and complete operation 
of such systems. These capabilities are provided by numerous pro- 
gramming packages. They, among other tasks, take care of loading 



( USERS V-» 







*— •/ DATA BASE J 

Fig. I — Components of an information management system. 

bulk data, checking its validity, auditing the system for efficiency and 
completeness, rearranging the data into a different order, and taking 
statistics on usage. These will not be described. 


As was mentioned in the introduction, the systems described in this 
series of papers concentrate on the provision of a highly interactive 
contact between the user and the information management system. 
The importance of this type of interaction was dictated by the applica- 
tions which led to the design. This section discusses some of the con- 
siderations leading to the specific design decisions made. 

In a very practical sense, an understanding of the system is not 
possible without examining the environment in which it works. The 
job of solving problems involving a data base contained in an inter- 
active information system is jointly shared by the user and the system. 
Each does what "he" can do best. 

The information system takes care of data storage, data processing, 
and information display in addition to a number of housekeeping 
chores. The user brings in the problem, formulates the solution in the 
form of a sequence of requests placed before the system, and guides the 
work of the information system as it progresses. 

These operations would appear to be identical with those carried out 
in classically programmed data processing. The user (a programmer) 
translates a problem into a sequence of data processing steps which the 
computer is given to carry out. There is, however, an important differ- 
ence which makes the interactive process much better for some 

That difference stems from the fact that it is not possible to program 
a computer to provide some solution unless an algorithm exists for 
doing it. When working with complex data bases, it is frequently 
necessary to find out a great deal about the data just to be able to 
write a suitable program. This process of "finding out about the data" 


is frequently best done by going into the data base on some exploratory 
trips. It is here that interactive data base processing is very useful. 

The user not only can collect the data, but he can also exclude vast 
areas where it is not worth taking computer time to look. This is 
possible because he gets a "feel" for the data, the limits of its range, 
its empty spots, its peculiarities. These allow him to reduce search 
times, to try simplified models that are "apparent" from looking, and 
to avoid wasting time and effort. All of these are simple for the user to 
employ while provided with immediate response from the data base. 
They are frequently difficult to program. Recognition of patterns is 
one of man's strong points. Generation of all possible patterns to be 
explored is not. 

In order to provide this interactive capability it is necessary to 
smooth the communication between the user and the interactive com- 
puter system. This process is not a simple one. Basically, it involves a 
smooth translation from a form which is "natural" and unambiguous 
to the user to one which the computer can use on input. On output the 
process is reversed. 

Numerous studies have been made of the use of English as a com- 
munication medium for talking with a computer, 3 ■ 5 ' 6 - 9-11 Unconstrained 
English serves this purpose poorly, not only because of implementation 
difficulties, but because of the heavy use of context and alogical con- 
structions. Even the REL 5 system which has progressed a long way 
toward natural language usage requires a rather disciplined approach 
to construction and meaning. Montgomery 11 has collected numerous 
telling examples which clearly illustrate the difficulties. These prob- 
lems have led the designers of this system to adopt a pseudo-English 
language based on independent phrases, each of which begins with a 
specified keyword. The use of keywords greatly reduces the ambiguities 
of the user request and, at the same time, reduces the parsing or 
analyzing time by the computer. The paper by Puerling and Roberto 7 
describes the keyword style of languages that is available through the 
use of the Natural Dialogue System. The paper by Heindel and Ro- 
berto 12 describes one implementation of a keyword language for gen- 
eral-purpose retrievals. 

The choice of accepting independent phrases in a request also 
materially simplifies another computer-user interaction process. 
Economics and the state of technology strongly recommend a key- 
board input mechanism (other choices cost too much or are not well 
developed technically). Unfortunately, typing, particularly facile 


typing, is not a universally available skill. Thus input, for many poten- 
tial users, is clumsy and is often a source of errors. The time delays and 
annoyances in this process often put off potential users and reduce the 
value of a system. The use of a phrase- type grammar provides some 
help in the system described by reducing retyping on errors to the level 
of the phrase rather than the sentence. In actual use the quantity of 
typing is further reduced by providing editing facilities which preserve 
common material already placed in the system from interaction to 

A second communications barrier which can exist in an interactive 
system is that of response time. If the user is employing the system in 
an interactive way in the pursuit of a solution to his problem, he finds 
that excessive delays in delivering replies to his requests create gaps in 
the continuity of his thoughts on the solution. They distract him and, 
more seriously, they affect his ability to note patterns in the output. 
They thua reduce his effectiveness in solving the problem. They also 
bore him and waste his time, both of which reduce the probability that 
a proper and prompt solution will be forthcoming. 

Because of the effect on user acceptance and user effectiveness, the 
systems to be described have been implemented with response time a 
major criterion of merit. This criterion has shaped the system in at 
least the following ways : 

(i) The complexity of a request is reduced by making simple 

requests easier to formulate than complex ones. 
(it) The Master Links data base management system provides 

numerous tools for tailoring a data base to the requirements of 

its potential users, 
(m) The languages are designed to reduce search time in the data 

base by simplifying the specification of data base delimiters. 
(iv) Monitors have been provided for noting the state of the data 

base and the usage by the system clientele. 
(v) Dialogue is retained from request to request to reduce the 

typing burden. 
(vi) Numerous detectors of errors are employed and extensive 

helpful (not critical) diagnostics are provided. 


As has been mentioned, the systems described have been designed 
to deliver prompt response in an interactive environment. In addition 


to pursuing the goals just mentioned, the software has been designed 
to perform well in an absolute sense as well. To measure the perform- 
ance actually achieved, extensive unit testing has been employed. In 
traffic situations, simulations have been run on the performance in the 
presence of various levels of load. Overall tests of system performance 
have been designed and run. A model for evaluating system perform- 
ance as a function of the processing to be done in the data base has 
been developed. Such tests and models have been most helpful in 
comparing different system implementations and algorithms. The 
knowledge so gained has also been used in updating designs and 
optimizing system use. 

The systems described have been used in various applications with 
data bases containing up to a few tens of millions of characters of data. 
These have all been hierarchical in organization and generally did not 
employ more than ten levels in the hierarchy. By using the various 
tuning facilities, the time to return answers to typical requests can 
often be reduced below ten seconds. More complex ones occasionally 
run to a few tens of seconds, but these employ less commonly used 
facilities. In general, requests requiring extensive data searches are 
more time-consuming than those requiring less information. 

The key to good performance lies in matching the information 
management system to the needs of the application. In most applica- 
tions the system can be tailored to provide adequately prompt service 
for the spectrum of common requests, sometimes at the expense of 
less important functions. These latter can usually be handled, less 
expeditiously, without creating an operational problem as they occur 
less frequently. In the current state of the art, no economic solution 
has been found which does not require this compromise for the larger 
and structurally more complex data bases. In all of the latter it is 
always possible to find pathological interactions with the data base 
which force data base searches in a very poor order. 


The work done in designing, testing, and applying the systems 
described has indicated the following : 

(i) Interactive information management systems of acceptable 
performance are feasible and economically attractive in the 
current state of the art. 
(ii) The hierarchical data base organization has been no handicap 
in providing information management in most applications 


(Hi) It is desirable to match an information management system to 
the application in order to get prompt responses from it. 


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this issue, pp. 1725-1741. y ' °'° iJ -' 

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Proc. AFIPS, 33 (FJCC 1968), pp. 473-492. ' 

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