Napster, Gnutella, Kazaa, BitTorrent ... What about the Usenet?

By: Mark Dorovski


So, what is this 'Usenet' thing? It must be some new file-sharing network, right? Wrong. It is certainly not new (though relatively few people know about it and even fewer use it regularly), and it is not exactly a file-sharing network, too. Originally, the Usenet, or Internet News was invented in 1986 (long before the WWW came into existence) as a tool for discussions - a network of online bulletin boards. It was used for the publishing of email-like messages to discuss various topics of interest and it is being used for this purpose to this day. Then why did we put it in one group with Gnutello and Kazaa? Because the Usenet is now actively being used as a file-sharing medium. The total amount of content posted to the Usenet achieves 4 Terabytes a day. Impressive, isn't it?

How does the Usenet work? It is not unlike public email. You can imagine a Usenet (news) server as a collection of public email boxes. Each box is dedicated to messages (articles) discussing a particular topic. Such boxes are called news conferences, or more commonly newsgroups. Normally, names of newsgroups reflect what topic they are dedicated to and are arranged into hierarchies. If you have access to a news server, you can select newsgroups of interest, read articles and post your own articles.

The Usenet works in such a way that everything that you post to your local news server will be passed to other servers and eventually appear on every server that carries the newsgroup that you posted to. So, other people will be able to read your articles from their local servers. After some time, older articles are removed (expired) from servers to make space for new ones.

How do you make the most out of the Usenet? First of all, it has accumulated enormous wealth of information. It contains answers to almost any question. Dejanews.com started archiving Usenet articles in the 90's. Google maintains this archive now. You can search it and post new articles. Just click on More | Groups on Google front page to start.

Aside from text, people post files as attachments to articles. There are special 'binary' groups that carry such posts. The Usenet carries a large amount of goodies, such as pictures, videos, music, and software. Try using your ISP's news server. You will discover a very rich source of virtually everything. Every ISP provides their users with (usually free) access to a news server, exactly as ISPs provide you with an email box that you can use. Unfortunately, usually ISPs Usenet service is far from what it can be. A news server is very expensive to run. For example, Newsburg.com (http://www.newsburg.com/) server farms keep Usenet posts for 90 days. To achieve this, they have to have at least 360 Terabytes of disk space. Not every ISP can afford this. So, if you want to experiment with the Usenet and get a taste of it, you can try your local ISP's server, which comes free with internet service. But, if you really want to get the goodies, you should subscribe to a commercial service. The prices are not high, starting from a few dollars a month.

If the Usenet is so reach and relatively inexpensive, then why isn't it as popular as, say, Kazaa?

Perhaps the main reason why the Usenet is not very popular is its complexity - this is the main issue most users have with it, that is, unless they have the right tools to use. People try to use a general newsreader, like Outlook Express or Netscape Communicator, to work with binary newsgroups and quickly get disappointed. Remember: you have to deal with millions of split and encoded files in thousands of newsgroups. If your tool is made for this, it will hide the Usenet's complexity and dramatically increase your productivity.The Microsoft Press book "Microsoft Windows XP Power Toolkit" recommends Ozum newsreader (http://www.ozinsight.com/) to use with the binary Usenet. This is a full-featured all-in-one newsreader, designed specifically to use with binary content posted to the Usenet. Its advantages are a well-designed interface, which makes use very simple for novice and advanced users and an extensive set of useful features, not found in many other newsreaders. It is a mature product, first released onto the market in 2000 and constantly enhanced by its developers. Here is a paragraph from a review of new Ozum 5 posted on Cnet.com site:

"All-in-all, Ozum been a great product that improves with each version, but Version 5 really sets it far apart from the rest of the crowd. With new visual themes, automated contents sampling, new downloading options and a new search feature, you get everything a newsreader should be. It's especially good if you're not that comfortable dealing with rar and .par files, as the program will automatically assemble multipart posts. Worth getting whether you're an expert or just a beginner starting out at this stuff (and believe me, if you're in the latter category, newsgroups will suddenly be fun and not a challenge). Most of us are in between these two, and it's powerful enough to do everything you want and simple and elegant enough to not get in your way (wish the rest of my software could follow this approach)."

One of the major features in Ozum is its binary search engine that lets you find any files posted on the Usenet. Given the total number of files posted (more than 120 million in the last 200 days), a search engine is a must. It finds anything in seconds and Ozum allows you to download a whole set of related files in one click.

Newsgroup browsing in Ozum is optimized for work with huge groups. The 'traditional' way of browsing newsgroups includes downloading article headers (subjects) and looking though them like you would do in your email program. Just imagine doing this when the number of articles is in the range of 50 million, like in large newsgroups on Newsburg.com servers. In Ozum, each file set is represented as one line of information, which you can expand if it attracts your interest. You can set up highlighting rules that will highlight terms of interest when you browse. You can rely on this to grab your attention when you quickly scroll through the list, and this makes browsing extremely fast. There are a host of other useful features of Ozum, but its search engine and browsing facilities really stand out, and its price tag is surprisingly low, as some other newsreader companies offer similar services at a cost of up to $100 a year. For Ozum, you only pay $39 to register, and then use it without any further fees.

The Usenet is old, complex, resource-thirsty and in some sense even dangerous beast, but it is also rich and can be fun to use and hunt for goodies, and equipped with the proper tools, you should definitely give it a try. We are sure that everyone can find something there for themselves and will enjoy using it.

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Mark is a software developer with solid experience in component based archirtectures and communications software. Hi loves experimenting with various networks and protocols and sometimes writes review articles just for fun. [email protected]

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