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Network Working Group R. Winter Request for Comments: 219 CCA NIC: 7549 3 September 1971 Category: Updates: None Obsoletes: None

                  User's View of the Datacomputer


TO: Datacomputer Design File

FROM: R.A. Winter

SUBJECT: User's View of the Datacomputer

Date: September 3, 1971


 The datacomputer is a specialized node of the ARPA network that is
 dedicated to the management of a large, shared database.  By large we
 mean several trillion bits of data, of which at least one trillion
 are on-line.  Shared may mean, for some files, shared by nearly all
 the users in the ARPA network.
 The name, datacomputer, derives from the idea that the system is
 dedicated to data handling.  Though the processor is capable of
 general computation, it will not be used for that purpose.  The
 processor, like the mass storage device, is only a component of an
 integrated system, which appears to the user as a black box.
 There is one language for addressing the black box: data language.
 This language defines everything it can do.
 All the information presented in this memorandum is about the first
 of a series of service offerings.  We use the term access method to
 refer collectively to a structure and the operations on it.  Being
 too modest to call the first one AM-1 (Access Method-1) we named it
 DCAM-1 (Datacomputer Access Method-d).  We expect subsequent DCAMs to
 generalize DCAM-1.  If the need arises, we will design parallel
 services.  All services will use the same data language.

Winter [Page 1] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

System Overview

 The users of the datacomputer are programs running on other
 computers, retrieving data from, and storing it in, the data base.
 The environments, capabilities, and applications of these programs
 vary widely; however, a chief design goal is to allow them to share
 the data.
 There is further variation among users in physical connection.
 Remotely-located users' access is over a narrow link to the data-
 computer's low-speed port.  Local users are connected to the high-
 speed port through a link 80 times wider.
 Through its ports, the datacomputer accepts two kinds of input: data
 and requests for services.  Data is output through the ports as
 In the data base, descriptions are stored separately from the data,
 and data elements are named, typed and ordered according to them.  A
 measure of structure independence is obtained by writing access
 requests in terms of the symbolic names of items in the data
 Directories are maintained by the system.  A hierarchical naming
 scheme is used, and access controls for privacy and data integrity
 are provided.
 Redundant copies of data and/or journals of changes are maintained by
 the system and used to effect recovery under system control in case
 of system error.  These facilities can be operated under user control
 if there is external error.
 Since the datacomputer's only interface with the outside world is
 through its ports, it sees the universe as a group of data streams.
 Specifically, these are record streams, if one views all transactions
 (in the data transfer protocol sense) as records.  Associated with
 each record stream is a data description, allowing the datacomputer
 to parse the records into named, typed elements.
 Thus all data elements--stream elements and data base--are named and
 fully described.  Data type conversion proceeds automatically, as a
 function of old and new data types, and optional information supplied
 by the user.  Reconfiguration above the element level is a matter of
 arrangement of elements in records; a full set of capabilities is
 provided for this.  In general, the using program is concerned with
 the configuration of the stream records that comprise its interface
 with the datacomputer.  The internal configuration of data affects
 the user only as it limits the data's accessibility or malleability.

Winter [Page 2] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

 In fact, the user should not generally have to be aware of the
 internal data configuration.
 Although support on some level for all types of applications is
 attempted, the first implementation gives particular attention to
 large, simply-organized, shared files.  Emphasis is placed on
 allowing the user of such files to describe precisely what data is
 really of interest to him, so that nothing but the desired
 information is transmitted.  This is crucial for avoiding overload of
 the narrow link, and is accepted as a central design goal.

Data Base Organization

 The database contains all information stored in the datacomputer.  It
 is a set of files, which are named, physically distinct, collections
 of data.
 The location of one file, the file directory, is known to the system.
 It contains the names, locations, and certain attributes of all the
 other files.  Access to this file is restricted.
 Internally, each file has its own organization, but each organization
 is a particular application of a general model.  The particular
 application is defined by a file description associated with the
 In the general model, each file contains uniquely numbered records.
 Each record contains named fields.  A field of a certain name may
 occur more than once in a given record, and a unique number is
 associated with each occurrence.  A field contains an elementary
 piece of data, the value of the field.
 The records are variable in format and size.  Fields are variable in
 In addition to the records themselves; each file can contain an
 index.  The system maintains the index to the specifications of the
 user.  Conceptually, the index contains lists of pointers to records
 having certain properties.  A typical list might point to the records
 containing the field STATE with the value MASSACHUSETTS.
 The system supplies a unique, permanent, identifier for each record.
 This identifier maps trivially into a location in the file, or at
 worst, into a small region in which the record can be quickly
 located.  The identifier is used to pointers to the record, both from
 the index and from other records.

Winter [Page 3] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

 Besides the physical ordering, defined by record location, a logical
 ordering will be maintained on request by the system.  This can be
 based on some simple function of record contents, such as the value
 of certain fields.  Alternatively, the user can compute the function,
 and simply supply the result (for example, by saying "insert this
 record after that one").  Retrieval from such ordered files can be
 made either in physical or logical order.
 In all such ordered files, if insertions are made, space must be
 reserved for them and garbage collection must be done periodically.
 A single field value is viewed as a homogeneous string of characters
 or basic data units.  It is described by giving the type (e.g.,
 ASCII, BIT, binary integer, etc.) and the length is some unit
 associated with the type.  When the length of a field is constant
 throughout the file, it is stored in the file description; otherwise
 it appears with each occurrence of the field.  The type of a field is
 The information in the file description is sufficient to parse a
 record into (field name, value) pairs.  Also, given such a set of
 pairs, and a file description, the system can produce a record
 satisfying the description.  Mapping in either direction, there is
 only one possible result.
 With a record, a file description, and a (field name, value) pair to
 store in the record, there is also only one new record that can
 Thus a file description defines all the possible formats for a record
 from a particular file.

Stream Organization

 Streams are sequences of records passed from using programs to the
 datacomputer or vice versa.  The format of the records is defined as
 in the file description.  Thus streams have the same organization as
 files, except they cannot be indexed.  The operations defined on
 streams are more limited than those defined on files, since the
 records must be accessed in sequence.
 There is no concept of permanent storage for streams.  The records
 move past the datacomputer one at a time, as though they were on a
 conveyor belt.

Winter [Page 4] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

 One record, the current record, is available to the datacomputer in
 each stream.  To begin formatting the subsequent record in an output
 stream, the datacomputer transmits the current record.  To access the
 next record in an input stream, the datacomputer relinquishes access
 to the current one.


 When the user is interested in the contents of his whole file in
 solving the problem at hand, the datacomputer's job is simple in
 terms of information retrieval.  There may be reformatting or
 reordering, but location of the right data to operate on is trivial.
 However, this will not be the standard usage of the datacomputer,
 particularly for the remote user.
 For most problems, the datacomputer expects to subset the file before
 doing anything else.  The larger the file compared to the subset, the
 less acceptable it is to transact with the full file in order to form
 the subset.  And the datacomputer will have such enormous files that
 using anything but a very small subset in one problem is most
 unusual.  Thus, subsetting without examining the entire file is a
 fundamental requirement.
 Normally, the subset will be considered formed when a list of the
 relevant record id's or record addresses is known.
 The index of the datacomputer file can be thought of as a collection
 of primitive record id lists that the file designer expected to be
 useful in forming interesting subsets.  The values of all important
 fields can be indexed.  For example, every word in a field containing
 a string of text might be indexed.  In fact, an arbitrary function of
 the contents of the record, or the relation of the record to other
 records can be indexed.
 The common logical operators (AND, OR and NOT) are defined for record
 subsets.  Arbitrarily complex expressions of them can be evaluated
 with relatively little processor time or I/O.  The ease of this
 operation results from careful design of the index and strategies,
 the most important of which is the parallel evaluation of the Boolean
 functions on large groups of records.  Certain statistical
 operations--like counting the number of records satisfying a certain
 Boolean condition--can be done directly on the index.  This can be
 used to derive question-answering strategies heuristically, or can be
 the direct input to a statistical study.
 Once the index has done all it can in subsetting, attention turns to
 the records themselves.  Certain conditions cannot be evaluated using
 the index; an obvious case is the selection of records based on the

Winter [Page 5] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

 value of an unindexed field.  Also, certain data structures cannot be
 explicitly represented in the file:record:field model.  These must be
 constructed by the user, out of groups of records linked by pointers,
 or using other special mechanisms.  The class of operations that is
 useful in further record selection consists of field content testing,
 pointer chasing, simple computation in the numerical and symbolic
 senses, and various operations below the data element level, such as
 pattern matching, string manipulation, etc.  Such operations require
 a control structure approaching that of the general purpose higher
 level language.  It is our intention to make all of this available,
 though not with the goal of providing a computation facility, but
 rather, a data management facility that is capable of using as much
 knowledge as the programmer can supply.
 A simple set of primitives is required for file maintenance in the
 data structure we are talking about.  The operations are:
    1. add a field/record
    2. delete a field/record
    3. replace a field/record.
 The difficult part, as in retrieval, is locating the element to be
 operated on.   Notice that individual record formats can be changed
 at will: the set of possible formats is limited only by the file
 When record contents are changed, index entries that are a function
 of them must be changed also.  When the function determining what is
 to be indexed is part of the file description, the maintenance of the
 index is automatically performed by the system.  Otherwise, this is
 the responsibility of the user.
 All fields in a record can be optional, variable length, allowed to
 occur an arbitrary number of times (up to some fixed limit for each
 field).  Fields can be present and later be deleted from any record.
 Fields can be added to the file description at any time.  The only
 reason for limiting the flexibility of a record format is to reduce


 The system outlined here is intended to be suitable for many
 applications; some examples are:
 1. Storage and retrieval of dumps and other unstructured files.  The
    system will happily pack away your one enormous record, as quickly
    and painlessly as possible.

Winter [Page 6] RFC 219 User's View of the Datacomputer September 1971

 2. Applications that would normally be set up on tape:  sequentially
    accessed files that are copied over when they are changed.  Most
    record formats should be able to remain just as they are.  If you
    want to operate this way, the datacomputer imposes no overhead
    (such as indexing) on you.  The datacomputer willingly acts as
    unsophisticated as a tape drive; it will pass your file, adding
    and changing records as it copies them.  It will pull off the
    interesting ones, reconfigure if desired, and transmit them to
    you.  When you describe the data, you have solved the data sharing
    problem for this application.
 3. Simple-minded direct access applications.  The great hairy index
    structure neatly degenerates to imitate indexed sequential, simple
    directly-addressed files, and other old standbys in the direct
    access world.
 4. Text/document retrieval.  The indexing is made for this kind of
    applications.  In addition, documents can point to subdocuments,
    related documents, etc.
 5. Content-oriented, rapid retrieval applications are the specialty
    of the house.
 6. Large data bases used for statistical analysis or modeling such as
    the census, the common social science data bases, etc.
 7. Applications in which data element groups (such as records) are
    related in a complex fashion, and the intelligence of the
    datacomputer, which is close to the data and remote from the
    computational facility, can be put to good use.
 In all of these, an important consideration is size.  We hope to
 handle these applications properly on the datacomputer, even when the
 files are of extraordinary size.
      [ This RFC was put into machine readable form for entry   ]
      [ into the online RFC archives by Sandy Ginoza 9/2001.    ]
      [ Original has hand-written note in Postel's handwriting: ]
      [ "Received 21 Sept 71".                                  ]

Winter [Page 7]

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