Kenton Lee

Join the X Internet Community

by Kenton Lee

July, 1995

Copyright © 1995 Kenton Lee, All Rights Reserved.


Many of you are reading this column through the World Wide Web edition of The X Advisor. Hopefully, you've found that this and other Internet services have greatly improved your productivity as a professional X application developer.

While the Internet has been around for a while (I've been using it for over 10 years), it has only recently become easily available to many people and its popularity is booming. Thousands of X Window System software developers now share technical information with each other via the Internet. Most of this communication is by publicly accessible USENET, FTP, and World Wide Web channels. By accessing and studying this information, you can greatly improve your X programming productivity. If you're not already on-line, I would recommend that you plug in just for the X-related information.

In many ways the Internet has created a community of cooperating X programmers. I've met many fellow X programmers via the Internet and have sometimes communicated with them electronically for years that way before meeting them face to face. This on-line communication allows many geographically separate programmers to share their X knowledge, thus efficiently benefiting the entire X community.

This month's column reviews some of the history of the X Internet community as well as the major X-oriented Internet information channels. Hopefully, you'll be able to participate in these to boost your X programming productivity.

This is not, however, a tutorial on the Internet. I'll assume that you already know how to use World Wide Web (WWW) browsers, Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), File Transfer Protocol (FTP) clients, and USENET. If you don't, I recommend that you visit your local technical bookstore, where you'll find dozens of tutorial books on these subjects.

X Over the Internet

Unlike most other popular software products, the X Window System was designed for and using the Internet. You probably already know that one of the major features of X is the ability of X clients to communicate with remote X servers over the Internet. Many of X's features are optimized for the Internet.

What you may not know is that the Internet has also played a major role in the design and implementation of X[1]. X was developed by groups located in several different parts of the United States. Throughout the development of X, these groups heavily used the Internet for:

While face-to-face meetings were often useful, they were infrequent. The Internet was a major reason for X's success.

The X community has changed quite a bit since the days when the X Window System was first designed. Many of the original developers have moved on to different projects. Thousands of new programmers have joined, working both on extensions to the core window system and on applications using it. While other communication channels, such as conferences and magazines, have appeared, the primary mechanism by which the X community interacts is still the Internet.

X Distributions via FTP

At one time, the most popular way to get X running on your workstation was to down load the sample source code from Project Athena's or the X Consortium's FTP server. You had to configure and compile it for your hardware, of course, but you could usually get it running in a few hours.

Today, hardware vendors usually bundle X with their workstations, so most users simply use that instead. Still, many programmers continue to down load the sample implementation, if just for their reference. The programs directory, for example provides a wide variety of useful example X application code.

If you're interested, the X11R6 (current version) sample source code is available at ftp://ftp.x.org/pub/R6 and also on world wide mirror sites (for a listing, see: http://www.x.org/consortium/GettingX11R6.html). To limit the load on the X Consortium's FTP server, you should choose the mirror site that is closest to you.

Many of these FTP sites also contain user-contributed software. Many programmers freely distribute their X software by putting copies of the source code on these FTP sites. You should browse through these for interesting applications and tools.

USENET X Resources

USENET currently is probably the most popular X-oriented Internet-based resource. Unlike most other large scale Internet services, USENET is fully interactive, allowing even beginners communicate as peers.

There are several USENET newsgroups dedicated to the X Window System subjects. Some of the major ones are:

Within each USENET newsgroup, discussions cover a wide variety of subjects, but the X-related groups generally focus on:

The volume of information in some of these groups is relatively high, often hundreds of articles per week. Few people will have the time to read every message in every group. Personally, I only follow a few of the groups. Even within those, I mostly just read the subject headers and only read the article bodies if the subject sounds interesting. Still, I do try to reply to articles, especially when I can meaningfully contribute to the discussion or help someone with a X problem.

If you're new to USENET, the volume of material may initially overwhelm you. I'd recommend that you start by following only a few groups. Also, don't post any new articles until you've read through the existing articles (most sites archive at least a week's worth) and the FAQs (see the next section). The old articles will give you a feeling for what types of postings are appropriate in the newsgroup and the FAQs may answer your question immediately. Because of the high volume of traffic on USENET, many old timers have little patience with inappropriate or poorly worded postings. You'd be wise to avoid making these mistakes.

There are several X-based news readers available. The features of a good graphical user interface can greatly simply your USENET reading. The most popular X-based news reader is probably xrn (FTP the source code from ftp://remote-access.cam.ov.com:/pub/xrn/xrn.tgz). Other good ones are also available, though (and are listed in the comp.windows.x.apps FAQ, see below).

Frequently Asked Questions

One of the more interesting features of USENET is the publication of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) lists. As you might imagine, new (and not so new) X developers frequently have the same questions about X technology. Rather than have all these people ask the same questions to USENET, several experts have produced lists of these common questions with their answers. The FAQ lists are distributed via USENET, FTP, and the World Wide Web. Most are updated and distributed monthly.

The FAQs are well worth studying. They usually discuss subjects that are inadequately covered in the reference books, e.g.,:

Some of these FAQs are very extensive (the Motif FAQ, for example, currently contains over 250 subjects and is about 10,000 lines long and 400,000 bytes in size). I've found that the most effective way for me to use the FAQs is to down load them via FTP, then search for answers to my questions using the search functions of my text editor.

All the X-related FAQs can be FTP'ed from ftp://ftp.x.org/contrib/faqs/. FAQs can also be found at ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet-by-group.

If you prefer, you can read the FAQs via WWW. One site that maintains them in HTML format is: http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/.

The FAQs are all maintained by unpaid volunteers. Their efforts are greatly appreciated by the X community.

USENET Archives

One of the drawbacks of USENET is that old articles are not automatically saved to disk. Most USENET sites will save old articles for only one or two weeks, then delete them to re-use the disk space. Much of the information is, of course, captured in the FAQs (and in readers' memories), but some may be lost.

In some cases, individual users or companies have made permanent archives of USENET articles in certain groups and are allowing the public to access them via FTP and/or WAIS. An example of this is the comp.windows.x.motif archive stored at ftp://csc.canberra.edu.au/pub/motif/comp.windows.x.motif. Other archives are mentioned in the various newsgroup FAQs.

World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) provides many features that USENET and FTP do not. Most importantly, WWW allows information providers to easily embed links, graphics, and multimedia in their documents. There are now many X-oriented WWW sites providing a variety of types of information.

Of course, you already know that this magazine is available via the WWW. Some other interesting X-oriented WWW sites are:

One of the problems with the World Wide Web is finding all the interesting servers. Fortunately, Ken Sall has created an interesting WWW page that contains pointers to all the interesting X-based WWW sites. You can find this at http://www.cen.com/mw3/.

A more general WWW listing service is Yahoo, which contains pointers to thousands of WWW sites. You can search their database hierarchically or with the built-in easy-to-use search engine. You can find Yahoo at http://www.yahoo.com/. Try searching Yahoo for "Motif" or "X Window System".

If you couldn't find what you wanted in Yahoo, you could also try the Lycos catalog. Lycos has a larger database than does Yahoo and has a more sophisticated query language, though the results can be more difficult to use. You can find Lycos at http://www.lycos.com/.

Other WWW search databases are available. The popular ones are listed on Yahoo's main and search pages.


Conclusion

Without the Internet, the X Window System would not have grown to what it is today. The X community on the Internet is very large and well organized. It provides a wide range of information to programmers and user for free.

Keeping up with X news via the Internet will take some amount of your time, but X experts usually find that the benefits to be well worth the investment. The X developers' community is very active on the Internet and most fellow developers, at all levels of expertise, find this information to be very invaluable.

Many people get Internet access from their employer or school. If you don't, there are now many Internet service providers who can hook you up by modem for a relatively small fee. If you aren't familiar with providers in your area, check with local user groups or computer stores for recommendation. You'll probably find their prices to be very reasonable.

It is true that there is always some level of noise on the Internet. Experienced Internet users, however, learn to efficiently pick out the important and useful information that helps to improve their productivity and enhance their careers.


References
  1. Robert Scheifler and James Gettys, X Window System, third edition, Digital Press, 1992. A brief history of the X Window System is presented in the introduction to this book.


Ken Lee is an independent software consultant specializing in X Window System application software. He has been developing UNIX graphical user interface software since 1981. Ken may be reached by Internet electronic mail at kenton @ rahul.net or on the World Wide Web at http://www.rahul.net/kenton/.

Ken has published over two dozen technical papers on X software development. Most are available over the World Wide Web at http://www.rahul.net/kenton/bib.html.