Deccan Herald, Tuesday, May 20, 2003


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Search with TEK

INTERNET/ Obstacles to web browsing like high telephone and ISP charges, can be overcome with TEK, which enables a web search using only email

Though the Internet is a treasure house of information there are several obstacles which can drive the user to frustration. Among them are the narrow bandwidth, which can take a long time to find the information required. This long duration of time spent online, means higher telephone and ISP charges, which quickly become prohibitive. Adding to the woes are the unreliable network infrastructures and ever failing electricity which can frequently prevent access to the Internet. 

There are search engines which can be deployed to search the World Wide Web. Most of them are designed for high-bandwidth, high-connectivity environments. That is, they optimise for speed, assuming that a user can quickly look through the returned links and immediately run a second, modified search if she is unhappy with the results of her first search. This tight feedback loop between the user and search engine is inappropriate for low-connectivity sites in the developing world where the bottleneck is the time required to transfer the information, rather than the server’s delay in finding the information. In a low-bandwidth environment, exploring the various links on a search engine’s results page can require a large amount of time. 

Also, mainstream search engines select pages without regard for their bandwidth requirements, a criterion that might be of primary concern to someone at the end of a slow connection. In addition, standard search engines return all unique URLs that matched the user’s query; for users in information-poor environments, receiving hundreds of thousands of URLs might be more overwhelming than useful.

The TEK system:
To make information widely and easily available to the global community, the Laboratory for Computer Science at MIT has proposed to design a system that accounts for the varied stages of information technology and Internet connectivity that exist. This Internet search utility system which is under development, is being designed for low-connectivity, low-bandwidth communities. The TEK Search Engine - TEK stands for ‘Time Equals Knowledge’ - is an asynchronous search engine that transfers both queries and query results by email. Queries are received in Boston, the Web searched, and a subset of the ‘found’ information is returned to the user. 

The MIT research has focussed on the development of novel technologies that are specifically designed to meet the economic and social constraints of the developing world. While this research incorporates familiar fields such as information retrieval, data compression, multi-lingual interfaces, and low-cost devices, it is distinct from most research conducted in the West in that it is driven to meet the costs and constraints of developing nations. TEK is not only an imminent solution to a social need; it is also the first step in a long-term effort to develop appropriate information technologies for developing countries.
The system contains three main components : the TEK Client, the TEK Server, and the TEK Protocol. The TEK search engine differs from others in that it is designed to return low-bandwidth results, which are achieved by special filtering, analysis, and compression on the server side. 

The TEK Client runs on the user's local machine and provides a web-like interface for submitting queries and viewing results. The Client contains functionality to gather queries (either for a general search term, or for a specific URL) and to e-mail those queries to the TEK Server. If a machine is shared by many users, the TEK Client keeps track of each user's queries, and organises the results on a per-user basis. Also, the Client caches all pages that it receives from the TEK Server, so that future queries can first refer to the local disk instead of having to search the Internet. 

The TEK Server, currently at MIT in Boston, USA, runs in a high-connectivity site. The server would use the World Wide Web to find the most appropriate set of content for each query, and to email the results back to the client. A key feature of the TEK Server is that it uses a database to keep track of each client and the pages that they have downloaded. Using this information, the Server can often improve the quality of the results. 

For instance, if a Client has already downloaded a given page, the Server will not waste bandwidth by sending it again; instead, it will return an additional page that is relevant to the user’s query. 

The TEK Protocol manages all of the communication between the Client and the Server. In many communities, email is not a reliable medium for communication -- rather, emails can be delayed, mangled, and lost. In these cases, it might be necessary for the Client to re-send a search query, or for the Server to the search results. The TEK Protocol keeps track of all messages that were sent and received by the Client; if a certain amount of time passes without hearing back from the Server, then the query is automatically resent. 

Download of TEK:
An Alpha version of the TEK Client is available for download. This version contains some known bugs and is intended primarily for users who are willing to help test and evaluate the software. There are versions of TEK available for both Linux and Windows. 

And those of you who are interested in helping to fix bugs, wish to implement additional functionality, or contribute in other ways to the TEK project, do e-mail the TEK systems design team at The latest version of the TEK Client, is available for download at Also, for users with limited connectivity, the software on a CD is currently available, free of cost. You can ask for a copy by sending your request to .

N S Soundara Rajan
(The author wishes to acknowledge the help and permission received from Bill Thies,, to write this article)



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