RCM: an open architecture to build a community

Giovanni Casapulla, Alfredo Chizzoni, Fiorella De Cindio
Civic Networking Lab. - Dept. of Computer Science - Univ. of Milan
Via Comelico 39/41, 20135
Milan, Italy
e-mail: Administrator@rcm.dsi.unimi.it


The Milano Civic Network (Rete Civica di Milano, RCM for short) is a community network started Sept. 22, 1994 by the Department of Computer Science (DSI) of the University of Milan. By a small investment of the University, and thanks to the donations of some sponsors and to several research contracts, the connection to RCM is free for all citizens. The RCM members benefits of the following services: e-mail (both local and internet), public discussion areas, chat, upload/download (texts, images, sounds and some selected SW), through which they can communicate each other and access to information provided by themselves, by public Institutions, local Associations and (up to now) by a dozen of companies.

RCM is strongly inspired by Internet values, such as being free and open. It shares the principles and goals of community networks, as presented in [1], especially the ones which state: (a) contents provided by the members, (b) bidirectional communication, and (c) focus on local matter.

The principles are implemented in RCM through the slogan la rete siete voi (you are the network), to inspire everyone entering the network to be an active member and promoter, and applying, for opening new discussion areas, the same policy as the Internet Newsgroups, which is however less common for community networks. In fact, no rigid design is imposed by the administrators, in terms of predefined areas of discussion: everyone can propose a thematic conference, and, if the proposal obtain a good consensus from the others, the conference is opened, managed by the promoter. Thanks to this user generated design, today RCM has more than 900 such alive conferences, managed by about 300 volunteers, delegates of administrators. The staff guarantees the coordination and provides the technical support. Moreover it mantains the public relations with sponsors, public institutions, enterprises and with the local media.

RCM has by now 3500 members (they were 300 one year ago) of the 8500 who entered. During all 1995 and the first quarter of 1996 the increment has been about 200-250 members per month.

RCM has been already presented at the 2nd International Workshop on Community Networking [2]. In this third edition we intend to focus our presentation on the architecture of the system.


The architecture of RCM is based on two different servers: the community server, supporting local services (email and conferencing); and a WWW server, that let web users access several conferences mirrored from the local server with any WWW browser, plus selected web links.

The core of the whole system is the community server, that we chose according to the following essential requirements:

- highly interactive, to support active citizen to produce contents of local interest;

- easy-to-use window interface, to avoid costly hot-lines;

- support of a wide range of communication protocols, to be able to get in touch with other systems of interest (either linked to Internet or not);

- platform indipendence at the client side and, very important, a client application capable of reasonable performances even with cheap personal computers and modems, to be in the range of all the potential users.

In order to meet these needs in 1994 we chose to set up a Bulletin Board System (BBS), as done by the most overseas Free Nets. However we did not adopt the Free Port software, which is their preferred choice, but instead decided in favour of the FirstClass (FC) software by SoftArc, already adopted in Europe by such a successful experience as the british Open University [3] is. The experience positively answered our expectations, highlighting the usefulness of some FC key features, such as:

- a brief personal profile (resume), written by each user, availabile to all the users of the net;

- a list of the currently logged in users (who's on line);

- the use of to/cc fields in the message header.

Since the server supports different communication protocols (TCP/IP, IPX, AppleTalk and MAPI) and since the development toolkits [4] allows to develop the gateways each one needs, we have been able to connect RCM to many different environments: USENET (Internet Newsgroups), Gopher archives, FidoNet, OneNet (the network of the worldwide FC based BBS). Moreover we are able to capture and make available in RCM the information provided by Televideo (the italian TeleText), up to now this is exploited for providing RCM members with Ultima ora (last minute news). The current RCM architecture is shown in Fig.1.

We believe that the most relevant results coming from such a open architecture are the following:

- the capability to access to RCM with different connection protocols (dial-up, TCP/IP);

- the improvement of OneNet Italia (ONI), the network built by a number of socially motivated italian FC based BBS, of which RCM is now the main distribution node, that give access to many conferencing areas all over the country;

- the possibility of exchanging information with other BBS and the other Civic Networks under development in Italy, independently from the software they use (to develop effective gateways it is enough a UUCP connection, e-mail Internet or Fidonet-like protocols).

However, a couple of the above needs were not covered by the choice of FC, namely:

- fully platform independence at the client side, e.g. Unix users can connect to RCM only through a telnet session;

- need of being within the World Wide Web.

Therefore we decided to develop, on the top of the FC gateway toolkit, an original software, called FC2HTML. It is an interface application that mirrors the RCM conferences and the messages they contain into the RCM WWW server [5]. This provides access through the most common WWW browsers for conferences which need a non local access, such as those of the public Administration.

Fig.1: Current RCM Architecture

Oriented links are one-way only and straight lines are bidirectional links.

ICP stands for Internet Connection Provider.

Before 1997 the additional application HTTP2FC will permit RCM members connected through a WWW browser to contribute to RCM conferences, distinguishing between registered RCM members, with writing rights, from visitors, just with reading rights.

Beside the mirroring of several RCM conferences, the RCM WWW site contains a presentation of RCM, both in italian and in english, including the software necessary to connect to RCM. Moreover the RCM webmaster is committed to maintain the links:

- to the other WWW sites in Milano;

- to the other Universities in Italy;

- to other community networks, in Italy, Europe and all over the world.

An analogous architecture has been adopted at Urbana-Champaign, Il, USA [6], but for the technical choice of the community server (Free Port instead of FirstClass).

Considering the community server, we observe that the choice of FC has been fundamental to raise quickly a community of active members, able to produce valuable contents of local interest (where `local' means at the metropolitan and at the country level). Thanks to this and to the current UUCP, Fido and FC gateways, by now RCM can represent a significant medium w.r.t. all the aspects of its members' social relationships, as is illustrated in the following.

As individuals, they can communicate locally with each other both privately (mailboxes) and publicly (thematic conferences). They can also contribute to the shared conferences of ONI and send messages to any ONI, Fidonet and Internet mailbox. They can even sustain sinchronous chat in a similar way to the Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

As citizens they can get in touch with the public Institutions and with several no-profit Associations. The most important example is the possibility to ask the Vice Sindaco of Milan anything about the Administration of the town and to receive a public answer on the net. Another significant example is the active presence of the editorial staff of some newspapers, both local and national, and of a popular local radio station.

As professional and consumers, they interact with and within the world of labour. RCM proved itself a quite effective platform for cooperative work at the metropolitan level. This topics is widely discussed in [7] where the original nature of FC as a workgroup software is also considered. There is also a quite heterogenous kind of activities. Examples are: La Sana Dispensa (The healthy larder) is a small firm bringing fruit and natural delicatessen directly from Sicily to Milan, which accepts orders on the net; Kernel Sente is a computer shop that gives on-line consulting to the potential customers; DuPont is the well-known worldwide chemical enterprise which manages an attractive press office on the net. An additional service is a forum for on-line consulting about administrative and fiscal questions; a similar service about legal question is planned to be available soon.

Last but not least, the alive character of RCM is witnessed from the frequent and appreciated parties promoted by its members. Some of them started in november 1995 a Support Commettee for collecting funds to enhance RCM structures (namely, more dial-up lines).

Considering the WWW server, we observe that the tight link to the web simply opens the local community to the global Internet community.


We believe that the choices done at the architectural and design phase, especially the above illustrated two servers scheme, constitute a key success factor. To enhance the impact of RCM on both the local and the global scenario, especially about its internetworking capability and robustness, we are improving the net hardware. The project is described in details in Fig.2.

The main innovations are:

- the introduction of a hub server, devoted exclusively to the gateway activity;

- the integration of the HTTP2FC module described above;

- the development of a new gateway toward the popular Worldgroup communication software.


This paper presents the architecture and the design choices of Milano Civic Network, the biggest italian community network (3500 active users in a year and a half). While a number of initiatives are following its steps (Desenzano and Bergamo are already operational using the same FC platform; Siracusa, Varese, Ventimiglia and others are in a preliminary phase), RCM is enhancing its hardware structure to become a more reliable distribution node for many italian FirstClass based BBS.

At the same time the planned tighter integration with the World Wide Web let us introduce our members to a higher degree of multimedia applications.

Fig.2: Future RCM Architecture

Ghosted links from the Worldgroup environment stand for different viable gateways protocols.


The authors wish to thank Margherita Colaci, Oliverio Gentile, Marco Pugliese, Lucia Randone and Leonardo Sonnante for their help.


[1] D. Schuler, Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium, CACM, 37-1, 1994.

[2] G. Casapulla, F. De Cindio and O. Gentile, The Milan Civic Network experience and its roots in the town, Proc. of 2nd International Workshop on Community Networks, Princeton, NJ, USA, 20-22 June, 1995.

[3] Open University home page (http://open.ac.uk/)

[4] Gateway development toolkit, Soft Arc Inc., 1995.

[5] RCM home page (http://wrcm.dsi.unimi.it/)

[6] A. G. Kanfer and S. Lathrop, Champaign County Network: Strategies, Successes and Obstacles, Proc. of 2nd International Workshop on Community Networks, Princeton, NJ, USA, 20-22 June, 1995.

[7] L. Sonnante, Rete Civica di Milano, uno strumento a supporto del lavoro cooperativo dei cittadini, Master Thesis, Università degli Studi di Milano, 1996 (in italian).