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LionShare releases personal repository milestone

Born of the recognition that the vast majority of learning and teaching material lives on peoples' PCs, the LionShare project aims to provide a simple and trusted way to share those materials with others. The open source application isn't quite done yet, but a useable beta has just been released.

There are, of course, reasons why people keep most of their interesting stuff on their own machines ó convenience and control being pretty important ones. Compared to a curatorial repository or a plain webserver, material on your hard disk is easier to access and control, and can be in any state of completion.

The LionShare team figured that, if these riches are to be exposed to others, as much of that convenience and control needs to be retained. Hence the choice for a peer-to-peer application. In terms of convenience, this kind of programme has the advantage that it sits on your own machine and talks to its peers on other PCs directly. The material that you manage is therefore always 'there'. In terms of control, a peer-to-peer also has the advantage that the user herself determines what is shared at any given point in time.

Conventional peer-to-peer clients also have some flip-sides, though. Convenience doesn't extend to a guarantee that a peer with a particularly interesting resource will be available when you go look for it, for example.

Likewise, control generally extends to what is shared, not with whom or under what conditions. Hence the ongoing kerfufle around peer-to-peer clients such as the eDonkey, KaZaa and Limewire that are widely used to illegally distribute copyrighted materials.That illicit use makes peer-to-peer file sharing applications rather unpopular with college or university administrators, who fear the mores and lawyers of the rights owners.

LionShare technical aim, then, is to address these drawbacks in order to make a peer-to-peer file sharing application that can work in an educational environment.

Chief amongst these is to build in trust by making it impossible to use the application anonymously. All LionShare users need to authenticate first, so that each available resource shows by whom it is shared. Likewise, there is built in support for a server to enable people to share things even if their machines are not running.

What it does now

The current, 0.6, release is already a good deal of the way there. It does the authentication thing, with single sign on, provided the institutional network has a Kerberos implementation. Because that's in place, you can easily see whom you're sharing what with.

There's also the facility to choose where the content that you manage with LionShare actually lives: in a dedicated folder on your hard drive, on a folder on a network drive or in a 'virtual folder' that lists materials from all over your storage disks, without actually moving them. Stuff can be added by simply dragging and dropping files onto LionShare.

Having lots of resources available is nice, but not much use without a means of finding it. To that end, the program has some means of extracting metadata from a variety of resources, and the means to add some of your own. You can even determine what kinds of resource descriptions get attached, with templates based on the widely used IEEE LOM and Dublin Core metadata schemas.

The LionShare team is well aware that there is a lot of good stuff in more formal repositories, and therefore built in a means of searching those from within the program. Via ECL, an IMS DRI compliant infrastructure that federates searches to a wide variety of repositories, such formal repositories are now searchable.

The Canadian partners in the project, Simon Fraser University's Laboratory for Ontological Research (LORE) are the architects of ECL. They are now busy building a LionShare connector that goes the other way: from ECL into LionShare communities, with support for the access control technology that LionShare has.

What it will do

Still on the to do list are things such as a further sophistication of the authorisation mechanism via an extension to the increasingly widely used Shibboleth technology. The main deal here is a way of managing people's identity and attributes such as "student" in a 'web of trust' that would allow secure sharing across institutional boundaries. Part of that effort would also involve the inclusion of other authentication mechanisms than Kerberos.

For Penn State's Mike Halm, leader of the LionShare project, the really exciting thing about the authentication and authorisation gubbins is what it will allow users to do in terms of sharing. For him, sharing is what you do in a community, not necessarily the whole world. Consequently, what Mike would want for LionShare is to have a means of building and maintaining communities easily.

That would involve such things as setting up or joining groups that share particular kinds of resources. Archeologists who are interested in a particular period or culture, for example, would be able to set up a group that shares pictures of their digs just between their peers. Since a community needs communication, some ability to easily email or chat with the group members will also be built in.

Resources

The LionShare website holds a wealth of information on the techy details as well as the driving forces behind the project.

The LionShare client itself can also be downloaded from the site, but for the program to work, people outside the LionShare partnership will have to provide some details. Also, the program itself requires Java 1.5, which is available for Linux and Windows, but not yet for Macs.

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