When Prof. Willie Mendis invited you to start the first Computer Science department in Sri Lanka at the University of Moratuwa, how did you take on the task?
I had just returned from my post-graduate studies and I was still in the Electrical Engineering Department. So computer science or computing was quite new to us. Quite fortunately we had the opportunity to use the IEEE Computer Society model curriculum for Computer Science & Engineering that they had just released in 1983. That gave us the framework that we used to develop the Computer Science & Engineering curriculum at the University of Moratuwa.
What were the challenges you faced?
In terms of establishing the department, I think the main challenge was recruiting enough staff. We didn’t have any Computer Science graduates to recruit. So we were looking for Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering graduates. I was quite fortunate to have the JOCV volunteers from the Japanese government and also the VSO volunteers from the United Kingdom. So we were able to manage to fill some of the staff positions using them. In 1987 we were very fortunate to have Japanese International Co-operation Agency grant in order to setup laboratories. And I was able to set up all the necessary laboratories using those funds.
How did you conceive the idea of bringing Internet to Sri Lanka?
That is a very interesting question, because in 1983 when we thought about Networks, we did not really think of the Internet. We were just thinking of building Computer Networks and Data Communication Services to provide academic and research computing facilities. In 1984 I visited some universities in the region, to understand their Computer Science and Engineering curricula. And that’s the first time I got to know about Academic and Research networks in those universities. So my first attempt was to develop the capacity within the department both in terms of resources and staff. And in 1989 I was spending my sabbatical at the University of Keele where I got to work with the JANET, UK Academic Network. And that gave me the impetus to articulate my vision for a country-wide network for Academic and Research Networking. It is only in 1992, when the Internet became known world wide, I reformulated the proposal and started implementing the Internet.
What is the concept of LEARN?
The concept of LEARN actually was setting up a country-wide network for academic and research networking. When I proposed in 1989, X.25 was still a dominant technology in the world. And because of the links we had with the UK, I was proposing to setup a similar infrastructure in Sri Lanka. But between 1989 and 1992 many things happened. And we were then able to incorporate ideas into the LEARN Internet. Finally what we implemented was the first IP WAN in Sri Lanka as LEARN.
What were the challenges in implementing this proposal?
We had to face two challenges. The first one was financial. Being a developing country, it was not easy to find funds. Secondly we also had some technical challenges to concur. The financial situation was helped by the assistance given by the Computer and Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka, the University Grants Commission and there was also Lanka Academic Network, a not for profit organization setup to support ICT endeavours in Sri Lanka.
The technical challenges were mainly encountered in terms of setting up the wireless links connecting the University of Moratuwa to the University of Colombo and the Open University. And configuring the routers and various other issues, because at that time the Department of Telecommunication did not have any expertise within themselves. So we were setting up the test bed for both the university system as well as for the telecommunication industry to understand. In 1993 I was fortunate enough, with several others from the university, to attend the developing country workshop organized and funded by the Internet Society. And we met people like Randy Bush and George Sadowsky who were very helpful in our attempt to setup the network.
Would you like to mention a few a people who helped in this proposal and making it a reality?
To start with I think I should mention the staff at the University of Keele, where I was spending my sabbatical, who helped me to work with their system understanding X.25 switches and how to configure things at that time. But, on my return, when we started really implementing LEARN, I should mention some of my own colleagues who were my students beforehand, Clement Adams, Gihan Dias, Lalith Gamage and few others were who helping us to run the email system, Sanjiva Weerawarana, Athula Herath, Nimal Rathnayake, Tilaka Sumanaweera, they were graduate students in the US at that time. They all helped us to set it up.
What are your thoughts/reflections on the first email system in Sri Lanka?
Again, it is a very interesting question. Because before we started LEARNmail, the first IP based email system, previously there have been several attempts. The Arthur C Clarke Centre started the Mallard MailBox System. Several people were using CompuServe and other private email systems. But there was nothing really connecting networks to the Internet for exchange of Internet email. So when we thought of LEARN network as the basis or the framework for Academic and Research Networks in Sri Lanka, and also to be able to attract funding to implement this, the first service I wanted to implement was the email, because I knew people will then get to know about it and they will appreciate the services that could be offered using a network. So we started LEARN mail in 1990, and in the beginning of course it was expensive to run IDD connections from US to Sri Lanka, so we were dialling roughly about 3 times a week but then within a few months we were connecting 3 times a day, until in 1995 finally we made the permanent connection.
Did you have to make any sacrifices to turn your vision into a reality?
More than sacrifices, I think they were solving problems. Very first was to find enough money to procure 3 digital circuits. And at that time the Telecommunication Department was not able to provide any digital circuits using landlines. So we had to procure equipment to run 3 wireless links and the speed was 64 kbps at that time. And to of course fund that, we needed money and very fortunately the University Grants Commission gave us 3 million rupees to procure those lines. And we also procured the IP routers with that money. I remember the meetings, several meetings we had at the UGC where my colleagues, my contemporaries were asking funds more for laboratories and other basic facilities, rather than setting up a wide area network. I am sure at that time it was not easy for them to understand the benefits that this type of a network could bring to their community. Also you have to remember that this was the time that policy makers, politicians were not carrying smartphones; they didn’t have Facebook accounts; and they didn’t have tweeting to their constituents. For them also it was difficult, so convincing them to support this proposal and the project was the most difficult thing.
If you go back in time to 1989 – 1992, are you happy with the progress the Internet has made in Sri Lanka since then?
There are really 2 questions, which I will answer. The first one is in terms of benefits, what I saw was the potential that our students and staff will have if you have access to information. And you got to remember that Sri Lanka being a developing country it is hard to get access to books, publications and information. So my first idea was to provide this network access so that staff and students could benefit from that. Secondly from 1992 onwards, I think it has been a journey which has just continued to grow. I left the University in 1998 and after that of course there were several people who contributed like Prof. Gihan Dias and Prof. Nimal Rathnayake and continued to develop LEARN to the current state. So we are I am sure quite on par with the rest of the world, in terms of the services we provide to our students and staff. In any case every country will be looking for more bandwidth, more resources and more capacity and Sri Lanka is no exception.
Do you see that Internet has brought a cultural change in Sri Lanka? What is your opinion on that?
In keeping with the times, I think the academics, University staff and students, Lecturers and others working in the research institutes, they have been able to produce more and more research output which could have been useful for the general community in the country. So in that sense I think we have achieved our objective. But at the same time, there is always another side to the coin and there are things that could be anti-social; not really contributing to the betterment of the community. That side of the story is always there.
What threats do you see to the Internet?
As I said there will always be people who will want to destroy and somehow damage the delivery of the services for the common good of mankind. I have always believed whatever we do should be for the common good. And what I see is that small percentage of people will continue to do things which will affect the way we can deliver the services to the ordinary humankind. For an example, identity theft is a major issue these days. Credit Card theft and the use of the Internet to commit crime. Some of the crimes which have been committed for several centuries, you have now found a better and easier way to commit. So that will continue, so the community is quite aware of this and their effort should be to make the Internet a better place.
We have Grid Computing, Cloud Computing and Big Data. Where do you think the Internet is heading?
Things come and go. Yes we had Grid Computing which I call the poor man’s Super Computer. And then came Cloud Computing, which is the hype these days. What I see as the future of the Internet, is basically the deployment of the new generation IPv6. Which will allow us to have massive amount of IP addresses which could connect several billion devices. The prediction is that, by 2020 we will have 200 billion devices connected on to the Internet and that would mean something like 25 billion dollar industry. When that happens there will be an enormous growth of services which will be used by ordinary people. But this also means that these devices will start to talk to each other, exchanging information, including personal information. If we do not take enough care, so that the privacy is maintained, access to the information is properly controlled, what could happen is that these vital information could fall into wrong hands. And that is the major threat I see.
Over the past 20 years, what is the one memorable incident you’d like to reflect on?
I think the day we connected LEARN permanently to the Internet is the breakthrough moment. We have been working really hard to get to that point overcoming all the issues and the problems we had. And with all the cooperation that we had from Sri Lanka Telecom, from the UGC, from the University and the Computer and Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka, and the people from the USA where we connected to in the end. That was the breakthrough moment.
What is the message you’d like to give to the upcoming Graduates and Entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka? How do you like them to take the next step?
If you look back, there are few major steps that we have seen contributing to the exponential growth of the Internet. The first one being, having of course established the Internet, the email which was the killer application until 1993 when Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. So today everything is more or less World Wide Web based. And that is the killer application. It has been growing. Internet is almost like a life form and it is evolving. So I’d expect at various stages some of these killer applications to come to light. That is where the growth will be. So I would expect some of the Sri Lankans to contribute to this type of growing applications.
Any last/parting words?
I am quite happy that Sri Lanka had the good fortune of connecting to the Internet rather early, along with several other countries in the region. After that people have seen the benefits, and they have continued to let it grow to the current state. And I am sure it will continue in the same way for the next 25-50 years.