As I type these words, I have a tab open in Google Chrome playing my usual playlist on YouTube. Another tab has WhatsApp open to coordinate with the rest of the team. In another tab is Gmail, with an inbox that I need to clean up. It’s safe to say that the internet is something that’s deeply entrenched into my daily routine. Many of us can say the same thing. However, there was a time when the concept of the Internet was unheard of in Sri Lanka. It was thanks to many talented individuals pursuing various initiatives that Sri Lanka now has internet access and is connected with the rest of the world. One such individual is Prof. Gihan Dias.
Many know him as a professor at the University of Moratuwa and the man behind the LK Domain Registry. Yet, throughout his life, Prof. Gihan has played a pivotal role in many initiatives that helped build the Internet in Sri Lanka. This is the story of Prof. Gihan Dias and one chapter in the history of Lankan internet.
Taking the first steps into the world of computing
Prof. Gihan Dias took his first steps into the world of computing while studying for his A/L’s at Royal College. It was during this time that he found a book on programming with BASIC. Using what he learned from this book, Prof. Gihan wrote his first computer programs. However, he had no way of testing them. While Prof. Gihan had seen pictures of computers, he didn’t have access to a computer.
This changed after he had finished his A/L’s in 1979. Prof. Gihan saw an advertisement for a course that taught BASIC programming. This was where he met his first computer: a Radio Shack TRS-80. For the duration of the course, he was writing simple computer programs. Yet, he found this interesting and knew that this was his passion.
Alas, there were no computer science departments at any university in Sri Lanka. So Prof. Gihan made the decision to pursue a degree in electrical engineering at the University of Moratuwa in 1981. At the time, the university didn’t have any computer science courses but they did have computers. The most popular one was a punched card computer that they programmed in FORTRAN.
However, programming it was no easy task because it was a lengthy process. The process involved first writing a program with a typewriter-like keyboard on a punched card. The punched card would then be inserted into the computer and to get a printout of the result. However, an error would involve going back to the typewriter and retyping the entire punched card. “It sometimes took 10 trips back and forth before all the errors were fixed,” shares Prof. Gihan.
Fast forward to 1985 and Prof. Gihan had completed his Bachelor’s Degree in electronic engineering. At the same time, the University of Moratuwa made the decision to create the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Upon hearing this news, Prof. Gihan immediately applied and became the first member of this new department.
Bringing email to Sri Lanka
1985 was also the year Prof. Gihan got a scholarship to study at the University of California. It was here that he obtained his Masters and Ph.D. And it was here while in the University of California that Prof. Gihan had his first encounter with the internet in 1986. After this first encounter, he thought that this was something that would greatly benefit Sri Lanka. Alas, he didn’t have time to pursue this idea due to his studies. Yet it was during his studies in the US that Prof. Gihan met a group of people that would help him revolutionize communication in Sri Lanka. This group would include notable names such as Dr. Sanjiva Weerawarna – Founder & CEO of WSO2.
It all started by identifying a problem. To say the 1980’s were a dark and hectic time in Sri Lankan history would be an understatement. However, in the age before the internet, it was challenging for the large community of Sri Lankan students studying abroad to know what was happening back home. Seeing this problem, Prof. Gihan Dias with several other colleagues decided to build Sri Lanka’s first email system.
Thus in 1989, SLNet was born to distribute news on Sri Lanka to people around the world. The system consisted of two computers that acted as the main relays. Another six computers acted as sub relays to forward messages to different cities in the US, UK, and Canada. The first main relay was located at the University of Moratuwa whereas the second main relay was located at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Albany, New York, USA.
What made SLNet so useful was news, and the credit for that lies with Nimal Ratnayake in New York and Althula Herath and Manohara in the UK. They scoured for news of current events in Sri Lanka from various sources. They compiled all this information and maintained a mailing list on SLNet that kept many updated on the events unfolding in Sri Lanka. By 1991, it was estimated that SLNet had over 1000 members in at least 10 countries.
LAcNET and the birth of LEARN
With his return to Sri Lanka, Prof. Gihan wanted to help bring the internet to the country. And so, in 1991 SLnet evolved into the Lanka Academic Network aka. LAcNet. The founding directors of this new organization were: Prof. Gihan, Mr. Priyantha Samaratunga, Dr. Prabhat Samaratunga, Dr. K. Sribalaskandaraja, and Mr. Feroz Ghouse. With the establishment of the LAcNet, work began on building Sri Lanka’s first Wide Area Network.
This network was the Lanka Education and Research Network aka LEARN. Conceptualized by Prof. Abhaya Induruwa, the goal of this network was to connect every university in Sri Lanka. Prof. Gihan Dias was involved since its inception and played a pivotal role in building this network. It all began with buying various equipment such as routers and computers. Afterward, it was mostly trial and error. Prof. Gihan shared that they read books and experimented with various approaches. If they got stuck, then they would fire an email to colleagues abroad for advice and then experiment with a new approach based on their advice. These were the challenges researchers faced in the age before Google.
Nonetheless, while LEARN was the first WAN network in Sri Lanka, nobody in the team felt they weren’t up to the task. The first Local Area Network (LAN) was built in 1989 by Prof. Gihan Dias, Prof. Abhaya Induruwa and Prof. Clement W. Adams at the University of Moratuwa. As such, they weren’t exactly venturing into uncharted territories.
Finally, in 1994 LEARN went live and connected three universities. These three universities were: the University of Colombo, University of Moratuwa and Open University of Sri Lanka. Over the years they would go onto connect other universities across the country with a combination of SLT and Suntel connections. The University of Jaffna was especially challenging due to the war. However, they were able to connect it with the rest of the universities on the LEARN network.
But funding this network was no easy task, until 1999 with the help of the Swedish government. The Swedish government saw the efforts and were impressed with LEARN. So they reached out to LEARN and offered their assistance and funding to help improve the network. With this assistance, over 13 universities were part of the LEARN network by 2001. In 2002 Prof. Gihan made the decision to leave the project. However, the network is still in operation today connecting not just universities but also other academic bodies with fiber links.
Building the LK Domain Registry
If there’s one project that Prof. Gihan Dias is famous for its building the LK Domain Registry. Incidentally, this was something that happened by accident. The roots of this story lie in the days of SLNet. Many users at the University of Moratuwa noticed that certain email addresses ended with abbreviations representing countries such as .jp for Japan. The university inquired about this and was introduced to the concept of domain names.
The University of Moratuwa then wanted its own mor.lk domain. So in 1989 Prof. Gihan discussed the idea with Dr. Jon Postel, who was at the time the principal administrator of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). During Prof. Gihan’s discussions, Dr. Postel had said that they could have the .lk domain. However, its use couldn’t be limited to the University of Moratuwa.
The .lk domain had to be available to everyone in Sri Lanka. The university agreed and the .lk domain was born with Prof. Gihan being placed in charge of it. Initially, they had registered a few ac.lk domains setup for universities and a few government domains as well. But eventually the number of registrations grew and the University of Moratuwa was uninterested in managing the .lk domain.
And so the administration was handed over to CINTEC, which was a a Government body chaired run by Prof. V.K Samaranayake. Yet, despite this official change, the team behind the .lk domain registration process was still led by Prof. Gihan and situated at the University of Moratuwa. However, this process soon came to an abrupt end in 2005 with CINTEC shutting down.
Thus, the decision was taken to setup the LK Domain Registry in 2005. This became the national non-profit organization that manages the .lk domain to this day. And since its inception, Prof. Gihan has led the team behind it from its beginnings inside the University of Moratuwa.
Translating the internet for everyone in Sri Lanka
Prof. Gihan describes himself as being an engineer that got his hands dirty connecting wires. But today, his focuses on creating policies and legislation that would help everyone benefit from the internet. As such, he’s an active member of the Sri Lankan chapter of the Internet Society. The Internet Society was influential in providing valuable training and knowledge to set up networks between 1995 and 2002. However, we didn’t have a chapter of the Internet Society in Sri Lanka until 2010, with Harsha Wijayawardene being appointed as its charter President.
Prof. Gihan Dias served as its President from 2013 – 2016. Under his leadership, the Sri Lankan chapter of the Internet Society pursued two major projects. The first project was to help make the internet safer for some of its most vulnerable users: women and children. The second project was to help make the internet more accessible to everyone in Sri Lanka by having more content in Sinhala and Tamil.
While the Internet Society carried out various efforts to translate the internet, Prof. Gihan is no stranger to this challenge. When the ICTA was first formed in 2003, Prof. Gihan was among its first program directors. At the time, ICTA operated very much like a startup. As such, Prof. Gihan and everyone else was in charge of multiple projects.
Initially, he was in charge of efforts to helping develop the local IT industry but then moved towards HR development. During the one year that Prof. Gihan was with the ICTA, they ran 8 pilot projects. One of these pilot projects was to bring support for Tamil and Sinhala to computers and mobile phones. Today, it’s easy to find Android supporting Sinhala. However, back in 2003, this was non-existent.
Prof. Gihan Dias today
From SLnet to LAcNET & LEARN to building the LK Domain Registry to translating the internet for Sri Lankans and much more. Prof. Gihan Dias has been a man that’s been at the center of many initiatives that helped bring the internet to Sri Lanka. For all his efforts, Prof. Gihan has been recognized and was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame as a Global Connector by the Internet Society.
Yet, despite all his achievements, Prof. Gihan Dias remains an active researcher that’s currently pursuing two main projects. The first project is a system that would translate Sinhala text into Tamil and vice versa. The project will focus on English at a later stage. However, at the moment the focus is towards Sinhala and Tamil as many government documents are in Sinhala.
The second project is an online tutoring system for O/L mathematics students. This system is aimed at helping students pass one of the hardest papers in the current O/L syllabus. How does it aim to do this? The system would give the students questions and then analyze their answers. If the answer is wrong then the system won’t give the correct answer. Instead, the system would give hints to help the student find the correct answer. “The reason for this approach is to ensure that students truly learn,” said Prof. Gihan.
The online tutoring system is set to launch within a few months. What’s next for Prof. Gihan after these two projects are done? That’s a question for which only time has the answer. Either way, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the day one of the men who was pivotal in bringing the internet to Sri Lanka, enter the shadows of retirement anytime soon.