25 years of internet in South Africa

November 14th, 2016, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: EngineerIT, Cartoons: EngineerIT

 

mike-laurie

Mike Laurie, pioneer of the internet in South Africa speaking at the MyBroadband conference.

On 12 November 1991, 25 years ago, the first internet protocol packets started flowing out of South Africa on a leased circuit from Telkom. The man behind this was Mike Laurie. In later years he wrote “it’s amazing it happened at all, or at least it seemed so at the time.” The lack of cooperation and vision from the state telecommunications operator was staggering. They couldn’t see that in the long run they’d make money rather than lose it if they supported the technology.

“It was a remarkable environment”’ said Lawrie. “I have no idea what it’s like to take drugs, but we were on a high for months and months. It wasn’t a formal breakthrough, we weren’t the first or anything, but to have it here … felt great.”

Laurie participated in the panel discussion at the MyBroadband annual conference held on 20 October 2016 and talked about how the internet came about in South Africa. The delegates were glued to their seats. While today no one could imagine life without the internet, to hear from the man who made it happen for South Africa and that it was a mere 25 years ago when he and colleagues at Rhodes University (Rhodes) established the first international connection, blew them away!

In 1988 Francois Jacot Guillarmod, Dave Wilson and Mike Laurie found a way to establish a sustainable email link to the internet. The link was between Grahamstown and the home of Randy Bush in Portland Oregon. At the time Laurie was the director of computing services at Rhodes, Guillarmod and Wilson were systems programmers in the computing centre. During one of his interviews Laurie remarked “I am not sure of the correct description for Randy Bush, but we all knew that, while he had not the slightest obligation to help us, he was a person who gave willingly of his time and shared his experiences.“ At the time when he assisted the Rhodes trio he was a compiler for Oregon Software.

The email link used the Fidonet mailing system as a transport mechanism to exchange email between the control data cyber computer at Rhodes and a Fidonet gateway run by Bush. The Fidonet system in the USA had a gateway into the internet and to many persons’ amazement, including the Rhodes trio, the system worked and kept working.

The first leased line between Rhodes and Bush was driven by Penril modems at 14,4 kbps and had a 386 PC at each end. The software that performed the routing functions was Phil Karn’s KA9Q. (He used his amateur radio callsign to name the software.)

One of the features of the KA9Q routing software was what appeared to be reluctant to drop packages when there was congestion on the circuit. Ping times could rise to 300 seconds. This was way beyond the time-out limits and a re-transmission – given that routers were still doing their best to transmit the original packets which just increased the congestion. The effect was that the routers at each end would hang and the only way out was to call the US and ask for the router to be reset. With the time difference between the two countries this was a difficult task. It was not an option to call  Bush at 03h00!

To remedy this Wilson and Brian Kemp of the Rhodes electronic services division built a circuit that monitored the RS-232 interface between the router and the modem. If any were idle for too long, it would do an automatic reset on the 386 chip and the router would restart itself. This was installed at both ends of the link and solved some of the problems.

In parallel with connecting South Africa to the internet there was also a need to connect universities and researchers to a national network. In 1987, Dr. Rein Arndt, president of the Foundation for Research and Development (FRD) (now National Research Foundation) took an interest in the formation of a computer network. Seed money was made available to purchase networking equipment and to hire circuits. One of the motivations was that the country’s scientists had a need for access to a super computer and without a network there was no possibility of making this happen. Vic Shaw was appointed to the FRD as manager of Uninet to coordinate the efforts of the computer staff at those universities that took an interest in establishing a national research network – then called Uninet, now called the SA National Research Network.

One of the problems facing Uninet was the same as that of Rhodes – Telkom regulations that did not allow third party traffic. The rule applied to leased lines and not to dial-up modems. This issue took many years to resolves.

It was a long road to get to where we are today. It is thanks to the efforts of Mike Laurie and his associates that 25 years ago the first internet connection was established between South Africa and the world. Laurie retired many years ago but he is still at it. Recently he set up an internet network on the estate where he now lives.

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