DQ Lifetime Achievement Award 2000

Enthusiasm bordering on 
recklessness coupled with  scientific rigor and a quest for practical innovation” is what Dr Ramani attributes his achievements to. Dr Ramani’s areas of research and development are spread across the many applications that have data networking at the core. Dr Ramani and fellow scientists created and successfully tested the first e-mail in the country–way back in 1980, an electronic equivalent of “Dr Watson, are you there?” The service was developed to demonstrate the country’s technological capabilities in data networking at the Networks ‘80 conference, an international meet on data communication and
computer networks. Dr Ramani comments, “We successfully demonstrated a live data connection between London and Mumbai for an application called Videotex.” 

Dr Ramani and his colleagues have germinated the seeds of many new technologies. They pioneered the Internet age in India through Ernet–a network leaning toward the education and research community. They conducted the earliest experiments in satellite-based communications, which was the forerunner of the VSAT technology. They created industry and community-specific data networks in spearheading the computer networking in India.

TIFR internship

Born on March 21, 1939 at Nungambakkam, in the then Madras Province, Dr Ramani was exposed to an environment of learning from his boyhood days. He took his graduate electrical engineering degree at the Government College of Engineering, Coimbatore, followed by a Masters degree, specializing in digital electronics from IIT Bombay in 1964. 

Dr Ramani doesn’t fail to mention the help that the IIT and TIFR, gave him–JR Isaac, then director, IIT Bombay, broke the IIT tradition by allowing him to work at TIFR while studying at IIT. The TIFR scientists provided an environment conducive to developing his research instincts and extending the best infrastructure to conduct his work. After his MTech, Dr Ramani joined TIFR while he continued his PhD at IIT. 

His doctoral dissertation was in studying the connection between problem-solving and language in AI. Dr Ramani’s guides for the project were Professor Narasimhan of TIFR and Professor JR Isaac of IIT Bombay: he was awarded the doctorate in 1969. 

He left India to advance his work in AI to work as a post-doctoral research associate at the Carnegie Mellon University, armed with the Homi Bhabha fellowship. He worked with authorities in the area–Herbert Simon and the late Allen Newell with whom he shared his convergent interests in AI and human psychology.

Upon returning to India, he continued his work in his chosen areas at TIFR. The direction was clear: the future was in data networks, which sought to share computing power and rendered connectivity between machines. The team wrote the software for the first datacom protocol link between TIFR and VJTI, an engineering institute. 

Down from space

Meanwhile, a few exciting developments were happening in the area of space research, of relevance to data networking. Dr Ramani came up with the novel idea of low-altitude data satellite and presented a seminal paper co-authored by Dr Miller at an international conference in London 1980. Dr Ramani exploited its data-carrying capabilities, presenting a paper at an international conference in London in 1980. This satellite technology was later on called low earth orbit satellites
(LEOs).

An entire system was built ground up by TIFR scientists–including designing and making the earth stations, and the whole gamut of software pieces that were required to run it. “We even went to buy aluminum for the project,” muses Dr Ramani. But the technology was cent per cent Indian: from hardware, software, and satellites to the network–a data network connecting Ghaziabad, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The project was called Comnet and was successfully completed in 1982. The project was essentially the current VSAT technology, which came into much prominence years later. It was truly a moment of triumph for Indian science. 

Dr Ramani’s engagement with networking continued with many consulting assignments in the area–the earliest amongst them being the network for Press Trust of India (PTI). He also designed nation-wide WANs for a number of major banks and stock exchanges in India, and was a consultant during 1997—99 in planning and creating the technical infrastructure for MTNL’s ISP venture.

Enter ERNET

Inspired by Ivan Ilyich, noted educationist, Dr Ramani is a firm believer in the continuing professional education format. So when he was given the mandate to set up an apex research and educational institution in 1984, he strove his best to deliver an enviable institution in the name of NCST. Professor P Sadanandan, Professor SP Mudur and Dr Ramani were the threesome who architected NCST. Much of Dr Ramani’s later research emanated from NCST while it became the best generator of global-class software professionals in the country. He served as the first director of NCST, during 1984—2000, after playing a key role in founding the institution. 

Dr Ramani played a major role in planning and creating India’s educational and research network (Ernet), now covering a few hundred institutions. He also played a pioneering role in developing Internet technology, directing the team that set up the first Internet connection in India in the eighties, and then built up a large leased line network under Ernet. He has managed the domain registration service in India for over ten years.

Spreading computerization and use of IT in business, particularly financial institutions and public enterprises, has been Dr Ramani’s forte. His achievements here include a key technical role in planning and specifying the VSAT network now serving the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), encompassing over a thousand VSATs. He was, again, the consultant to BSE in 1999, for planning its WAN based on leased lines. He has been a consultant for the Baroda Stock Exchange, helping it plan for, acquire and commission its trading system. He has served as chairperson of the working group of the Rangarajan committee on bank computerization, and as a member of the Rangarajan committee. He has served on the board of directors of ECIL and CMC, and is currently on the board of UTI Investor Services. He has also served as a member of the steering committee of the Center for the Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC) and the executive committee of the Center for Railway Information Systems. 

He has served in many committees to help promote use of technology for business and common advantage. Key among them are: executive vice president, International Council for Computer Communication (ICCC), (since January 1997); member of the scientific advisory committee to the cabinet in India (1997—99); national technical advisor to the sustainable network project; president, Computer Society of India (1996—98); president, South-east Asia Regional Computer Confederation (1997—98); IFIP trustee (1998—2000); editor-in-chief, Journal of Information Technology for Development, IOS Press, the Netherlands (1995—2000). He has also headed the program strategic planning group of
ICCC.

The boundless nature of computer networking made Dr Ramani realize that India has to extend beyond its geographic borders. He created and sustained a close network of international contacts and represented the country in many international fora. He has served as a consultant to international organizations such as the UN, UNDP and the World Bank. He served as a leading member of the panel of experts on IT for Development, appointed by the United Nations. He made a presentation on the findings of the panel to the Economic and Social Council of the UN in July 2000. Dr Ramani served as chairman of the board of directors, Commonwealth Network of IT for Development, based in Malta (1995-2000).

Science for real life

Dr Ramani, to this day, continues to indulge in scientific passion and dreams about future possibilities of science. He is also a keen reader of developments in medical research. The dot-com mania has left this Internet guru untouched–he is perhaps made of sterner stuff and better understands the revolution the Internet can bring about. 

Dr Ramani continues his work in much the same way as earlier. At present, he is directing the 
research and development activities of Silverline Technologies.  An agnostic–he even calls himself “mildly anti-religious”–his vocation is to preach science and its relevance to the common 
man. His family includes his wife Usha, and two daughters, Preethi and Arati, who are exploring their future in the IT in 
the US.

From the depths of research that he sought to explore, Dr Ramani’s contribution to the IT industry will be remembered for long. 

Easwaradas Satyan
in Mumbai

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