4.1 Jack Leigh (UBC)

posted Dec 22, 2013, 4:31 PM by Jeff Ogden   [ updated Dec 22, 2013, 4:32 PM ]
I stumbled across this 14 September 2011 article about Jack Leigh and networking at UBC:


© 2011 Copyright Black Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

Networking before the ’net

West Vancouver
West Vancouver's Jack Leigh.  — image credit: Rob Newell photo

posted Sep 14, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Discussing how pervasively the Internet has affected society is a quick way of either revealing one’s age or winning top prize in the who-can-craft-the-most-obvious-statement competition.

But when sitting down for a cup of coffee with West Vancouver’s Jack Leigh, surrounded by folks using iPads and iPhones to check their latest emails, such an observation may not be so out of place. Leigh, you see, was one of the few people involved in bringing the now-omnipresent internet to Canada.

In those days, of course, the work he was involved in was far from the graphic-laden service we’ve come to expect. The task, at the very beginning, was figuring out a way to connect the University of British Columbia’s mainframe to computer terminals at other ends of the campus.

“At UBC, in about 1969, we [university computing staff] were working with the University of Michigan to build a network as it were,” says Leigh.

“The original intent was to build an operating system to work with IBM’s equipment. The IBM hardware was the first to support terminals, but their operating system just wouldn’t do it.”

Soon after, the Michigan Terminal System was born. With the newfound network, remote on-campus terminals could display the data the mainframe created. Those who worked locally on the system, says Leigh, were proud of what they accomplished but as the world of technology has a tendency to do, larger projects would soon take precedence.

By the early 1980s, Leigh says he and his colleagues at the university knew “the value of data networks that had a longer reach” and set out to connect post-secondary institutions  — all of which were using localized networks such as the MTS — to share research and support a wide range of projects.

And the result? The still-in-use BC Net, an inter-institutional network used by Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria and UBC, amongst others. Launched in 1987, the establishment of BC Net would mark the arrival of the first regional network in the country, followed quickly by similar initiatives in Ontario and other provinces.

Getting BC Net off the ground, however, didn’t come hiccup-free. Leigh says the project lost a year because those working on the network were forced to wait for the green light from Ottawa to use microwave frequencies to connect the mainland to Vancouver Island with wireless communications.

“We needed government approval as we weren’t allowed to use the frequencies,” says Leigh.

“There’s a line of sight from UBC to an island, which has a line of sight to Vancouver Island. That’s why we wanted to use a wireless connection. But we didn’t get approval and lost a year waiting.”

As regional networks began popping up across the country, Leigh says musings on how to connect each region in a cross-Canada network were gaining momentum.

The first meeting to discuss a national Internet was held at UBC and focused on general principles and how to secure funding for such a big job. The National Research Council kicked in $2.5 million to pay for the work and after fielding a handful of proposals, the University of Toronto, in partnership with a Vancouver-based communications company, won the bid.

To run the national network, those involved in the planning launched CA Net in 1990. CA NET was quickly absorbed into CANARIE, a newly formed government board established to fund the next cross-country network. Although placed under the CANARIE umbrella — CANARIE provided a host of services such as providing firms with funding for technology-related research — CA Net continued to operate the new cross-Canada network. Like BC Net, its users were primarily universities and research labs.

In 1997, in step with the growing interest from telephone companies in the Internet, CAN Net was turned over to Bell. Leigh says he was the only dissenting voice on the CA Net board.

“There was still more to do,” says Leigh, matter-of-factly.

But, in a year’s time he would retire. A 32-year tenure at UBC, the last 12 years spent as the university’s head of computing, had provided more ground-breaking moments than most see in their professional lives. Sure, he wanted to do more. And, like most jobs, there were mistakes and holdups along the way.

But every now and then, there’s a moment in Leigh’s day where he realizes he played a role in the most all-encompassing technological entity society has ever seen.

“I’m amazed at how fast it’s advanced. Being chosen as a torchbearer was a one-and-a-half year process where I only spoke to a person once. It was all electronic communication,” he says.

“But when I talk to people at the university, they’re still dealing with the same problems we were 40 years ago. The software is still behind the hardware just like our issue with the IBM.”