Plans were prepared in the nineteen seventies to establish a computer based system to monitor the progress of production and sales of Industrial Corporations which were under the Ministry of Industries. There were about twenty public Corporations, such as Steel Corporation, Hardware, Ceramics, Paper, Tyre, Oils and Fats and the Mineral Sands Corporation under this Ministry, and progress was reviewed monthly.
The computer system was installed at the National Institute of Business Management (NIBM) and stored production and sales data of each month of the Industrial Corporations. It was funded by UNDP and ILO. Dr. Bill Smythe of Canada was the Consultant for the project. A Wang minicomputer system was purchased through Data Management Systems Ltd. (DMS) in 1978 for the purpose. It had 256 KB memory, the largest memory in the country at that time, and 10 MB of hard disk of which 5 MB was fixed and 5 MB was on 2-foot diameter removable platters, and an 8” diameter diskette drive, five interactive terminals, and a floor standing matrix printer. There were no punch cards as in other computer installations in the country at that time.
The computer had interactive programming and debugging facilities, COBOL and RPG Languages, facilities for online file definition, data entry, inquiry and printing, and user accounting facilities. It also had Word Processing software. All of these were novel at the time. This was well before the advent of the Personal Computer. There were three computer suppliers at that time, IBM, ICL of UK, and DMS, and there were altogether 11 computers in the country.
The Consultant, Dr. Smythe was an expert in data structures and algorithms, and the programs for entry of Corporation data and for online inquiry of the data and printing of output reports were designed by him. Senior specialists of Data Management Systems trained selected staff of Corporations on Systems Analysis, Programming in COBOL and RPG Languages, operation of the computer system and use of its facilities. The Consultant supervised program development and testing.
The training program which was started for staff of Industrial Corporations was later expanded and opened to the public and the Diploma in Computer Systems Design was awarded to successful trainees. The course designed by the Consultant, was module based, that is, one subject is taught for three or four weeks, and then the next subject, so that the interest of the trainee is focused totally on the subject from beginning to end of the module. This was quite unlike courses in schools and other institutes where students are taught three or more subjects each day, divided into “periods” of one hour. Dr. Smythe’s reasoning was that in normal life, people perform a task from start to finish, whether building a house, cultivating, developing a program or other, and not a little of this and a little of that each day. The pass mark was set at 66% for each subject by him, in order to ensure a high level of knowledge and skill.
The need arose to provide facilities for online inquiry of the data, to senior managers in the Ministry of Industries in Colombo 02 and the Public Enterprises Division of the General Treasury in Colombo Fort, and a request was made from the Department of Telecommunications for data communication links from NIBM in Colombo 7, to those two offices. The Department of Telecommunications was not geared for data communications at that time, there was actually a severe shortage of even land phones. Mobile phones were unheard of and probably not invented by then. The two lines of 4800 kbps were implemented after much effort and provided services albeit with high rates of data transmission errors which slowed down system response. These were the very first data communication links in the country.
The Consultant recognized that training was essential and that the success of the project depended much on the staff who would use the system, and through his efforts, executives of the Ministry, Public Enterprises Division, and the Industrial Corporations were trained at NIBM on the use of the computer system and use of the Data Bank.
Dr. Smythe also organized the “National Computer Conference” together with the Computer Society of Sri Lanka, CSSL, which was somewhat dormant at the time. It was attended by staff of Industrial Corporations, Public Enterprises Division, Ministry of Industries, members of CSSL, major computer users in the country, and suppliers DMS, IBM, and ICL. The keynote address was delivered by the President of the British Computer Society.
The National Computer Conference was held at NIBM for two consecutive years, and was then taken over by the Computer Society of Sri Lanka. The present day INFOTEL which is held annually, developed from it.
N W N Jayasiri