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Ahead of the pack, and local too

All stories by ANITA MATTHEWS

BEING a lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) means Sureswaran Ramadass has two roles to fulfil -- teaching, and getting involved in research and development.

The lecturer at USM's School of Computer Sciences loves both aspects of his profession, but proving theorems right and turning hypotheses into reality seems especially sweet.

But even he was surprised when a product birthed out of four years of research work was recognised by the Multimedia and Distributed Systems Journal, published by the renowned Kluwer scientific publishing house, as being two generations ahead of others available in the market today.

The product in question, a desktop multimedia video-conferencing system called -- simply enough -- Multimedia Conferencing System (MCS), is essentially a ``video-chat'' tool. But it differs from like products offered by well established names like like Intel, Intellect Visual Comm, CoreTech Software or PictureTel.

For starters, MCS -- developed by Mlabs Sdn Bhd and the Network Research Group at USM -- is 75% cheaper than similar models in the market. It supports realtime video, runs over common Ethernet networks, and allows multipoint to multipoint communication.

In the beginning

Sureswaran always wanted to get into technological and product development. After spending several years working at American companies, he decided to return to Malaysia to pursue research work and explore his own ideas.

``Research work there was restrictive and very customer-oriented. I wanted to test out my ideas, and I didn't find the environment there suitable for it,'' he says.

The 32-year-old Penang-bred boy secured a job in his hometown and began a career as a lecturer at USM in October, 1992. In the meantime, he spent a lot of time researching, testing and proving hypotheses.

His interest has always been in networks, so six months later, ``Sures'' set up the Network Research Group with 50 researchers under his care at the university.

``Our expertise, our strength, is in networks. Even at that time, we had already done a lot of work and research that put us in the leading field of networks in Malaysia,'' he claims.

The group also just built a four-port backbone Ethernet switch which could switch between 4,000 nodes running across four different network environments.

``Instead of replacing your hub, we said `keep your hub and connect it to our switch,' '' he says, adding that the switch so impressed Telekom Malaysia that it snapped it up.

While Sures contends that Telekom Malaysia paid a tidy sum for the product, observers say it was a real bargain and a ``give-away'' given its features and capabilities.

He confides that as the research team was not into marketing products, they would have given it out for free if asked. To them, the greater pleasure was realised when the Ethernet switch positioned them in the forefront of networking in the local and international arena.

Spurred by their success, the group went on to create a network monitoring tool which also proved to be a success, and is currently used by several companies in Malaysia.

``At that time, I was working on my PhD, and the people I spoke to told me that the field that I wanted to get into was not merely networks but multimedia.

``But I liked networks and wanted to continue working in this field. So I told myself, let's get into multimedia, and let's see what shall come of it. Let's combine both the areas,'' he says of his foray into multimedia networks.

Sures started checking out multimedia networks, and that led him to examine the intricacies of multimedia conferencing, which ultimately led to MCS.

Test and test again

Sures and his team of researchers decided to take a look at a meeting room to observe what goes on during a ``roundtable conference.'' The team also looked at the flaws of other video-conferencing systems, and also the claims made by vendors of the disadvantage of using shared Ethernet bandwidth to run high quality video-conferencing.

``Most organisations have and use Ethernet for communications, so it is only practical to extend its use, instead of investing into ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) merely for video-conferencing,'' he reasons.

Armed with this background, the team began to work on several theories. Sures also shared their theories and ideas with like-minded people in the University of California in Berkeley, and at AT&T Bell Laboratories in the United States.

``I was there in 1994 doing some work, and discussed what we were doing with these people. They agreed that our ideas and theories were sound, but believed that the implementation would be almost impossible,'' he says.

Undaunted, Sures decided to prove his sceptics wrong. A year later, working from the ground up, the team completed and introduced the first version of MCS.

Unfortunately, it bombed.

``So we went back to the drawing board and started everything from scratch again. We analysed the whole thing to see what actually went wrong, and `re-drew' the entire product,'' he says, adding that the team also discarded the bits that did not work.

Another year later, the team met with some measure of success when it came out with its first actual working example. MCS version 3.0, says Sures, worked on Windows 3.1 and became what he believed to be the first video-conference tool that had realtime chat capabilities.

``This excited us because it proved that our fundamental theories worked and that we could actually run high quality video-conferencing over a traditional network,'' he says.

However, given its previous setback, the team was more careful and continued to finetune the product and rid it of flaws that still persisted.

Furthermore, they felt that the product was ``late'' as they had introduced a Windows 3.1 version at a time when Windows 95 had already taken off in the market.

A public debut

So despite their success, MCS sat on laboratory shelves, unseen, as more features were added.

Yet luck was on Sures' side, who by then was serving as a consultant to Telekom Malaysia to help them select a video-conferencing tool.

``Telekom Malaysia was surveying every single video-conferencing package for its COINS (COrporate INformation Superhighway) system. The company had this huge requirement, and there I was one day just chatting with Telekom executives and they asked me what I was working on. I told them video-conferencing, and they asked me to come in as a consultant to help them choose a system, and I agreed.

``They gave me this sheet and I told them we had such a system, and with more features. Sure enough, the following week, they flew down to take a look at our system,'' he says.

The folks at Telekom Malaysia were so impressed that they decided to take the product and showcase it at the Seacomm '96 networking show, under the COINS banner. That was also the first public appearance of MCS, and it was heralded as a huge success for Mlabs and the university's Network Research Group.

However for Sures, the system still needed some tweaking, and by the end of 1996, the group were heavily working on the Windows 95 version. Towards the end of 1997, the group released MCS version 4.0, which was Win95-compliant and used multicast-based technology that supported multipoint to multipoint video-conferencing.

Somehow, even the Win95 version did not satisfy Sures. He felt that there was still room for improvements.

``Looking at the product and protocols we used, I realised that there were a few more things that we could do that would put us beyond other systems available worldwide,'' he adds.

But Sures claims that they were not competing, or comparing MCS with other systems in the market -- only examining theories and looking at what was still fundamentally lacking with existing systems.

Leading edge

And it was during this period of contemplation that Sures stumbled on two key functions that placed the product ``two generations'' ahead of others. They are the RSW criteria to control the system and the distributed user network architecture.

Instead of advocating the traditional client/server architecture, the group decided to take it a step further by breaking up each entity and allowing it to stand alone using a distributed processing method (see sidebar).

By re-engineering the software, the team succeeded in making each entity a plug-in.

Today, the completed version has become the pride and joy of the department and the university in particular.

In July, Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak witnessed the signing ceremony between Mlabs and USM to commercialise the product. Under the deal, Mlabs is responsible for marketing the product while jointly continuing research work with the university. One third of the profits from product sales will be channelled back into the university to fund other projects.

Among MCS users here are Telekom Malaysia for its COINS system, Government Integrated Telecommunications Network (GITN) and Kulim Hi-Tech Park.

Sures adds that several local and foreign multinationals are also currently evaluating the product.

But work on MCS has not stopped for Sures. The team is collaborating with the University of Franche-Comte in France to develop a client for X-Windows, the graphical interface for Unix systems.

``We are happy to publish and share our findings with others as long as they acknowledge us. They don't need to pay any royalty,'' he says, adding that his dream is to push MCS to be recognised as a de facto standard.

After having spent RM4mil on developing MCS, Sures says he would be unfazed if some large corporation out there uses brute force to reverse engineer its product -- he is confident they will take at least 12 to 18 months to dissect it. By which time, the team will have had a more powerful version available.

``Our charter is to make Malaysia get the best in technology and start developing for the future. Today, we are comfortable picking up the phone and tomorrow, something like MCS may become part of our everyday life,'' he adds.

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