Internet is taken for granted. These days you assume there is Internet and only wonder if there is free WiFi to get onto it. But in the early days, connecting to a network could be tough and this was particularly true in Serbia. The country’s Internet revolution was complicated by both technology and politics, but the vibrance of the tech community always found a way.
The story is a fascinating one shared by Dejan Ristanovic at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference. He is now the Editor-in-Chief of PC Press computer magazine and played an integral part in providing global email access to Serbia. Enjoy the video of his talk below and join me after the break for a few highlights.
This talk is not about politics. However, it helps to consider a very basic historical framework of Serbia as a country. After WWII Serbia became part of the newly formed Yugoslavia until that country broke up in 1992. Two of the remnants of that Yugoslavia — Serbia and Montenegro — formed a union called the Federation of Yugoslavia which lasted until 2006 when that state dissolved and we ended up with the Serbia that we now know.
The Internet transcends countries and politics, but it is greatly affected by both. The earliest Serbian Internet began in 1986 when it was the old Yugoslavia. Dejan was at University and had one of the earliest email addresses. It only allowed him to communicate with other people at the same University but by 1989 the system had been connected to Bitnet, opening communications to a network of University computer systems circling the globe.
By 1992 the old Yugoslavia had dissolved, the Federation of Yugoslavia had formed, and the country was at war. Many parts of the world looked at the country as the “bad guys” in this conflict and cut off all network connections because of this. Dejan’s reaction was to grow the local network options within the country, and the best answer at the time was the BBS system.
He was one of the founders of Sezam, and actually wrote the original code for the bulletin board system along with a few of his cofounders. It started as a single telephone line BBS and grew to 15 before long. The main hosting ran on a Compaq computer running DOS and was dedicated to “conferences” which are similar to what we know as online forums.
The community was prolific in their communications and before long the 330 MB hard drive filled up. A problem with proprietary connectors led to the solution of a second machine with a terabyte drive being networked in (an early NAS if you will) and as the traffic grew, fifteen DOS machines were added to the system to service incoming lines.
The service grew, which is surprising considering an $80/year fee at a time when average monthly salaries were around $10. The reason is that some hacks to get Sezam connected to the rest of the world were always in progress. the Yugoslav Packet Network (JUPAK) was leveraged to dial out and gain access to the Byte Information Exchange (BIX). This was done with some clever use of outdialing. When their activities were discovered, the sysadmin looked the other way but a more robust solution needed to be found and it would be in the computer system of one of California’s public Universities.
Milan Mijic, a Serbian national, had an office at California State University and used his computer to set up an email server that would service all of Serbia. Email addresses were a mashup of a University subdomain, the Sezam server identifier, and a username:
email@example.com. But this was far better than the multiple address hacks needed before to get the BIX system working.
At the resolution of the war, as Serbia gained back its own identity as a country, the region was again connected directly to the wider Internet. First with slow connections but then faster. Sezam became one of the first three ISPs in the country, growing to 250 incoming dial-up lines serviced by multiple ISDN lines to the Internet. Their DOS machines were retired in favor of Windows NT servers as the country joined the cutting edge of connectivity.
The Internet, email, and forums were part of the struggle against an oppressive government at the time. That experience, and the community that grew up around connecting Serbia to the rest of the world formed tight bonds. The Sezam conversation boards have been migrated to a virtual machine but still exist. The community there is still active to this day. And I can confirm that Belgrade now has very fast Internet.