Prof Prabhat Ranjan's Blog

Prof. Prabhat Ranjan is Vice Chancellor of D Y Patil International University, Akurdi, Pune

History of noba.org website

NOBA stands Netarhat Old Boys Association as an alumni group of Netarhat School situated in Netarhat close to Ranchi(about 155 Kms) in Jharkhand. It is a school based on Gurukul traditions and it’s alumni have made mark all over country and world with their talent. NOBA is not a single organization but it is more of a concept with various chapters mostly based on geographical convenience. Some of them are registered and some are informal. In addition to social gatherings, NOBA has many social activities to help each other as well as society. This write up is about noba.org – a web portal developed to connects it alumni globally.

noba.org site became functional more than 20 years ago. Sudhir Labh(1973 entry batch) registered the domain name and set-up a website with open data. Anyone could modify anyone’s data(this is from my memory, which can fail). He also set-up noba-all@noba.org mailing list. This may have been done sometime around 1999-2000 (Sudhir may be able to recollect exact year). He was running this from his home server. He got busy with his start up and possibly moved to a new town.

Around 1999, a NOBA millennium meet was planned in Patna. NOBA Patna set-up batch coordinators to trace their batch mates. In my batch, Om Prakash(167) took up this task. Om Prakash was posted in Telephone Dept. and had better access to calling facility. In India getting phone(landlines) was a tough task. I had a phone in USA but after coming to India in 1986, I could not get one till I moved to my new house in Gandhinagar around 1998(In fact, phone was installed before I actually moved to my house!). Before that we used to depend on neighbour’s or office phone or telephone booth.

I was in Gandhinagar(Gujarat) at that time and got a call from Om Prakash informing me that two more of my batch mates. were in the same area – Chandan(166) and Rajesh(151). Om Prakash created a partial list of my batch mates. I am not sure but he may have sent me a list by email.

While emails were being used in USA and other places through UUCP system since 1978 or so, in India this started around 1986-87 with use of telephone line and modem to transfer emails to a UUCP server(In India it was named Sangam, which was located in Mumbai). It was connected to UUNet and email ID used to be a complex one. This was mainly used by academic and research community. Phone calls were costly and quality of calls were poor so it used to take lot of time to transfer the data due to errors. I somehow have this tendency of getting involved in things which I feel are needed to be done even though I may not have the expertise(this has been till now). See this blog : http://www.ranjan.in/bridging-the-gap-between-macintosh-and-wang-word-processing-system/

After coming to India in 1986, I joined Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics(SINP), Kolkata(or Calcutta as it was still called by that name!). There were no computers in the institute except a PC that I had brought for me from USA. Govt of India had allowed customs free import of a PC by scientists and I could bring one without heavy taxes(with some hilarious situation at airport). I took up the task of setting up of computing facility in SINP and took the approach of buying a group of computers rather than a single costly one. I could convince my Director for this concept since otherwise ECIL was trying to sell an outdated computer for about Rs 2 Crore. I tried to get 4 Unix based Computers running on Motorola 68020 processor and travelled to 4 cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai). I was in temporary one year position and it was raised lot of eye brows on being allowed to travel and try to procure these computers. Anyway after all the effort, finally I could get 2 of these named Horizon III from HCL.

I connected them by Ethernet for easy interoperability. This may have been among the early uses of Ethernet in India. I connected this system to modem and started use of email based on UUCP. Later around 1993-94, VSAT based Internet started to happen at Higher Education and Research Institutes. In our Kolkata campus two institutes were co-located : VECC and SINP. VECC was a unit of BARC focused on Cyclotron(Incidentally Cyclotron was invented by Lawrence, who was from Physics Dept. of UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Lab was set-up for this, where I did my PhD research and got real exposure to computers- but that is a separate story!).

VECC was made a node for VSAT. I had set-up local area network(LAN) in SINP in 1987 along with computing facility so that scientists need not have to come to computer center to use computer. Most scientists were used to the idea of traveling long distances with a huge bunch of cards to use computing facility. I managed to connect to VECC computer system first by modem and then by pulling a cable across two EPABXs. In SINP I was also responsible for setting up EPABX system mainly so that I did not have to run around to receive phone calls. My exposure to Unix and later Linux (Around 1993) started due to these. I moved email system to VSAT based link for better turn around time as well as less cost. But VSAT link was 64 Kbps shared among 8 institutes! In 1995, I moved to Institute for Plasma Research in Gandhinagar and continued my involvement in setting up computers and emails etc though it was not my job and I did not get any credit for those.

Coming back to 1999, effort by NOBA Patna to create a list of alumni helped to some extent. It may have been 40-50% populated but was a big jump. NOBA groups existed in Patna, Ranchi, Delhi etc by effort of few dedicated NOBAites. I was in Delhi Univ during 1979-81 and was part of few gatherings in the form of Picnics etc. I have photographs to prove them as I was used to Photography and started using dark rooms since age of 12 in Netarhat. I kept using darkrooms in Kharagpur and Delhi Univ till I moved to USA and could not do that for color photography.

I guess that Sudhir Labh may have been motivated to set up noba.org website due to availability of this list created by NOBA Patna but he can tell better. Use of home based Internet started with Yahoo based email account etc around 1998-99 so I may have received email copy of the list. We became part of noba-all@noba.org group mailing and some amount of email communication started happening through that until WhatsApp/Facebook etc made its use a bit redundant though I still use my batch group email ID every week for arranging batch video meet every Sunday. As we have shifted to a new noba.org host and a group of NOBA enthusiasts have been working hard to revamp it with many new features. During this transition phase group email may not operate though there is lot of history associated with that group email.

Around year 2000, Bihar and Jharkhand separated. During this, admission to Netarhat stopped. Frequent emails were circulated about bad situation in Netarhat. All of us had given up hopes and did not know what could be done. In 2002, Sankat Jee (1969 entry, based in Florida now) visited Netarhat. He wanted to donate Rs 25,000 to school to help. School suggested to him that his donation would go in the usual “Sarkari” account and they would not have any benefit as any procurement would still use complex govt system. He felt bit frustrated and donated that money to NOBA Ranchi. He sent an email in this regard on noba-all sharing this. Recently he called me from USA and I reminded him of this.

In 2003 summer, I was in Ranchi to conduct an online entrance test for my University. In Ranchi, I used to stay at my eldest Mama’s place since Netarhat days and did the same that year also. One of my Mama(4th one), Sri B K Karn, had joined as Botany teacher in Netarhat in 1975(when my matric exam was going on). He had moved up the ladder and was Vice Principal of the school at that time and was tipped to become Principal as per convention. He and then school Principal, Narendra Prasad Jee, had come to Ranchi same day. By the time I came back to Mama’s house in the evening, it was bit late and could not meet Narendra Jee, as he had left. After dinner, I sat with Karn Jee and had long discussion about Netarhat (may be till midnight). With 3 batches of students not admitted, school was in precarious situation with very few students remaining. Karn Jee was planning to admit 3 batches of students at one month interval each. My long discussion with him was turning point in my thought about Netarhat. I realized that while physical infrastructure had deteriorated, education and culture had still survived. I saw hope in that since it is easy to bring back physical infrastructure but very tough to bring back culture and education. That made me realize that communication with Netarhat was critical for NOBA community since we were discussing about Netarhat in isolation with main stakeholder(school) not being involved.

I decided that we needed to break this isolation by getting email facility in school by setting up PC and modem. This needed about Rs 50,000. I put up my thoughts on noba-all. Sheo Khaitan Jee made a trip to Netarhat from USA with family in Oct 2003 and confirmed my thinking. He donated a container load of second hand computers(it did run into all kind of problems). I had also sent out an appeal for donation on noba-all@noba.org and set up a form for pledging. Pledge was visible to all and there was tremendous excitement among NOBAites with many frequently looking at the amount of donation and in 2-3 days time, it exceeded and came close to Rs 3 lakhs. As we were crossing Rs 50,000, I decided to expand my plan by setting up a group of computers for training of students as well as ushering in digital age on “Pathar” by giving digital camera, scanner, Linux servers etc. To this list I added a Projector later on. I had to be in Ranchi in Dec 2003 for a conference and I decided that the best way to complete this work was to buy things and go to Netarhat to set-up things and train people. To help in this, I asked my students in University to volunteer and 3-4 of them agreed to come along. Kedar Jee(1962 entry batch) in Ranchi helped with local logistics as well as helping with local vendors. I made the journey with one of my research associates and technician from Vendor along with all the computers etc on Dec 10, 2003. My students joined a day later due to a Bandh. On Night of Dec 9, 2003, I had a meeting with NOBA Ranchi members at a dinner in a Restaurant. Details of this journey to Netarhat after 27 years are in my blog – http://www.ranjan.in/netarhat-journey-after-27-years/. I visited Netarhat after one year again in 2004 for Golden Jubilee Celebration. It was very satisfying to see Digital transformation of “Pathar”.

I think, around this time, we started finding noba.org website frequently going down as Sudhir was busy in his start-up and would be in another town. Server in his home would go down and could be down for weeks together. I was involved in setting up a website for IPR in 1996 and decided to request Sudhir to shift website to a commercial host and give me the credentials to manage. I do not recollect if he paid it out of his pocket or NOBA-USA helped in this.

I realized that website was open to change by anyone – more like a publically shared drive with basic member information. I believe his idea was to let people update each other’s information. Idea of privacy etc were not important at that time and mobiles in India were still a novelty confined to rich and powerful. I searched around and found a alumni CMS called “PHPAlumni” and decided to move the data to that. This had some basic protection but not very tough security. I think I completed this task some time in Dec 2004 (vaguely remembering that I had gone to visit my daughter in her college towards end of the year and was staying in a hotel close to her hostel, where I finished this work). I used to connect to Internet using Reliance India mobile(RIM) phone. I had 3 different handset models given to me by Reliance for development of Linux tools to connect to internet using RIM. Use of Internet was free on this for me for couple of years. My students also developed 20 Apps(out of 70) used on handsets. That was the start of “App” era in India based on Java on handsets.

I also tried to get data updated as much as possible by sending request on noba-all@noba.org. Slowly more and more users got added. Around Dec 25, 2009, I along with my family planned to go to Lakshadweep as I was working on a Proposal with an Australian Team to set up a sensor network system to monitor global warming by watching changes in Coral Reef in Great Barrier Reef in Australia and Lakshadweep Island in India. I was heading India team with no experience of Coral Reef. I was invited to Sydney to give a plenary talk in 2008 on my work on Sensor Network to monitor wildlife in an international conference. After hearing my talk many collaboration proposals came and monitoring coral reef was one of them. Earlier I had spent two weeks in Minneapolis in Aug 2008 hosted by Dr Shashi Sekhar under a scheme of his Univ and we had discussed possibility of setting up sensor network to monitor Mississippi river flowing through his Univ campus. This was my first return visit to USA after returning to India in 1986. I felt that visiting Lakshadweep would give me some idea about coral reef and would be helpful for project. My family agreed and Rajendra Kumar tried to help with logistics as he was posted for some time in Lakshadweep islands. My daughter was in Bangalore working in an IT company and we had planned to fly to Bangalore and then take flight to Lakshadweep. However at last minute, the then President of India, planned a visit and all the island accommodation were blocked. I was forced to cancel our flight from Bangalore with heavy loss! I was in Bangalore for 3-4 days. I had felt the need to move noba.org website to a new CMS and had finalized on “Joomla” as the right platform. During my stay in Bangalore, I completed major part of moving from PHPAlumni to Joomla without any break in service. Till Aug 24, 2020 this system was in use until it has been replaced by the current website on a new host and with a completely new Joomla based site with complete break from past. Earlier member data has not been migrated which had gone up to about 2,500 users since 1999. This has been done to try to “clean up” the database.

Due to faster communication and with a higher presence of Alumni on Internet, it may have been possible to put this effort to create a user database with lot of dedicated alumni putting major effort in doing this. Yesterday while I was adding my personal data to new website, I was feeling bit tired putting the same data back manually again and probably did not complete all of it. Deciding to postpone it to a later time. Having been involved with NOBA community since last 17 years, I am expecting mix response to this effort. Many new alumni would join in and put data but we would find it difficult to get many others to add any information other than basic data being collected through batch coordinators.

Coming back to noba.org site, I had two basic aims – one was to minimize expenses by voluntary work and using free platform and add ons to the website. One more aim was to make it user driven to make the task distributed. Joomla provided multi level user access. My idea was to allow any member to contribute an article, updating their information etc. There was a concept of Batch Group as well as Ashram and Chapter wise groups. Each had the possibility of a manager, who could manage those groups. There was possibility of a group of friends being created etc. There were many other features but that would not be of interest to readers of this blog.

Coming back to security issue, I did not face any issue till I was on PHPAlumni possibly since it was not a popular platform. So I was expecting same when I moved to Joomla. I could not have been more wrong! I was very busy with Chandrayaan-II project in March 2010. See the blog article on this – http://www.ranjan.in/my-tryst-with-chandrayaan-2/

I was working day and night collaborating across time zones using email and Skype(voice only). Some time towards end of March 2010, I got an email from Google mentioning that I have a “fishing” site implanted on noba.org. I went and checked and found that to be true. As I was very busy, I simply deleted that file and went on to my work, thinking that problem was over! Again I could not have been more wrong! The website was compromised and changing passwords did not help. I found the website defaced with abuses pasted etc. I did not know what to do – whether to spend time during that critical period to fix this. Somehow I could not accept noba.org site going down for long time and accepting defeat from hacker. I found out all the files planted by hacker to do back-door entries. I put one full day and made the security extremely tight. I think I still have the backup of those back-door entry files. Any attempt at hacking used to lead to alerts and I started getting intimations. These were dictionary attacks and other forms of attacks. After several months, I disabled those alerts since I was confident of security. I still faced user accounts being created by bypassing normal channel but it would never allow them to have a working user ID since user account creation was always moderated.

Looking back, while all the users had access to post articles(which could be published after moderation), very few people used this feature. Mostly they would send it to me to publish. I also found that chapter/batch/Ashram coordinators did not work out well. In addition to group email etc, I also set up Group Chat facility and we used that for interaction among ourselves, which now I am doing through Video Conferencing. I also had worked out various other group activities like Antyakshari through Skype etc, which were organized few times.

As I moved to Delhi in 2013, I got very busy being head of an important organization needing complete overhaul to do its task. I had less time to devote to noba.org site. As there were some custom coding done in Joomla to suit the peculiar needs of Netarhat alumni, it needed some time to update it to new Joomla version. Few attempts were made to do this including latest one in 2017, which fizzled out. With my health suffering a setback in Dec 2019, it was important to move the management of noba.org to new team and I got email about expiry date for noba.org hosting while I was in ICU. I forgot all about it as I was struggling with my health issues and got reminder few days before expiry again. As NOBA USA used to fund the hosting, I tried to contact some of them and eventually NOBA USA team decided to take the ownership and revamp the website and put in lot of personal time supported by NOBAites across the globe. They also decided to pump in funds to involve commercial vendors as well as to buy paid add ons to support the creation of noba.org site. I am sure this this would lead to a much needed change and better utilization of website and collaboration among NOBAites.
Last few words about the use of “Boys” in NOBA as Netarhat Old Boys Association. This point was raised by few female alumni too when I moved to Pune in 2018, Here all the family members of our ex Principal B K Sinha Jee have their homes and many of them stay here. It turns out this was modelled on similar name for Doon School boys association. Initially Netarhat was not admitting children of teachers and staff and the question of girls being part of alumni was not there. This changed later as policy was changed to allow their admission. So we were stuck with NOBA and it is difficult to change words that have stuck around and is well known among many parts of the country including Delhi bureaucratic circle.

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2 comments found

  1. I remember in 2008 when you were developing that site I had offered help. But when came to know that you were using PHP, I had gone silent. You did this despite your busy schedule shows your interest and dedication Prabhat ji.

  2. A fantastic journey to transform the ailing Pathaar. Kudos to you Prabhat ji.

    Few people have a combination of vision, acumen, and perseverance – you are one of them! साधुवाद 🙏

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